Rare and interesting 1836 plan for an industrial village in Highgate, Vermont

Surveyed by Alex[ande]r Martin / Baker’s Lithogy. 8 Wall St. N. York, MAP OF THE VILLAGE OF HIGHGATE FRANKLIN COUNTY STATE OF VERMONT. New York, 1836.
Lithograph, 16 ½”h x 24”w at neat line plus margins, uncolored. Minor foxing, wrinkling and edge wear, with staining at lower-right corner.

An extremely rare 1836 plan for the village of Highgate, Vermont, just a few miles from the Canadian border and the northeastern shore of Lake Champlain. Interesting evidence of the efforts of a new generation of entrepreneurs to develop the region, a generation after the collapse of Ira Allen’s land empire. 

The site of the projected village was at the southern of the township of Highgate, along the south bank of Vermont’s Missisquoi River just a few miles upstream from its outlet in Lake Champlain. The location was apparently excellent: the river dropped perhaps 100 feet in just a half mile, providing ample water power for grist and saw mills. Further, the south bank quickly rose some 75 feet to a plain, providing a village site protected from flooding.

The township of Highgate assigned to a group of 64 grantees on August 17, 1763, one of more than 100 townships granted between 1749 and 1764 on land west of the Connecticut River by New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth (The Province of New York had a strong claim to this same land, leading to a heated dispute, resolved by Royal decree in New York’s favor in 1764. This resolved little, and the dispute gave rise to the Green Mountain Boys and, eventually, the short-lived Republic of Vermont.) None of the grantees ever settled in Highgate, and according to one source the first settlers were German mercenaries who had served with the British during the American Revolution (Another source claims they were “Dutch refugees who supposed they had settled in Canada”.

There is no thorough published history of Highgate, so much of the following is informed guesswork. For a time Ira Allen claimed much of Highgate as part of his land empire, but was unable to develop it before his finances fell apart in the late 1790s. For decades thereafter land title in the town remained uncertain, and it was only in the 1830s that a new generation of entrepreneurs made a go of it. At the time the brothers Samuel Willard and Stephen Sheldon Keyes were the main players in the town; they operated a sawmill at the falls, and it was they who were responsible for cutting much of the timber in the area.

It seems plausible that the Keyes were the agents behind this plan, which was intended to catalyze land sales in the village and jump-start small-scale industrial development. To that end the Keyes, or perhaps some unknown contemporaries of theirs, engaged Alexander Martin of Brooklyn, New York to survey the area south of the falls and lay out a village (It is not at all clear why they did not engage someone closer to hand, such as the eminently-capable John Johnson of nearby Burlington.)

The plan shows perhaps 300 residential parcels laid out for sale, extensive areas along the Missisquoi “reserved for the use of the mills” and “the use of the machinery”, and, approximately in the center, a church with extensive gardens flanked to the west by a large “public promenade”. Many of the streets, as was de rigeur at the time, are named after the presidents, with Adams conspicuously absent, though arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton gets a shout-out.

Alas, other than the Rixford Axe Company’s start-up in 1837, there is little evidence that this rather ambitious plan for Highgate Village ever came to pass. Today it is known as Highgate Falls, but has only a scattering of homes and businesses, while the center of town lies well north of the Missisquoi River at the intersection of Routes 207 and 78.

The map is excessively rare, and this is only the sixth example of which I am aware. Cobb mentions only the Vermont Historical example, and others are held by the Library of Congress, Middlebury College, University of Vermont, and a private collection in the Midwest.

Cobb, Vermont Maps Prior to 1900, #223 (Vermont Historical Society only). Graffagnino, The Shaping of Vermont, p. xxii (illus.) OCLC #191828352 (Vermont Historical and Library of Congress only). Thanks to Kevin Graffagnino, until recently Director of the Clements Library and now resident in Essex Junction, VT, for his assistance interpreting this plan.