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History Corner: Farmers Cashed in on the Coming of the Railroad

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When the railroads came to Vermont in the 1840s and 1850s, they brought wealth to some and financial burden to others. Construction of the Central Vermont Railroad began in 1846 and was completed in 1849, according to Daniel P. Thompson in his “History of Montpelier.” The only other railroad coming through Vermont ran along the Connecticut River and opened in 1851. 

Financial miscalculations caused the expense to build the Central Vermont Railroad to far exceed original estimates. Vermont’s 15th governor, Charles Paine (who held office from 1841 to 1843), became president of the railroad company. He did not correctly predict how much it would cost to build the railroad through the mountainous countryside. Paine also failed to adequately estimate the cost of maintenance and operation, Thompson wrote.

Paine, 1799–1853, was the son of Elijah Paine, a Revolutionary war soldier who established a cloth factory and grist mill in Northfield, according to a Wikipedia entry referred to by the Northfield Historical Society. Voters sent Paine to the U.S. Senate in 1794 following a political career in Vermont. His son, Charles, moved to Northfield from his birthplace in Williamstown to run the family’s mill. Charles was the founder and president of the Central Vermont Railroad and is known as the one who brought the railroads to Vermont. He ran the railroad through the hilly area of his hometown of Northfield, which was controversial at the time because it benefited his businesses, including a woolen mill, lumber mill, and hotel.

With the railroad, trade diminished in villages but increased at farms. Railroad depots in Orange, Caledonia, and Orleans counties “considerably clipped our trade,” Thompson asserted, describing how farmers benefited from cheaper transportation of produce and therefore saved money previously spent on freight. Calling it a “golden age” for farmers, Thompson said land in East Montpelier went from $15 per acre to $25 because of its value as a place to raise cattle, horses, and other domestic animals. 

The value of places to grow and process lumber also increased. People could now export “immense quantities of boards,” where the cost of shipping wood was once prohibitive. Now farmers could sell their produce, livestock, and wood at higher prices with lower shipping costs, and it did not go unnoticed by the villagers, according to Thompson. 

“Once the farmer came into the village with his old work horse, plain harness, and his plainer sleigh or wagon; now he comes in with his $200 horse, the best plated harness, and the gayest, most costly sleigh or wagon,” Thompson wrote, adding, “The villagers had their day, and now the farmers are having theirs.”