Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Henningsen: The Americanization Of Vermont

On June 29th 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the “Federal-Aid Highway Act” authorizing “a national system of Interstate and Defense Highways”. Today, and $500 billion later, that system extends almost 48,000 miles through all fifty states and Puerto Rico. Eisenhower was enthusiastic. He’d been in a World War I project testing the feasibility of moving troops and equipment coast to coast by road. It took two months. In the event of modern nuclear war a national high-speed highway network would permit rapid military deployment and mass evacuation of American cities. And it promised economic benefits. Just as massive government contracts during World War II pulled the country out of Depression, federally-funded highway projects would strengthen the economy and help avoid recession.

Plus, it was politically popular. In every congressional district engineers, construction companies, car and truck manufacturers and dealers, oil and gas companies, real estate developers, restaurant and hotel owners all clamored for the benefits such a project should bring. And it did. Interstate construction contributed to the unprecedented economic boom of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.

But interstates made America car- and oil-dependent. They helped destroy America’s once proud rail system and strangled urban mass transit. They spurred the growth of suburbs, leaving cities to fester and giving rise to the soulless sprawl of “Miracle Miles” and box stores. While shrinking physical distance, interstates permitted Americans to increase racial, social, cultural, and political separation.

Vermont’s 320 miles of interstate is a fraction of one percent of the total system, but its impact has been enormous. Where the Green Mountains once defined settlement patterns, economics, and politics; now these things are increasingly tied to proximity to interstates. Historian Jan Albers calls the rising population, economic growth, and suburbanization fueled by the interstates nothing less than the “Americanization of Vermont.”

Vermont’s ambivalence about interstates was evident from the start. Dedicating the first section of I-91 in Putney, Senator George Aiken noted proudly that it literally ran over his childhood home. This was progress and it was about time. But just up the road, in Weathersfield, Romaine Tenney opposed progress that would not only destroy his farm but eliminate an entire way of life. Resisting bulldozers to the end, he burned down his house - with himself inside.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
Latest Stories