Vermonters have always embraced the winter season, in fact, 137 years ago, Vermont made a name for itself as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts, winter athletes, and thrill-seekers. What started as a five-day festival derived out of the passion for sledding, turned into a ideology adapted by Vermonters for years to come.
In February of 1885 an outbreak of smallpox struck our neighbors to the north in Montreal. As the disease continued to spread, city officials’ worked to isolate the infected and vaccinate the residents. These highly controversial measures were met with objection and uproar throughout the city limits. The city of Montreal was planning to host a winter carnival in February of 1886, with the goal to unite thousands of Canadians and Americans. However, due to the surge in cases, Montreal officials were forced to cancel the carnival until they were able to contain the outbreak.
The epidemic ironically presented the civic leaders of Burlington with an opportunity to host their own winter carnival. Burlington has always had a hyperfocus on winter sports, and the 19th century was no different. In 1885, a group of Burlington residents consolidated their passions to form the Burlington Coasting Club, otherwise known as “sledding.” Riders would use whatever they could find to coast with, including toboggans, traverses, and additional on-off contraptions that had no place in coasting history. The club was founded to sanction a sport that was often overlooked and disapproved of by many community members. Coasters tended to take to the streets at night, utilizing the steep sloped streets throughout the city of Burlington. Although adrenaline inducing, coasting led to concerns from city officials about sleds colliding with pedestrians, sleights, or the city's new horse-drawn trolley.
Dr. William Seward Webb, owner of a great estate in Shelburne, and son-in-law of the Vanderbilts, spearheaded the Coasting Club, recruiting club members from the upper echelon of society including a professor at the University of Vermont, a lawyer, state senator, storeowners, and the like. The high profile club members were distinct in their unity and club identity, requiring members to wear the club uniform. The uniform consisted of a red sash and a badge that depicted a toboggan with the club’s initials.
The next fall, the Burlington Coasting Club members began planning a five-day winter sports carnival to be held February 15th - 19th of 1886.Expanding from coasting and tobogganing, the organizers scheduled Ice Hockey games, skating races, as well as ice boating, sleighing, snowshoe races, a club dinner, and fireworks to boot! Club members lined the streets and courses with Chinese lanterns and torches, setting the scene for a lively winter event.
Winter sports enthusiasts flocked to Burlington for the festivities. The thrilling Main Street Coasting track became a prominent attraction, it’s been reported that more than 1,000 riders per hour would race down the course towards Lake Champlain. While other spectators and sportsmen would gather by the lakeshore to watch the iceboat races or to skate on the newly constructed torch-lit ice rink.
While the Winter Carnival was a massive success and attracted hundreds of well-known East Coasters, the festivities gave every indication that it would become an annual event. However, after glowing in the success of the 1886 Winter Carnival, by 1887 the event began to lose its luster. The Boston, Montreal, and New York socialites that populated the first event and added to the winter magic, were nowhere to be found.
Within a few years, the Burlington Coasting Club could no longer support the efforts of hosting another winter carnival; they failed to match the splendor of the iconic 1886 winter carnival. With uncertain weather, attendance, and assistance, the club decided to prioritize their time elsewhere. Membership of the Coasting Club began to decline and shortly after became defunct. Although the Burlington Winter Carnival did not continue past 1888, the Burlington Coasting Club showed the East Coast that Vermont means business when it comes to winter sports. Although it would take another 50 years to introduce ski resorts, Vermont has and will continue to draw visitors during the colder months to enjoy and explore the historic community and snowy mountains, upholding our centuries-long traditions and love for winter activities.
Images Courtesy University of Vermont Silver Special Collections