The following speech was delivered by Mayor Miro Weinberger during the celebration marking Burlington’s 150th year as a City:
One hundred and fifty years ago, soon after the City was incorporated, the first Mayor of Burlington, A.L. Catlin, came before the City Council to provide the first Mayor’s annual report.
The short speech is in many ways a testament to the notion that some things never change. Mayor Catlin made his top focus clear, stating “A subject which demands our special and immediate attention is our financial condition.”
His next subject is the Police Department and public safety, and then a discussion of the City’s streets in which he promises that the Southern Connector is about to be completed – though the connection he was focused on was building Maple Street all the way to what was known at the time as Shelburne Street.
When Catlin discusses the special needs and circumstances of soldiers returning home from the Civil War, he could just as well be speaking of the many Vermont veterans returning from World War II or Vietnam or the conflicts around the world today.
Catlin was speaking at a unique moment in Burlington’s history. Not only had the community just become a City, but the people gathered here in 1865 stood on the verge of a new age for Burlington – one that would revolve around Lake Champlain. In the most moving section of the speech Mayor Catlin speaks with an optimism about the future that still very much resonates today, saying:
“We represent a young city, which may in time be known and distinguished as the Queen City of New England. It has just been launched upon a career that I trust will prove prosperous and happy. Its location for natural beauty is not equaled in any part of the country – and for natural and acquired advantages in a business point of view, for manufacturers and a general business-character, few places are its equal, and none surpass it.”
Catlin also closed with a sentiment that still guides all of us in public office or in positions of community leadership today, when he stated, “May the records of this year, when complete, exhibit proofs of our good stewardship, and these trusts, when we surrender them to our successors, carry with them the assurances that they have not suffered by our administration.”
I hope that when all is said and done with our time here, our successors will be able to look back and say that we, too, kept our commitment to good stewardship of our community – and looking at the many gathered here today who have given so much to our City already, I am confident they will.
However, the speech is also a testament to the dramatic change we have experienced as a City over 150 years and the enlarged sense of ambition and stewardship we have as a community today.
In his very first words, Catlin addresses only the “Gentlemen of the City Council.”
The City of immigrants from around the world that is today striving to embrace diversity and inclusion was still many years away. Women’s suffrage was still more than fifty years away, and female presidents of the City Council – women like Jane Knodell, Sharon Bushor, Joan Shannon, and Nancy Wood – were still more than 100 years in the future.
Much of what we think of as municipal government did not exist yet and of course does not appear in the Mayor’s speech or budget. There was no Library, Burlington Electric Department, Airport, or Parks Department (though, interestingly, Catlin did speak at some length about the need for new cemeteries which would soon double as our earliest City parks).
While Catlin noted the beauty of the lake, his focus on Lake Champlain was that it offered “the cheapest mode of transportation for seven or eight months of the year” for moving timber – and in 1865 Burlington was just entering its heyday as a timber capital. Today’s focus on environmental stewardship and recreational enjoyment of the lake is not even hinted at in the speech. And who would have thought 150 years ago that the Burlington Electric Department would generate or source its energy entirely from renewable power.
The milestone that we are observing today is on one level the recognition of a bureaucratic change. As Catlin said, “By the act of incorporation the form of government is now changed from the old town organization to that of a city. It enlarges the powers of administration, and consequently increases the responsibility.”
This story of coming together as Burlingtonians and organizing ourselves in new ways to expand our abilities and take on new challenges is one that has been repeated many times since 1865.
To cite just a few examples from recent decades:
- We have re-envisioned and rebuilt the industrial lakefront of Catlin’s time as a 21st Century waterfront of parks and bike paths.
- We reimagined and rebuilt Church Street as a pedestrian marketplace, and the industrial areas of Pine Street have been reborn as a vibrant center for the arts and creative economy.
- We dreamed up a grocery co-op, a farmers’ market, the Intervale Center, a new way to feed school children, and completely transformed the quality and focus of our food systems.
We are here today to give thanks to the countless civic and community leaders and generations of Burlingtonians from all backgrounds, nationalities, and political parties who through their hard work, creativity, collaboration, and persistence have built the City that we love today.
From the start we have been a people who show up, who work together, who are resolute, and who see the job through. These qualities have never been truer of Burlingtonians than they are today.
Here on February 21, 2015, we are again gathered at a time of great promise and hope. Through our roads, airport, institutions of learning and medicine, and telecommunications we are better engaged with the rest of the country and globe than we have ever been. We still represent a young City, and are still set in a place of unequaled beauty. Let us recommit ourselves to the Burlington ethic of continuous collaboration, renewal, and improvement. Let us begin today the ambitious task of ensuring that Burlington’s next 150 years are even more prosperous and happy than its first.