Kathleen Byrne will never forget what she saw the day after Tropical Storm Irene charged through Vermont. A young man, barely 18, rumbled up Route 100 in a bright-yellow backhoe, determined to repair the bridge just south of the junction with Route 125. He had been operating that rig since he was a schoolboy, and no one questioned his fitness for the task.
For hours, he dug up the bed of the White River, which had violently changed course during the storm and eaten away huge sections of its bank. As Irene raged, torrents of churning brown water lashed the abutments that had held the bridge in place for years. Eventually, part of the span fell into the surging current, cutting off the connection between the towns of Hancock and Rochester.
With bucket load after bucket load of silt and rock, the young man built up an earthen bridge. As he muscled the backhoe, townspeople came to help. Soon Route 100 was passable again, if only in that section. But for residents of Hancock and its equally isolated neighbor, Granville, the rudimentary bridge was a lifeline connecting them to the more populous and better-equipped Rochester.
The scene of friends and neighbors banding together to do what needed doing stuck with Byrne, the innkeeper at the Gathering Inn, just a couple hundred feet north of the bridge. She still seems awestruck when recounting it.
“Everyone pitched in to make the bridge. The locals did it,” she says. “And that boy, he just made that machine work.”
There was a time when Route 100, the 216-mile ribbon of asphalt that runs the length of Vermont, was just a series of farm roads connecting towns that dotted various river valleys. Until the mid-1960s, sections of the road remained unpaved, including the sliver that runs through the glacier-cut chasm of Granville Gulf, just to the north of Hancock. Though it still has just two lanes, Route 100 remains a vital corridor for dozens of small Vermont towns. It is a main north-south artery and the longest highway in the state.
Route 100 bobs and weaves a path along the backbone of Vermont: the stately Green Mountains. The byway itself serves as a kind of spine, supporting the state from Stamford in the south to Newport in the north. Anyone who examines the destruction wrought by Irene along Route 100, and how Vermonters who live in the towns the road bisects summoned reserves of strength to fix their communities, would not find it a stretch to describe those people as the state’s vertebrae.
Back when Vermont was first settled, towns sprang up along the various rivers and their tributaries that course through the center of the state — from the West River in the south up through the White, Mad, Lamoille and Missisquoi rivers to the north. Roads followed the riverbanks and, over time, were connected to forge Route 100.
Many of the towns along Route 100 are as quaint and idyllic today as they might have been 100 years ago. From Wilmington with its art galleries and its antiques shops; to the chummy ski town of Ludlow; to Rochester and its set-piece town green, Route 100 blazes an ever-charming path.
In the wake of Irene, the byway suffered a series of unrelenting blows. As the storm raced up the middle of Vermont, it followed Route 100, a path of least resistance, owing to the numerous river valleys the road follows. In all, 24 towns along Route 100 were pummeled, with many losing huge slabs of roadway and formerly sturdy bridges. Sue Minter, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, says it’s too soon to estimate just how much damage was done to the road. At press time, Route 100 was still closed to nonemergency traffic in five locations. In Pittsfield alone, the road suffered a one-mile washout.
“It’s an incredible historic route. It is damaged in many places and severely in some,” Minter says.
In addition to being historic, Route 100 is the main way into 10 of the state’s 17 ski resorts. It long ago earned the nickname “Skier’s Highway” for its access to Vermont’s most storied slopes, including Okemo, Killington and Sugarbush. Tales abound to this day of ski nuts racing to hit every mountain on 100 before daylight fades. This winter, with the road likely to be full of crews working to shore it up, speeding along it for first chair may no longer be an option.
“It actually makes me really upset when I hear all the damage Route 100 sustained,” says Steve Cook, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. “There’s such a nostalgia going way back, when people would work their way up the Skier’s Highway. It’s one of our most well-known roads, if not the most well known.”
Currently a more pressing concern than ski season, from the tourism industry’s perspective, is leaf peeping. Because of its central location and its proximity to attractions such as the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury, the Vermont Country Store in Weston, the Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site in Plymouth and festivals statewide, Route 100 is a “huge tourism driver,” says Cook. The road wends its way through mountains, valleys and rolling farmland, providing the perfect thoroughfare from which to gaze at jewel-toned leaves.
While the department has no hard numbers on Route 100’s tourism influence, it’s known anecdotally as a major destination, especially in autumn months. Of the $1.4 billion in tourism monies that flow into the state annually, nearly 24 percent, or $332 million, is made in the fall. And, though autumn ranks third in the list of busiest seasons, it brings 3.6 million visitors to the state, most of whom are driving, Cook says.
“Route 100 is the epitome of what Vermont is,” says Vermont Chamber of Commerce president Betsy Bishop. “It is a tourist attraction in and of itself, as much as a road can be.”
It is a cruel irony that the storm’s namesake, Irene, is the Greek goddess of peace; to be “irenic” is to be peaceable, placid. The storm was anything but. More than a week after Irene hammered Vermont, leaving many of its small towns submerged and battered, one still sees glaring evidence of her visit, conspicuous imperfections in an otherwise pristine environment. Along Route 100, silt-covered cornstalks bow away from riverbeds and uprooted trees, their limbs akimbo, or lie scattered by the roadside. Everywhere floodwaters flowed is now dusty and dun colored. This new Route 100 is virtually unrecognizable.
More than 312 Vermont homes were destroyed or severely damaged by Irene, according to a state tally. Many of those were on Route 100, such as John Wardwell’s home in Rochester.
As the White River roared through, Wardwell stayed in his house just north of the village center, trying to salvage his family’s belongings. He left when the water rose to his waist. Wardwell recalls seeing a stray tractor and a propane tank float down the column of water. Later in the week, officials condemned his house. Adding profound insult to injury, thieves broke into his waterlogged home and stole a stove, food and money Wardwell was saving for Christmas presents.
Wardwell explains his plight during a visit to Rochester’s Skip Mart gas station and convenience store to pick up some snacks. He’s wearing the same mesh basketball shorts he had on during the flood and needs some clothes, he says. A friend asks Wardwell for his size and tells him he’ll find him something to wear.
This brief scene could have played out in any number of towns along Route 100. In Rochester, as in so much of Vermont, there is a general mood of getting on with it, a testament to the Yankee sturdiness and stoicism that are still alive along this thoroughfare.
“We’re just pushing and pushing and pushing,” Wardwell says. “Everything is rebuildable.”
Photos by Lauren Ober.