Exploring Burlington’s Pine Street Barge Canal
The Pine Street barge canal was another find I stumbled on while browsing Google maps of Burlington one night in my apartment. An interesting hatchet shaped stagnant watery partition jutting off from Lake Champlain into Burlington’s south end district – it’s surrounded by swamps, the bike path, railroad tracks and slumping chain link fences, and a little to the east – Pine Street and it’s burgeoning arts district delineate the border of the obscure area, and also successfully hide it. Vermont’s queen city is pressed for real estate, so I wondered what was the deal behind this almost incongruous open area.
So I set out to research it, and then mentally made a note to walk out that way to check it out. This is the relatively mysterious Pine Street Barge Canal, a heavily polluted 38-acre wasteland area of marshy wetlands, woods, and a former industrial canal, named after the thoroughfare it helped to develop back in the 1800s.
So here I was, trudging through swampy jungle and underneath a rusty old railroad bridge wearing old industrial gears, trying to pick at the bones. I’ve heard lots about the canal, that came in the form of warnings mostly. There are homeless camps there, I’ve been told. Urban legends of people getting stabbed in the woods by unseen assailants, bodies being found in the oozy waters of the canal. Drug use, parties, weird noises coming from the woods at night. You know, all the typical fodder of urban legends.
According to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, there are shipwrecks in the canal and the former breakwater area in the lake, and most of them can still be seen today, that is, when there isn’t several feet of snow and frozen water covering them. I hope to photograph them when the weather allows it.
The canal’s history is an interesting one, dating back to a different Burlington. In the 1860s, Burlington was one of the largest lumber ports in the world. Business was booming, and eager industrialists wanted to get in on it. But the existing waterfront area near Battery Street could only accommodate so much development, so city planners decided to expand southward to spur development along a mostly undeveloped Pine Street. A barge canal was dug inland south of roundhouse point, and a breakwater and harbor area were constructed around the entrance of the canal to assist in loading and unloading of canal boats. The entire project was finished in 1870, and sure enough, Pine Street became industrialized with many of the old brick buildings that still exist today and now house offices, eateries and currently trendy yoga studios.
But in hindsight, years of irresponsible and non-future thinking flippant behaviors from those factories, especially from a former coal gasification plant, ruined the area as extensive toxic runoff seeped into the ground and the canal. Which made the property what it is today.
The State discovered high levels of organic compounds connected with coal tar around the canal during the 1960s, while investigating the site for a then proposed major highway. Now, there was concern that construction would release the contaminants into the canal and Lake Champlain. Construction of the highway ceased operation, leaving an abandoned section of highway dead ending in Burlington’s south end. And the residents were who forcibly evicted from their homes in the name of progress, were pissed off.
The canal was dubbed as a Superfund site, and the former gas plant site was capped around 2003. But pollutants still seep into the canal, and the area is in a state of arrested development. Nothing can happen here until the area is, ideally, cleaned up. And who knows how long that will take. So for now, the canal area is just sort of existing.
The barge canal area really is a cool part of Burlington, and does have potential. There was a proposal a few years back to connect Pine Street to the lake via bike paths or trails through the canal area, which would be a great asset for the neighborhood and another boon for Burlington’s outdoorsy culture and trail system. That is, if we can solve that whole toxic landfill problem…
Further out on the frozen lake from the barge canal, are some cool abandoned industrial relics that I would never get the chance to check out unless I had a kayak.
Though Vermont is a landlocked state, we too can say we have dolphins in our waters. Only, they’re those awkward and battered looking steel cylindrical structures that protrude from the waters of Burlington Bay. Relics of a bygone era of waterfront Burlington, when barges used to travel the lake and into the Pine Street Barge Canal, barges would moor at these dolphins scattered around the bays of the city and unload oil which would be then transferred to shore via pipelines.
But they’re considered eyesores and navigational hazards, and by this summer, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might oversee an operation which would demolish them. As of September 2014, only a few have been dismantled near the Moran Plant.
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