What’s the significance of names on a map? Do they register roads that belong to the territory or only reflect continued use? What sort of authority does a mapped road, byway, or highway retain in common law–and for how long must it be recognized as a road? The existence of place-names and routes on a map have become an increasingly contested way to preserve a sense of place, and the survival of the “sleeping roads” of Vermont, the “Class 4” roads that are not maintained by towns, even if some receive some limited maintenance, suggest a historical network of the past, still partly visible and indeed rarely used.
Long before I-89 ploughed through the countryside of central Vermont as a central artery of automotive traffic, cut through dark bedrock of metamorphic Cambrian and Ordovician eras, seizing thousands of acres across the state and displacing houses and farms, the roads we now see as arteries that cut through old forests and Silurian and Devonian metasedimentary rocks displaced the roads that once defined travel, reducing once luscious habitats of oak forests to the veils of Potemkin forests, those illusory strips of six to ten trees deep to create the illusion of forest for tourists and motorists on the highways that cut across New England, creating an illusion of the existence of arboreal habitat and living ecosystems that exist only in the minds of motorists who travel paved roads from which they rarely depart.
Newly Paved Interstate Curves through the Waterbury/Middlesex region, circa 1960/Vermont Historical Society
The survival of earlier “sleeping roads” are increasingly threatened in an age of the division of the long predominantly rural state, as a market of construction threatens to obscure local knowledge and a long-valued sense of place. The deep sense of injustice in the prospect of loosing the legal status of “ancient” and long-pathways preserved in records of in local townships face possible obliteration in the legal memory as such unpaved roads–often more tacitly known than still used for commerce–are going to be reclassified. Indeed, as the state’s legislature has decided to reclassify common law roads to homogenize property records across the state, the outburst of local mapping seems not an act of antiquarian obscurantism, but a defense of local knowledge in an age of globalism and satellite mapping, where few of the older roads might appear from the sort of satellite-based mapping systems on which we increasingly depend. While many of the “class 4” roads might be sought out by Mountain Bikers, eager for off-road experiences, or back roads where they can snake around mountain farms, but only maintained if deemed necessary for the public good.
The plan for a massive reclassification of “ancient” highways on the books but actually dormant in much of the state of Vermont may be a pro-development land grab, but suggests that the struggle for designating once common lands as private property (and resistance to it) are waged on maps. The recent promise to reclassify registered but unnamed byways in the state–a mass of roads which were at one time used or previously surveyed as common-law byways, but have since fallen out of use to different degrees–has unintentionally generated a set of local storms about public memory. In a state where many current town roads remain unpaved, and many more have faded into the largely forested landscape. The drive to reclassify the diversity of unpaved roads and common law byways once preserved in local jurisdictions reveals the rise of property development for whom the retention of old spatial classifications obfuscates the exchange of private lands. And if the preservation of old farmlands in Vermont provided a rare historical perspective of longue duree for early twentieth century historians as George Perkins Marsh, who developed his broad history of the dialectic relations of what we now call the anthropecene between “man” and “nature” as he contemplated the “destruction wrought” on the local landscape in 1864, impressed by retreating and shifting landscape of Vermont, where he was born in a farmhouse, which became a vantage point for Marsh to define a perspectives on human destruction of the global landscape. If long a Vermonter, after travels in Italy. and study of the deforestation Mediterranean basin, he bemoaned that the case of Vermont’s loss of native trees affirmed that “The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence . . . would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species.” In his megahistorical masterwork, Man and Nature, Marsh contemplated the “wide a circle of disturbance we produce in the harmonies of nature when we throw the smallest pebble into the ocean of organic life,” offering an early environmental vision of the planet’s dire state recognized in 1874 as carrying “the force of revelation.”
Did the rebuilding of paved roads as Interstate 89 not encourage the growth of a fossil fuel economy in the 1960s as it cut across once forested terrain, forcing the vision of Marsh’s coherent landscape further into the receding past?
New Gasoline Station Signs placed along Interstate 89 (1964)/Vermont History Museum
The local resistance to such a reclassification of roads in the rural state, which has attracted its share of fierce defenders of the local rights of communities long granted precedents to federal or state law, make the proposed elimination of “Ancient Highways” from local law a matter of contention. The proposed reclassification of a multiplicity of roads poses a problem of having ceased to reflect the sort of use of landscape that developers want to encourage and private home-owners want to ensure. Given the shifting nature of land use in Vermont, where older houses are increasingly on the market, as smaller agricultural farms close and die out, a premium has developed for the clear definition of ownership without any liens or qualifications. Hence the increasing tensions between local municipalities in the state and any move by state government to abolish roads they long oversaw. In a sense, the increased interest in helping demand for fungible residential properties that can be sold without qualification have run up against the multiplicity of roads that have continued to remain on the books.
As the real estate market in Vermont seems poised to heat up in much of the state, and smaller towns face a demand for brisk sales and a large pool of properties arrive on the market, the state seeks to remove any obstacles to development or become notorious for arcane property laws, remapping the “ancient” roads of Vermont opts to treat them as ancient, and, far more than unpaved, not part of its future landscape. Yet the quilt of county regulations of roads that existed for most of the eighteenth century and was retained in most local maps before World War II reflected a local landscape of counties and townships rarely challenged before the arrival of interstate federal highways across the state during the 1970s, erasing the varied paths, trails, and common-law roads, long overseen by local city Selectboards and regarded as parts of the local landscape.