HISTORY OF COLCHESTER FIRE DISTRICT NO. 1

Winooski Park: its history

Fire District No. 1 comprises that part of the Town of Colchester long known as Winooski Park. It is bounded by the Winooski River, Camp Johnson (headquarters of the Vermont National Guard), the Cities of Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski and the Town of Essex. Historically it comprises most of what was once the ‘Governor’s lot’, or the part of the Town of Colchester that Benning Wentworth [1696-1770], the first British governor of the royal colony of New Hampshire, reserved to himself when he chartered the town in June 1763.

Colchester's ‘Governor's lot’ or Winooski Park was acquired by the Onion River Land Company, a private partnership formed by Ethan [1738-89] and Ira Allen [1751-1814] and three others in January 1773. The property was held by the Allens throughout the period when Vermont was an independent republic (1777-91). On 2 October 1793, after Vermont had been admitted to the United States as the fourteenth state, Ira Allen sold the property to Joshua Stanton, Sr., a prominent political figure who, like Ira, was a founder of the University of Vermont. The Stanton family held the ‘Governor's lot’ until 1812, when it was sold to Jabez Penniman, the husband of Ethan Allen's widow Frances Montresor Allen. One of Frances's children by Ethan was Frances Margaret [1784-1819] who became a Catholic nun, joining the Religious Hospitallers of St Joseph at Montréal and is better known as Fanny Allen. Penniman, who was appointed a US Collector of Customs by President Thomas Jefferson, also served as Colchester Town Clerk (1817-22). During the forty-seven years of Penniman ownership, Winooski Park was divided and sold off in parcels to various people.

By 1830 Arad Merrill had acquired enough land to build a tavern, suggesting a sufficient population in Winooski Park to support the establishment. Later members of the Merrill family added to their property and built a horse racing track. Financial difficulties prompted the Merrills to sell their property in 1877 to Frank Dunbar, who transformed the tavern into Dunbar’s Hotel. In 1863, a large part of the Penniman property was acquired by the Rev. Edward Hungerford [1829-1911], the first professor of chemistry at the University of Vermont. Later in the 19th century, both of these large properties were acquired by two Irish immigrants, Michael F. Kelly [1835-1912] and his wife Ann [1839-1907], who had worked for and befriended Mary Martha Fletcher [1830-85], one of Vermont’s most notable philanthropists. The Kellys donated the Dunbar Hotel to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington in March 1894 so that it could be transformed into a hospital by the Religious Hospitallers from Montréal, who named it in honor of one of their sisters, Fanny Allen Hospital. The Kellys sold some other parts of the Penniman property on 29 September 1902 to a French Catholic religious order, the Society of St Edmund, who opened Saint Michael’s College there in 1904. The following year (1905) saw electrical services extended to Winooski Park.

For many years, farming was the principal work of most residents of Winooski Park. However, in 1812 the extraction of lime was begun by a firm managed by Sidney Austin and a lime kiln was started shortly afterwards. The lime industry employed up to 30 men. The repeated sale of the business suggested it was a volatile enterprise, yet it continued in operation until December 1971.

Towards the end of the 19th century, a large new enterprise emerged. In August 1892, the US Congress voted to establish a military post ‘in the northern frontier’ of the country and launched a public contest to determine its site. Before year’s end, greater Burlington residents had amassed 600 acres, some in Winooski Park and the rest in Colchester and adjoining Essex, and offered to donate it to the federal government for the proposed fort. The offer was accepted, construction began in 1893, and in 1894 Fort Ethan Allen was opened as a cavalry base. During World War I, over 8,000 soldiers were stationed at the Fort. After the war its size decreased and its function changed. In 1940 part of the Fort was transformed into barracks for the Vermont National Guard, providing the origins for today’s Camp Johnson. In 1952, the Fort was turned over to the new Vermont Air National Guard, but in 1961 Fort Ethan Allen, apart from Camp Johnson, was fully decommissioned.

Winooski Park: today

Today, Winooski Park is an integral part of one of Greater Burlington’s designated metropolitan planning areas, providing educational, healthcare, commercial, employment, cultural and recreational opportunities that serve the overall region and beyond as well as local residents. Chief among these are the Fanny Allen campus of the University of Vermont Medical Center and  Saint Michael’s College. Moreover, downtown Burlington is three miles away, and within a mile's walk is the revitalized center of Winooski, home to the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. (VSAC) and of the newest campus of Community College of Vermont (CCV). While neighboring Essex Junction is the site of one of Global Foundries' most advanced semiconductor foundries and research centers.

The principal roadway running through the District is College Parkway (Vermont Rt. 15) which connects the District with all of its immediate neighbors and to I-89 at exit 15. The Parkway was substantially reconstructed and enlarged in 1962, at which time some of the District’s water and sewage lines were replaced. Shortly thereafter, Vermont Gas Systems laid an underground transmission line, bringing natural gas via the TransCanada pipeline into the area and complementing Green Mountain Power’s existing hydro-electric plant as energy sources. Green Mountain Transit (GMT) operates one of Greater Burlington's bus routes along the Parkway. A century ago, trolleys plied the same route. Lime Kiln Road and Bridge connect the District with the City of South Burlington where Burlington International Airport is located. The New England Central Railroad operates a freight line running through the District that connects Winooski and Burlington with Essex Junction, where Amtrak provides passenger services north and south and freight moves between Montréal, Boston and New York.

Founding of the Fire District

The Fire District was first organized in August 1938. On 27 August of that year, forty ‘freeholders’ (eligible voters) of Winooski Park submitted a petition to the Select Board of the Town of Colchester asking for the creation of a fire district. Two days later, on 29 August, the Select Board voted to establish Fire District No. 1, setting its boundaries and granting it a charter as a municipal corporation under Vermont Law. As is the case with fire districts generally, Fire District No. 1 was established to meet public needs in this part of Colchester that the Town itself declined to assume. Since the formation of the City of Winooski in 1922 (from the former Colchester village of Winooski Falls  – once a major New England milling community), Winooski Park has been geographically isolated from the rest of the Town of Colchester and has had more urban types of public needs.

At the first meeting of the District, held on 5 September 1938 at Saint Michael’s College, the first Prudential Committee was elected - Fr Leon Gosselin, SSE (chairman), Mr Alonza Tanner and Mr Dennis Fox - as were the first District officers: Mr Harry J. Danforth (Clerk) and Mr Charles Ralph (Treasurer). In view of the Fire District’s need to acquire water supply outside the District and to operate a distribution system, it sought and obtained a State charter from the General Assembly (legislature) of the State of Vermont on 14 April 1939. Edmundite Father Gosselin [1899-1984], the sixth president of Saint Michael’s College (1934-40), and the Honorable Bernard J. Leddy [1910-72], who served as the District’s attorney for several years (1938-65) before being appointed a Judge of the US District Court, played central roles in the organization and incorporation of the Fire District.

At the annual meeting of the Fire District held on 13 January 1947, it was decided that “hereafter Fire District No. 1 [shall] be known as Winooski Park”. Since at least the early nineteenth century, the area comprising Fire District No. 1 had been commonly referred to as Winooski Park.

District voters at the annual meeting on 14 January 1946 adopted the District’s first Bylaws as well as rules and regulations for its drinking water and sewage systems. New Bylaws were subsequently adopted in 1978, 1982 and 2006, and over time the responsibility for approving water and sewage ordinances was transferred to the Prudential Committee.

In 1961, following the de-activation of neighboring Fort Ethan Allen and the impending sale of some of its lands, the State legislature renewed the municipal charters of all three Colchester fire districts and clarified their respective boundaries.

Principal functions: providing drinking water

Since 26 May 1939, the Prudential Committee has also served as the Water Commissioners of the Fire District. Originally, water for the District was obtained from the City of Winooski. On 31 January 1972, the District voted to join the Champlain Water District (CWD) and to purchase its water from this newly-formed inter-municipal agency that draws its water from Lake Champlain. Two CWD mains run through the District. In April 2006, the Fire District and CWD entered into a shared management agreement that articulates the respective responsibilities of the two entities relative to the management of the Fire District’s water system.

In May 2003, the District entered into an ‘Interlocal Agreement’ with CWD and a number of municipal corporations for the construction of storage tanks on Water Tower Hill in Colchester so as to insure adequate water pressure for fire-fighting purposes in the general area; they went into operation in July 2004. By virtue of this agreement, the District acquired a specified share of the 1.7 million gallons of water capacity in the tanks.

Interestingly, in the 1890s water from Colchester Pond was piped to Fort Ethan Allen and from there to Winooski Park by the Winooski Aqueduct Company.

Wastewater or sewerage services

The District, on 11 October 1939, voted to construct its own sewerage system, which was to be financed by public bonds. For many years, the Fire District was the only part of Colchester to have public sewerage services. On 17 October 1967, the District approved a new bond issue for the construction of a secondary wastewater treatment facility. The Patneaude Wastewater Treatment Plant went into operation in October 1969, providing modern sewage treatment facilities for the District. The Plant operated under a State permit which allowed up to 310,000 g.p.d. of treated discharge into the Winooski River. On 21 December 1973, the District acceded to a request from the Town of Colchester to permit some sewage from the Ethan Allen Industrial Park, located outside the District below Water Tower Hill, to be processed through the Patneaude Plant.

In 1978, the District began planning with the State to upgrade the Plant to a tertiary treatment facility. In the latter stages of that planning, in 1984, the Town Select Board approached the District about expanding the Plant to handle more sewage from outside the District. This led to mutually beneficial negotiations between the Town and District which culminated in January 1987 when District voters unanimously approved an ‘Agreement’ with the Town that transferred all of the District’s sewerage business to the Town. Subsequently, the Town entered an agreement with the City of South Burlington whereby sewage from the Town is pumped to that city’s Airport Parkway Water Pollution Control Facility for treatment.

Although the District’s Prudential Committee ceased to have the responsibilities of sewerage commissioners, it continues to be responsible for assuring that the rights and pledges contained in the 1987 ‘Agreement’ with the Town are upheld.

Fire protection services

Fire protection in the District is ultimately the responsibility of the Colchester Center Volunteer Fire Department which was founded in 1951. For many years before and after 1951, this responsibility was exercised, through an agreement, by the City of Winooski Fire Department. Since 6 December 1972, the St Michael’s Fire Department, a brigade of the Colchester Center Volunteer Fire Department, has had primary responsibility for providing fire protection and rescue services in the District. Since its founding in 1970, St Michael’s Fire & Rescue had admirably served the people and business of the District as well as elsewhere in northwestern Vermont. The Robert E. Sutton Fire & Rescue Station – the first firehouse within the District – was opened in November 2005 on the campus of Saint Michael’s College.

Other functions

From 1940 until 1977, the District levied a tax on the property in the District. The taxes were used to pay for the construction of the water and sewage systems that the District had undertaken to build.

The District is a party to several inter-municipal agreements, provides services under regulations of the Vermont Departments of Health and of Environmental Conservation, participates in the Town of Colchester and the State’s development review or ‘Act 250’ process, and since 2000 has been a member of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Colchester Fire District No. 1 stands in grateful debt to many fine people for their public service on behalf of the District. Click here for a list of past officials.

Joseph McLaughlin, SSE
Clerk – 23 June 2006

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