Burlington's First Progressive Era
When Theodore Roosevelt visited Burlington in September 1902 he brought some kind words for Vermonters. He had been to the Queen City a year earlier, on the very day he found out that President McKinley had been shot by what the papers were calling a “crazed anarchist.” But now the “wild man,” the “damned cowboy” hated by Wall Street, Vice President under McKinley for less than a year, had returned as President.
Burlington Mayor Donley C. Hawley stood with Roosevelt at the train barn near the waterfront, surrounded by flags and bunting. “You have always kept true to the old America ideals," the President told the Vermonters, "the ideals of individual initiative, of self-help, of rugged independence, of the desire to work and willingness, if need, to fight.”
Still, Republicans like Hawley were suspicious. Roosevelt’s rhetoric about a “square deal” for working people and control of big business sounded radical. But Democrats like James E. Burke were unabashed admirers. Burke was already the leading spokesman for the city’s growing Democratic Party. He was also promoting a fusion movement with dissident Republicans. Like Roosevelt, he projected himself as a pragmatic reformer, thriving on idealism, moral outrage and an ability to inspire the masses.
Born in Williston on May 4, 1849, from a family that admired the British populist Edmund Burke, he had emerged as the leader of a new Irish, Democratic opposition in the city. Son of Irish Catholic immigrants from Canada, he‘d begun his political career at almost 50 years old, identifying himself as a champion of the poor, labor, and ethnic newcomers. He was also known and well-liked as a blacksmith.
To many local Yankee “puritans” James Burke was something else entirely: a dangerous “papist,” implying that his main allegiance was to the Catholic Church. But he found more than enough support at the foot of University Hill – in low-income neighborhoods, tenements near the railroad tracks and along the waterfront. These were the city’s ethnic neighborhoods at the time, populated not only by the Irish but also Germans, Italians, Jews, and French Canadians. In 18 citywide races between 1903 and 1937, Burke lost only twice in these “immigrant” wards. They were also the base for his five-year foray into “third party” politics during the 1930s Depression – the Citizens Party.
Burke’s first victory came in 1893, when he was elected to the Board of Aldermen from Ward 4, then the city’s waterfront area. Two years later he was appointed to the Board of Police Examiners. But he couldn’t recapture his aldermanic seat in 1899, and his first two runs for mayor, in 1900 and 1902, were unsuccessful.
On March 3, 1903, the hotly contested mayoral race between Burke and incumbent Republican Donley Hawley drew an overflow crowd to the city clerk’s office. The men – only males could vote – perched on windowsills and stood on the rail that surrounded the aldermanic table. As the results for each ward were announced the winning side cheered.
Hawley, a surgeon, came out of top in affluent areas, but Burke’s persistence was finally paying off in the immigrant wards. Plus, he had two compelling issues this time around: a proposed city-owned light plant and local licensing of saloons.
When the final votes were tallied, Hawley had a three-vote margin. But the reason was that City Clerk Charles Allen refused to count ballots that had been marked twice. Burke was livid. “Those who laugh last laugh best,” he proclaimed. “There are many men who voted today for me and whose ballots were thrown out. We propose to have them counted.”
Good to his word, Burke took the matter to the Vermont Supreme Court and won, gaining certification of an 11-vote victory by early summer.
It took more time, but he also got the light plant. Two years later, during his third term, Burke’s daughter Loretta pressed a button at the bandstand in City Hall Park energizing two circuits of streetlights with power from the newly built plant.
Municipal power had enormous appeal. In December 1902 the Vermont legislature had authorized the city to furnish electricity, purchase needed land – by eminent domain if necessary, and issue bonds for the work. However, it also approved the incorporation of a privately-owned company, Burlington Light and Power, which would subsequently compete with – and sue – the city over the management of energy distribution.
Burlington Light and Power was founded by B.B. Smalley and Urban Woodbury. In 1892, Smalley, a wealthy Democrat, had run for governor. But his main focus was business, as a corporate lawyer, banker, and president of the Burlington Gas Light Company. Woodbury was his closest business associate, president of the Consolidated Electric Company, a founding board member of Smalley’s Burlington Gas Light, and a war hero who had been mayor and lieutenant governor. In fact, two years after Smalley ran for governor in 1892 and lost Woodbury ran as a Republican and won.
Only a week after Burke was declared Mayor by the state Supreme Court he asked the alderman to approve bonds for a light plant. Two days later, on June 11, he staged a special city-wide meeting to vote on a proposed $150,000 investment. Woodbury spoke against the plan, along with Elias Lyman, owner of the area’s big coal company and Burlington Traction Company, the local mass transit monopoly. Both men were hissed by members of the audience as they spoke.
Local voters clearly favored public power, and within ten years the city was generating over one million kilowatt hours with a turbine generator. Despite widespread support, however, the owners of the competing private power company did not cave in. Instead, when the city was on the verge of expanding its department in 1910, Burlington Light and Power made a competing bid to supply energy for street lights, public buildings and parks. When it was turned down the private utility company filed an injunction to prevent the city from issuing new bonds.
The lawsuit was dropped after two years, since it wasn’t possible to prove that commercial lighting supplied by the city would increase public debt. But Burlington Light and Power did eventually win a battle in court, using a 1904 agreement with the city as the basis for its argument.
To avoid duplication as demand for electricity increased, the city had made a deal to share utility pole space with the company. Since the city used Light and Power poles, it was supposed to pay a 20 cent per year fee for each wire attached. But the city stopped paying in 1909, claiming that it had a right to use the tops of all poles without charge. Light and Power cried foul, especially since the city was their chief competitor. The Court agreed. No matter what the City Charter said, the light department had to pay up.
That defeat didn’t change the direction in which the city was moving, however. When Green Mountain Power offered $1 million to lease the department for 20 years the city declined. During those years public power brought Burlington more than $2 million in profit. In 1953, the department became a city monopoly when it bought Green Mountain Power’s franchise.