Burlington, VT - Union Station (BTN)
Sitting majestically at the head of Main Street and overlooking the shimmering waters of Lake Champlain, the neoclassical Burlington Union Station houses Amtrak and a variety of businesses.
1 Main Street
Burlington, VT 05401
Annual Station Ridership (FY 2022): 3,737
- Facility Ownership: State of Vermont
- Parking Lot Ownership: State of Vermont
- Platform Ownership: State of Vermont
- Track Ownership: State of Vermont
The neoclassical Burlington Union Station sits majestically at the head of Main Street and overlooks the shimmering waters of Lake Champlain. Today the building houses an Amtrak waiting room on the lower level and a variety of businesses on the upper floors. A platform with canopy for rail passengers is located on the west side of the building, just a short walk from the waiting area.
Amtrak began direct service to Burlington on July 29, 2022, when the Ethan Allen Express (New York-Albany-Burlington) was extended north from Rutland, Vermont, to Burlington – with intermediate stops in Middlebury and Ferrisburgh-Vergennes. In addition to Ethan Allen Express service, Burlingtonians also have access to the daily Vermonter (Washington-New York-St. Albans), which stops in nearby Essex Junction. During the warmer months, a seasonal ferry connects Burlington to Port Kent, New York, which is served by the Adirondack (New York-Albany-Montreal).
From Union Station, it’s an easy walk to numerous bus lines that serve the city and surrounding region. The station platform is also used by an excursion service operated by Vermont Rail Systems. While on a trip to and from Middlebury, passengers enjoy the enchanting landscape and dinner.
Before the Vermont Agency for Transportation constructed the new platform and canopy on the Burlington waterfront, site preparation work was completed in 2020-21. It included replacing the stormwater system and upgrading utilities while Vermont Rail System, which operates the railroad from Burlington south, shifted the track to the east and improved the railroad signal system. The road-railway crossings in the station area were reconstructed, and the Island Line Trail – popular with bicyclists, runners and walkers – was moved to the opposite side of the track. Work also took place at the Vermont Rail System rail yard to allow for the overnight parking of the train.
When European explorers first visited what is now central Vermont, it was primarily inhabited by bands of Western Abenaki American Indians who spoke an Algonquian language. They lived with the landscape, moving throughout the year to take advantage of opportunities for hunting – including deer, moose and waterfowl – fishing and foraging of nuts and berries. They also came together on a seasonal basis to plant crops such as squash, beans and corn.
In 1609 Samuel de Champlain of France was one of the first Europeans to navigate the lake that now bears his name. But Vermont remained beyond the sphere of most European-American colonists well into the mid-18th century and acted as a buffer zone between the French towns of lower Canada and the English settlements of coastal New England. The region became attractive to English colonists after the British defeated the French in 1760 and gained permanent control of Canada.
Vermont did not come into existence as a separate entity until 1777, and prior to this year the land was disputed by New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Many of the early settlements in the territory were established by charters issued by Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire. Burlington was established under a 1763 grant, but it was not heavily settled until after the Revolutionary War.
By the mid-1760s, New York’s governor was fed up with the growing number of “New Hampshire grants” west of the Connecticut River and asked the royal authorities to better define the boundaries between the two colonies. In 1764, New York gained control over what is now Vermont, but many of the original settlers were opposed to the change, particularly due to the costs that would be incurred to transfer and regain title to the land under New York law.
Over the next decade, forces within Vermont began to advocate for the establishment of a new political entity separate from both New Hampshire and New York. Against this background and the Revolutionary War, in January 1777, a delegation from the grant communities gathered to declare independence. By July, a constitution had been written. Groundbreaking for its time, it prohibited slavery, mandated universal manhood suffrage without restrictions, and established a public school system. Vermont existed as an independent republic until 1791 when it joined the United States as the fourteenth state.
Burlington was organized around 1785 and soon developed an active wharf supporting both commercial and passenger traffic. The Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor became a key trade route between British-controlled lower Canada and New York City and supported numerous lake ports, some of which took advantage of the waterpower of streams and rivers to foster early industrial enterprises.
Not far away, across the Winooski River, which enters Lake Champlain just to the north of Burlington, Ira Allen, brother to the more famous Ethan Allen, constructed a dam at the bend of the river between what is now Essex Junction and Williston. Hubbell Falls, as it was called, became the site of early industry, beginning with a sawmill.
Burlington counted more than 800 residents by the start of the 19th century, and the lumber industry blossomed. It first took advantage of regional forests and waterways on which logs could be floated to mills; later, lumber was sent down from Canada where it was milled into boards and other goods. Associated businesses, such as a paper mill, grew out of the lumber trade.
In 1827, Burlington could boast a glass company, and sheep raising in central and northern Vermont led to development of woolen and textile mills, particularly along the falls of the Winooski River. Other businesses reliant on waterpower included lumber and saw mills, a furniture factory, foundry and grist mills.
A further boost to regional trade came with the opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823, which directly connected the southern tip of the lake with the Hudson River at Troy, New York – and the new Erie Canal that opened two years later from Buffalo to Albany, just south of Troy. This strengthened trade along the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor and drove demand for goods such as lumber and agricultural products to feed growing cities.
Connections were further enhanced in 1843 when the Chambly Canal opened along the Richelieu River in Quebec. Bypassing rapids, the canal allowed ships to sail from the northern tip of Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River north of Montreal. It was the final piece in making an all-water journey possible between New York City and the Montreal area. Wharves along the Burlington waterfront bustled, and a breakwater and lighthouses were built to guide water-borne traffic.
By 1840, nearly 5,000 people called Burlington home. New arrivals included Irish immigrants who found work in mills and on the railroads, as well as French Canadians, many of whom headed south in the colder months when agricultural activities subsided. In later decades, they were joined by immigrants from Germany, Eastern Europe and Italy. The Civil War would increase demand for Burlington’s key products – lumber and woolen goods needed by the Union Army.
In addition to lake-bound trade, Burlington began to benefit from rail connections by the mid-19th century. In 1843, the state legislature chartered the Champlain & Connecticut River Railroad to link Rutland and Burlington. But before construction even began in 1847, the company changed its name to the Rutland & Burlington Railroad to more accurately reflect its market. By December 1849, the line was completed from Bellows Falls on the Connecticut River via Rutland to Burlington, entering along the lake from the south.
At Bellows Falls, important rail connections were made to Boston, which was New England’s primary international port. Post-Civil War, the Rutland & Burlington reorganized in 1867 and became the Rutland Railroad. Over the next seven decades, except for a short period from 1896-1904, the railroad would be leased by its principal competitors, including the Central Vermont Railroad and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central system. The Ethan Allen Express operates over part of the former Rutland Railroad system that is now owned by the state of Vermont.
The rival Vermont Central Railroad (VCR) was also chartered in 1843 to build a line across the center of the state from Windsor on the Connecticut River, through Northfield (the railroad’s headquarters) up the valley of the Winooski River through Williston, Essex and finally to Burlington. In the late 1840s, a line was planned from Burlington to Montreal, through St. Albans and Essex, as were several others. The VCR finally ran into Burlington from the north in December 1849 – almost three years since ground had been broken at Windsor – and just a few weeks after the arrival of the Rutland & Burlington.
Although approaching the city from opposite directions, the VCR and Rutland & Burlington both established depots on the southern edge of downtown along Maple Street, only three blocks apart and just a short distance from today’s Union Station. The VCR path to the waterfront followed a ravine that once ran through the center of town, and in 1853, the railroad built a new depot along the ravine at what is now Winooski and Main Streets. The VCR line to the lakefront was rerouted to the north in 1861, and passenger services moved to a new temporary depot close to present-day Union Station. The ravine was largely filled in by the late 19th century as the city expanded.
During the 1850s, the Rutland & Burlington took over 65 acres of land on the waterfront for use as a rail yard, and marshy areas were filled in to make room for new tracks. By 1853, construction of wharves and warehouses was complete, and a decade later, hundreds of ships were operating on Lake Champlain from the Burlington wharves.
The lumber and wood industries boomed along the waterfront in the second half of the 19th century, making Burlington the nation’s third-largest lumber port in 1873. The lumberyards were so extensive that paths between the lumber stacks were given street names. These industries remained important to the city until the end of the century, when increased competition and tariffs diminished demand.
In 1867, a new, permanent station constructed by the VCR on fill at the foot of College Street opened to travelers; four years later it became a “union station” after the VCR leased the Rutland Railroad and its services were relocated to the facility. In 1872 the VCR was reorganized as the Central Vermont Railroad (CVR).
Situated close to the waterfront rail yards and a dock used by steamboats carrying passengers and freight, it is recorded as having a large, sheltering train shed – open at each end – over three tracks, and four large brick peak-roofed towers at the corners. Adjoining the train shed to the west was a structure that held two separate ground floor waiting rooms for men and women (and children), as was common at the time, as well as ticketing and telegraph offices. Upstairs, the railroads had office space.
Union Station was expanded over time, but by the early 20th century, it was considered inadequate for modern railroad operations. Local businessmen and residents advocated with the railroads (which had parted ways in 1896) and city to erect a new facility better able to serve the growing community. The city would eventually donate land at the foot of College Street and contributed $15,000 to build a new depot and reroute the tracks. The CVR and Rutland Railroad, who would jointly own the station, put up the remaining $150,000 for the construction of the fashionable steel frame neoclassical building. It opened to passengers in January 1916 and remained a center of activity for the next half-decade.
Union Station was designed by Alfred Fellheimer, who had been involved with the design of Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan and already had extensive experience with railroad structures. In 1923 he and Steward Wagner would form a new firm that went on to design some of the country’s most renowned Art Deco train stations, including Union Station in Erie, Pennsylvania, Central Terminal in Buffalo, New York, and Union Terminal in Cincinnati.
Approaching from Main Street, the main façade of buff brick with cream colored limestone trim features a blind portico with a two-story round arched window covered in an ironwork grill at its center. The pediment above has an inset clock face with a sculptural surround featuring carved stone scrolls and swags of fruits and flowers tied with delicate ribbons. An hourglass with wings tops the composition. Between the arched window and clock, a carved stone panel reads, “Union Station.” Flanking the window are two entrances, and above each is a stone medallion with an image of Mercury, the Roman god who was thought to protect travelers and commerce – also core to the success of the railroads.
Built into the hillside sloping down to the water, the depot is two stories on the east side and three stories on the west. The building is symmetrical in keeping with neoclassical architecture; pilasters divide the façade into rhythmic bays, and the first-floor windows have stone surrounds.
Walking in from Main Street, passengers entered a two-story waiting room with a ticket office between the two entryways and a plaster ceiling with octagonal coffers and rosette ornaments. Vermont marble was used on both the floor and walls, and wood trim was white oak. Nearby were a restaurant, restrooms, telegraph offices and other administrative areas, as well as a baggage and parcel check room and newsstand. One floor down, at track level, were working areas of the station, including the baggage, express and mail rooms, and offices and quarters for railroad workers.
Rather than descend to the lower level and exit to the platforms, there was a pedestrian bridge that connected to the waiting room and extended over the tracks from where passengers walked down sets of stairs to access each platform. Following the completion of the new Union Station, the old station was demolished in 1917.
Burlington Union Station and the waterfront remained a busy passenger and freight hub until the mid-20th century. By the 1940s, the once bustling waterfront was showing signs of decay, and over the next decade, shipping would start to shift toward the new interstates. The CVR ended passenger service in 1938, and a railroad strike, which severely affected the Rutland Railroad, led to the cessation of its passenger service in 1953. Two years later, the station was converted to office space by Green Mountain Power Corporation.
By the 1960s, the waterfront had become a decayed industrial zone, home to the station, rail yards, oil tanks, scrap metal yard, grainery, powerplant and derelict properties; the city controlled little of the waterfront and lacked connections to it as a whole. Various improvement plans were proposed over the next two decades, but none were realized until the city began a series of public interventions culminating in a community boathouse, bike path and waterfront park.
In 1982, Main Street Landing, a redevelopment firm, organized to commit to private development of the waterfront area, which today includes 250,000 square feet of space. The company is focused on using sustainable building methods, supporting the visual and performing arts and providing incubator space for start-up businesses. Its properties include Union Station, which now houses various businesses and organizations. In 1998, Main Street Landing completed a $1.5 million addition to Union Station on the west side facing the lake – the current Amtrak passenger waiting room occupies part of this space. The roof functions as a plaza.
On the skyline of Burlington Union Station, perhaps as a memento of its artistic tenants and its owner’s support of the arts in general, or perhaps as a reminder of the power of dreams, observers will notice several statues of flying monkeys leaping about its parapets. In the late 1980s, the two original statues had been on the roof of a local store called Emerald City of Oz Waterbed Co. After it closed, Main Street Landing purchased the statues and had them installed on the depot, with two additional figures added later.
This is not the only establishment in Burlington that makes whimsy part of its business. Ben & Jerry’s, an American cultural icon and ice cream company, had its beginnings in a renovated gas station in Burlington in 1978, beginning with a $12,000 investment. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, co-founders and lifelong friends, had taken a course on ice cream making from Pennsylvania State University’s Creamery, and went on to make history.
IBM established a facility for its Data Processing Division in nearby Essex Junction in 1957. The plant expanded over time to become IBM’s Microelectronics Division – producing microchips – and was the largest private employer in Vermont at its height, with 8,500 employees and more than 3.3 million square feet of building space. In 2014, IBM sold the plant to GlobalFoundries.
The IBM facility has long served as the hub of a growing network of technology consultants and software developers that fuels the regional and statewide economy. Burlington is also a center for regional healthcare and education, with the University of Vermont one of the city’s biggest employers.
The university was the first college founded in the state and was incorporated in 1791. Ira Allen is honored as its founder. Once its buildings had been constructed, the school graduated its first class in 1804. College buildings were occupied briefly by U.S. troops during the War of 1812.
The university was an early advocate of both women’s and African-Americans’ participation in higher education. In 1871, the university defied custom and admitted two women as students. Four years later, it was the first American university to admit women to full membership into Phi Beta Kappa, the country’s oldest collegiate academic honor society. Likewise, in 1877, it initiated the first African-American student into the society.
Tourism is also important to the city’s economic base. Burlington reigns as a popular all-season destination, attracting leaf peepers in the fall and winter sports enthusiasts in the colder months. In spring and summer, it offers boat rides, sailing and paddling on the lake, escapes into nature, numerous cycling paths and easy access to nearby agricultural areas and creameries for which the state is famous.
Anchoring the southern end of Waterfront Park near Union Station is ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. This non-profit organization works to engage families in scientific discovery, the biodiversity of the lake and care of natural resources through interactive exhibits. Visitors can view 70 species of fish, reptiles and amphibians.
From ECHO, one can walk to a performing arts space and gallery maintained by Main Street Landing. The latter highlights contemporary and non-traditional works from local artists. Five blocks to the east is Church Street, a pedestrianized zone filled with well known chains and unique local boutiques and restaurants.
During the academic year, the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum of Art showcases objects representing cultures from across the globe. About two-and-a-half miles north of downtown is the Ethan Allen homestead, where the patriot spent the last two years of his life until his 1789 death. It is now open as a museum in his memory and recounts his role in settling this part of Vermont, the Revolutionary War and leadership of the Green Mountain Boys.
The Ethan Allen Express is financed primarily through funds made available by the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the New York State Department of Transportation.
Station Building (with waiting room)
- ATM not available
- No payphones
- No Quik-Trak kiosks
- No Restrooms
- Unaccompanied child travel not allowed
- Vending machines
- No WiFi
- Boarding gates close 5 Min before train departure time
- Arrive at least 5 minutes prior to departure
- Amtrak Express shipping not available
- No checked baggage service
- No checked baggage storage
- Bike boxes not available
- No baggage carts
- Ski bags not available
- No bag storage
- Shipping boxes not available
- No baggage assistance
- Same-day parking is available for a fee
- Overnight parking is not available
- No payphones
- Accessible platform
- Accessible restrooms
- No accessible ticket office
- Accessible waiting room
- Accessible water fountain
- Same-day, accessible parking is available for a fee
- Overnight, accessible parking is not available
- No high platform
- No wheelchair
- Wheelchair lift available
Station Waiting Room Hours
|Mon||08:30 am - 10:30 am|
08:55 pm - 10:55 pm
|Tue||08:30 am - 10:30 am|
08:55 pm - 10:55 pm
|Wed||08:30 am - 10:30 am|
08:55 pm - 10:55 pm
|Thu||08:30 am - 10:30 am|
08:55 pm - 10:55 pm
|Fri||08:30 am - 10:30 am|
08:55 pm - 10:55 pm
|Sat||08:30 am - 10:30 am|
08:55 pm - 10:55 pm
|Sun||08:30 am - 10:30 am|
08:55 pm - 10:55 pm