James Burke’s allies considered him honest and fearless, driven by civic pride and a sense of duty. His political enemies questioned his motives and called him a demagogue. He sometimes called them “corporate interests” or “foreign capitalists.”
He was no friend of Elias Lyman’s coal company, for example, or of the Masons and the railroads. In his 1904 race for mayor, he publicly forced the Republican candidate, Rufus Brown, to deny that his campaign was financed by Burlington Gas Light.
One of the most difficult crusades of Burlington’s first progressive era put him at odds with both the Central Vermont and Rutland Railroads over public ownership of waterfront land. The railroads had owned and controlled the water’s edge since Burlington emerged as a commercial center, and weren’t willing to let the city take any part of the land for a “public wharf.” That was precisely what Burke proposed to do.
Robert Roberts, a Republican mayor before Burke, later claimed that the idea was really his own. This does make some sense, since he was on the executive committee of the Lake Champlain Yacht Club. That and the local trolley company were run by Lyman, who also headed the Board of Trade. But aside from having the idea Mayor Roberts did little about it during his time in office.
The first breakthrough came in 1902. In December, only days after the city won a legislative go-ahead for a light plant, it also received approval to operate a “public wharf…for the landing, loading and unloading of boats and vessels.” In addition, the city would be permitted to take land by eminent domain. The idea was popular and embraced by candidates of both political parties. By 1905 Burke was confident that Burlington would have a wharf within months. But months ended up stretching into years.
Since the railroads were refusing to sell the city any land, Burke hunted down some frontage at the foot of Maple Street that had, as he put it, “escaped the eyes of corporate greed.” Most land in that area was owned by the Rutland line. In June 1905, as the city sought construction bids, the railroad won a court order to block construction. Filling in the slip would destroy its “property right,” the company claimed.
The court battle dragged on into the next mayoral election. The Burlington Free Press, whose staff member Walter Bigelow frequently ran against Burke, urged the city to negotiate with the other railroad, Central Vermont, for a lease while simultaneously accusing the mayor of trying to “make political capital” out of the issue.
Burke won anyway, by 140 votes, mainly based on his popularity in waterfront neighborhoods. In his fourth annual message, he charged that, “The citizens of Burlington are getting impatient over this question (the wharf)…An outraged people will hold us responsible if we show any inclination of shirk our duty in this great battle now going on with corporate interests which are ever vigilant and successful in watching after their own interests.”
Despite public opinion or impassioned speeches, Central Vermont aggressively opposed the city’s public wharf plans for three more years. In a variety of legal actions, including a 1909 Supreme Court case, the railroad put its objection this way: First of all, the city had no legal right to be a “wharfinger” – slang for running a wharf, and the land was already being used for a public purpose – that is, whatever the railroad chose.
Second, they claimed federal approval was required by law – in this case by the Secretary of War, who had not spoken. In any case, the state law authorizing the city to seize land was unconstitutional as it denied the railroad due process. And finally, even if taking land on College Street was legal, it wasn’t necessary since the city already claimed to own another wharf site at the foot on Maple Street, not coincidentally land also claimed by Percival Clement’s Rutland Railroad.
Like the private utilities, the railroads wanted to establish that Burlington had no legal right to run a public business that would “enter into competition with the world at large.” The state’s top judges disagreed. Vermont government could, they ruled, “build or aid others in building, wharves for public use and in aid of trade and commerce; and it is equally clear that whatever the state can do in this behalf, it can delegate to a municipality to do.”
The project didn’t have to be within the narrow purpose of local government, said Vermont’s High Court. It could be almost anything of special local benefit, anything considered “proper means for promoting the prosperity of its people.”
The decision was handed down on January 16, 1909, less than two months before Burke returned to City Hall after defeats in 1907 and 1908. Even journalists such as James Tracy, who thought Burke tactless and possibly a dangerous demagogue, had to concede in a Vermonter Magazine profile that his persistence and success on the wharf issue had netted him “prestige among the common people who look upon him as a safe leader and wise counselor.”
Nevertheless, the negotiations continued to drag on. Optimism that Central Vermont might let go of its College Street property faded when the railroad, after agreeing to sell for $27,500, demanded to retain the right to run tracks across the property. The land was condemned and the corporation went back to court.
Having lost at the ballot box, the economic establishment hoped to win by wearing down the opposition and exploiting technicalities. By 1910 Burlington was under legal attack by the railroads, Burlington Light and Power, and the Masons. Before all the disputes could be resolved, Burke, the politician at the center of them, was out of office again. His old rival Robert Roberts had returned to electoral politics after a ten-year absence to defeat the mayor in five of the city’s six recently-redrawn wards.
But comebacks were Burke’s forte. In 1913 he made yet another one, and immediately after winning another term as mayor picked up his discussions with the railroads. Now he linked the purchase of wharf property with plans for a Union Passenger Station nearby. The Public Service Commission was invited into the debate, and the Supreme Court ironed out the details. Both Central Vermont and the Rutland Railroad eventually accepted the city’s proposal.
In 1915 the city purchased 160 feet of lakefront property near College Street for $8,000. A decade-long battle with corporate power had been won.
 Vermont General Assembly, December 11, 1902.
 Mayor’s Message to the Board of Aldermen, April 3, 1905.
 Burlington Free Press and Times, June 7, 1905
 Mayor’s Message to the Board of Aldermen, 1906.
 Vermont Supreme Court opinion, Burlington v. Central Vermont Railway, Co., January 16, 1909.
 James E. Tracy, The Mayor of Burlington, Vermonter Magazine, March, 1909.
 Mayor’s Message to the Board of Aldermen, 1913.