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What's the Story With Montpelier's Mystery Wall?


Mystery wall at the intersection of Northfield Street and Memorial Drive in Montpelier - KEN PICARD
  • Ken Picard
  • Mystery wall at the intersection of Northfield Street and Memorial Drive in Montpelier

Drivers who've waited at the traffic signal at the intersection of Routes 2 and 12 in Montpelier — known locally as Memorial Drive and Northfield Street, respectively — may have noticed a decades-old concrete wall built into the hillside on the intersection's southwest corner.

Mostly obscured by vegetation in warmer months, the 30-foot-high slab is clearly visible in the winter, as are its occasional decorations of graffiti and other artistic expressions. The latest — a mural in which a blue, moon-shaped face wearing eyeglasses is sandwiched between two female profiles above the word "SAFE" — wasn't officially sanctioned by the Montpelier Parks Department. Said parks director Geoff Beyer, "Whoever did the last two paintings did it without my knowledge or approval."

Though Beyer confirmed that the City of Montpelier owns the corner property, and that it marks the trailhead of a stone-stepped "goat path" leading up to the National Life Group complex, he knew little else about the wall's function or origin.

According to several longtime Montpelier residents, the mystery wall has been there for more than 50 years. One reader asked recently if it was a blocked-off tunnel through the hillside.

Though that's an interesting theory, no record exists of such a tunnel, nor of a likely destination for one. Other theories suggest that the wall is a remnant of an old citywide root cellar, or a Cold War-era bomb shelter, or even a "secure, undisclosed location" for whisking away Vermont's governor, à la Dick Cheney, in the event of a terrorist attack. So WTF is it?

To get to the bottom of Montpelier's mystery wall, I consulted Bob Murphy, a genealogist and retired civil engineer who now works at the Vermont Historical Society. He directed me to the old Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Montpelier, which date to 1884 and are available online via the Library of Congress website.

For about 100 years, beginning in the mid-19th century, Sanborn published maps of some 12,000 cities and towns across the United States, including Montpelier, mostly for the purpose of assessing fire insurance liability. These old maps indicate the size, shape and location of buildings and other structures, how many windows and doors they had, which materials they were made of, where nearby fire hydrants and water mains were, and even the capabilities of the closest fire department.

The Montpelier maps reveal that structures have occupied the corner in question since at least 1884. That year's map indicated a storage shed there, possibly connected to the Clogston Planing Mill across what was then Winooski Avenue (now Memorial Drive). By 1889, the planing mill had been replaced by the Johnson and Colton Saddlery and Hardware store.

The storage shed still appeared on the 1889 and 1894 maps. By 1899, the old wooden bridge across the Winooski River had been replaced by an iron span. By 1925, the storage shed was gone, and an auto-repair shop stood in its place. The last Sanborn map, from 1945, shows an Amoco gas station on that corner, with a house above it on the hillside.

1950s photo of the Amoco station - COURTESY OF THE VERMONT HISTORICAL SOCIETY
  • Courtesy Of The Vermont Historical Society
  • 1950s photo of the Amoco station

If that corner lot seems small for a gas station, it's worth noting that the road ran much closer to the Winooski River back then. According to Tom McArdle, Montpelier's director of public works, beginning in the late 1950s, Winooski Avenue was rebuilt and moved about 40 feet south to make way for the new Interstate 89 interchange, which was then still under construction. The first stretch of the interstate highway, between Montpelier and Middlesex, opened in November 1960.

According to highway project plans dated May 1956, that Amoco station, along with a half dozen other structures along that hillside, was demolished when Winooski Avenue was rerouted and renamed Memorial Drive.

"Some odd-looking box cuts back into the bank are where these buildings used to be," McArdle said. "I guess they chose not to remove the back wall of that Amoco station." That back wall is what passersby still see in the hillside.

In July 2011, the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps began constructing a stone-step path from the Memorial-Northfield corner to the National Life complex. The project, which involved installing 130 large stone stairs along the steep half-mile path, was completed in July 2013. It allows National Life and state employees to walk to and from downtown without bushwhacking through the woods.

As they approach the bottom of the hill, hikers on the path pass the foundation of the house that once stood above the Amoco station. Henry Parro, of Parro's Gun Shop & Police Supplies in Waterbury, said his father grew up there.

Ernest Parro, who died in August 2004 at the age of 88, was 11 years old when the great flood of 1927 devastated Montpelier. According to Henry Parro, Ernest often pointed out the house site when they drove by and recounted the story of how he'd rescued his Shetland pony from the family's barn and walked him to higher ground.

"He said the water was waist-high," Parro recalled. "I don't remember whether it was his waist or the pony's."

It seems that old wall is nothing more exciting than the foundation of a 20th-century filling station. But, as McArdle pointed out, it's still a reminder of the city's gradual evolution: "Things today aren't always what they were back then. A lot of people assume it's always been this way, but there are remnants that tell us otherwise."

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