The Origin Of Burlington's Church Street, From Ravine Bypass To Marketplace

Jul 14, 2017

A simple question about the history of Burlington's Church Street yielded some interesting trivia about the city, and the commercial district that now defines downtown.

It all started when Lorraine Carter-Lovejoy, of Burlington, asked Brave Little State to investigate the story behind the "Church" in Church Street. 

"What, or whom, is Burlington's Church Street named after?" — Lorraine Carter-Lovejoy, Burlington

It might sound like a trick question — there's a very prominent church at the top of the street — but Lorraine said a friend of hers had hypothesized that maybe the street was named after a person, rather than a place of worship, given that Vermont is one of the least religious states in the country.

On a recent Saturday morning, the street was a buzzing with tourists, shoppers and farmers market attendees. A few of them took a guess at how Church Street got its name.

“There a church at the end of the street,” said Ross Cardinell, pointing towards the Unitarian Church a block away.

Barbara Murphy had the same idea.

“My guess would have to be the Unitarian Church at the head of Church Street,” she said.

Credit Aaron Shrewsbury

Most people guessed — correctly — that the name came from the Unitarian Church that’s at the top of the street. (And a few souls wondered if the street was named after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.)

According to Mary O’Neil, a principle planner with the city of Burlington, the street has been identified by the church for a long time.

“[The] church was built in 1816,” she says. “As far back as land records in the 1830s, and [in] an early one I read in 1830, it's referred to as 'the road leading to the brick church.'"

O’Neil also helped write the application for Church Street to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. She says that historically, Church Street served a really important purpose: It connected the wharf district on Burlington’s waterfront to the mill district in Winooski.

“It's just in between those — what's going on in Winooski and what's going on in the wharves,” she says.

And since Church Street was a connector street, lots of people traveled on it. Which of course meant it was a good place to set up stores.

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“It's interesting that the construction of the church may have defined this street as being the mercantile district quite early on,” O’Neil says.

That’s a pretty straightforward answer, and probably not that surprising. But what you might not know is that there use to be a giant ravine in Burlington — it cut diagonally from upper Pearl Street down to the old barge canal in the South End.

“A river did run through it," says O’Neil. "There was running water in it, and it was a deep."

And Church Street was a way around the ravine.

“There was not an easy transit between the east and west of Burlington,” O’Neil says. “In fact, you had to come down Church Street.”

And if you’re wondering what happened to that big ravine, it got filled in during the 1870s.

“I think it was 1877 that the city invites residents to 'come dispose of their broken pottery, their yard waste and their dead cats by helping us fill the ravine and throw your material in this chasm to help us fill it and make a bridge,'” O’Neil says, paraphrasing an old newspaper article.

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But of all the people who visit Church Street every year, how many have popped their head into the building that it’s named for?

In the sanctuary — which feels kind of like an old New England meeting house — Bob Furrer, the facilities manager, points out eight banners that largely sum up what the Unitarian Church is all about: diversity, inclusion and tolerance.

“The first one to the left is the UU Banner, the Unitarian Universalist banner, second one is the Islamic crescent moon and star, third is the Buddhist wheel of Dharma, the Hindu Shiva, on this side we had the Jewish menorah, the Taoist yin yang, the Christian Celtic Cross and lastly the Native American Tree of Life,” Furrer said.

The Unitarian Church's bell tower is iconic — and nearly impossible not to notice it if you’re in downtown Burlington. Plus, every hour, the bell actually rings.

Getting to the tower means going up a steep set of stairs and ladders. Right below the final ladder is the clock platform, where you can catch a glimpse of the clock's inner workings — a beautiful and precise assembly of gears quietly ticking away.

Bob comes up to manually wind the clock each week.

“It’s a real aerobic exercise,” he says.

The view from the top of the bell tower of the Unitarian Church.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

From the clock platform, there’s one final ladder and a hatch to climb, and then you’re at the top of the tower, with Church Street stretching out many feet below. Off in the distance is the golden dome on top of City Hall, and beyond that you can even see Mount Philo on a clear day.

And you can see people walking on Church Street, some looking up towards the bell tower. This might be kind of cheesy, but there's something special about being up in the steeple that so many people view from the street, and seeing the street from the church’s view.

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