Among John Erastus Hubbard’s gifts to the community, the hilltop tract overlooking the city
and the State House is often a surprise— and a delight—for all who visit, be they local or tourist. The celebration of the beloved park’s 120th anniversary this year invites exploration of its history and transformation.
Growth and Evolution
Following Hubbard’s wishes in his 1899 bequest of the property, the city created a parks commission to guide the design and development of what was, at the time, a treeless, grassy pasture. Landscape architect Dana F. Dow was hired in 1907 to design carriage roads and plantings to restore the forest cut clear in the previous century. He also suggested construction of an observation tower overlooking the city and the State House.
Although a local myth persists that the tower was never quite completed, in fact it was designed to resemble the ruins of a medieval fortress. Construction of the tower began in 1915 after completion of an access roadway, now Hubbard Park Drive, and it continued seasonally— using stones gathered from the stone walls that had previously defined pastures—until completion in 1930.
The process for restoring the forest also was gradual. The 1920s plantings of red pines below the tower grew to obscure the original view of the State House by the 1960s. It remains controversial whether that view should be reopened by removing some of the now-towering trees. While the vistas from the tower include striking views of Camel’s Hump and the surrounding mountains, the only visible Montpelier structures during the summer months are the Murray Hill development to the east and the National Life complex to the south.
The tower itself has had improvements and renovations. The original, open- grated iron staircase, long noted for its singular ability to induce vertigo, was replaced in 1990 with reassuringly opaque, steel steps. Also removed were the intimidating shards of glass embedded in the concrete around the observation deck. Then, in 2009 the stonework was repainted on both the inside and outside of the structure.
Warren Kitzmiller, a longtime fan of the park and a former member of the Parks Commission, has officiated many small weddings and civil unions on the tower in his role as a justice of the peace. “People often ask if I can suggest an interesting place to have the ceremony. If they are up for the hike, it always proves to be a hit,” he said.
The Civilian Conservation Corps made major improvements to the park between 1933 and 1936. Roads were widened, ditched and graveled, providing both east and west access to the park. Thousands of Norway spruce and red pines were planted, and picnic areas were established.
But by the early 1980s, when current Parks Director and Tree Warden Geoff Beyer started as a part-time worker, seasonal maintenance of the park was something of a free-for-all. At the time, the park was open only for two- and-a half months during the warm weather. Among its problems were off- road motorcyclists tearing up trails and sensitive plant life, and commuters taking a shortcut through the steep, gravel roads at unsafe speeds. Perhaps the most egregious problem was partying at the tower. Beyer recalls sweeping up and hauling out as much as 20 pounds of broken glass three times a week.