St. Johnsbury History & Heritage: Toboggan Chute

A toboggan run in St. Johnsbury entertains townspeople in winter.

Welcome to this month’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.

Toboggan Chute

Before this winter leaves us, we will look into tobogganing and the toboggan chute that existed at the head of the Plain (now Main Street). Claire Dunne Johnson in her book, I See by the Paper… ,writes that the idea of a toboggan club being formed in St. Johnsbury was first mentioned in the Caledonian in 1885. It was noted that Burlington already had a chute and that several parties had acquired one of “these new fangled vehicles.” A lack of funding would put this idea on hold until January of 1887. Where to put this chute was the first hurdle, with one idea of placement in back of the courthouse, in the direction of Dr. Bullard’s octagon house. Another idea was on the Academy grounds called the Fairbanks Meadow, but the Carpenter lot at the head of Main Street won out. The chute would run in back of the houses there and towards the school common.

Three hundred dollars was raised and the chute was constructed by A.L. Bragg during the week of January 20th. The chute was 40 feet high and 160 feet long and built so it could be taken down at the end of the season and put back up the following season. On January 27th, The Caledonia Toboggan Club announced that the chute would be open daily from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 to 10:00 p.m., except Wednesday and maybe Sunday. Three dollars was the price of a season ticket and that admitted one man and a lady; two dollars allowed a single male a season ticket and a dollar and a half admitted a lady or child under fifteen. A single admission was twenty – five cents and no one under the age of twelve was admitted without a parent or guardian. In celebration of the opening of the chute, the Academy had a “half-holiday” the first Monday for sliding and a fine time was had by Principal Putney and other teachers who joined in as well.

Saxton’s River was home of a new company called the Vt. Toboggan Suit Co., so fashion even entered in for some on the chute. The first winter was a success. Despite some of the Carpenter heirs wanting the chute down permanently, it was put back for another season. By February of 1888, however, enthusiasm had waned and the chute was only open three days a week. In April, it was removed from that location. James Ritchie, a member of the YMCA, read this original poem at the Y banquet.

Tobogganing

Toboggan slides as we all know,

Are only built when there’s plenty of snow.

Some are built by kind nature’s hand,

But ours is built on Carpenter’s land.

It starts erected forty feet high,

Down which the tobogganists swiftly fly,

Some with suits of blue and gold,

Others whose suits are rusty and old.

To slide on a toboggan, Oh! What fun,

Come let’s get on, both old and young,

And down the chute at lightning speed -

Oh! To slide on a toboggan is fun indeed.

On behalf of the members I wish to extend

A cordial invitation for all to attend;

It’s the latest popular amusement of the day

And surely ought to be popular with the Y.M.C.A.

The sport of tobogganing came up again in the Vermont magazine of 1922 with an article about winter sports in St. Johnsbury written by Dr. Dale Atwood. The St. Johnsbury Winter Sports Club revitalized the toboggan chute using a hillside along an unused road to Observatory Knob (off from Harvey Street). This was quite the ride and if mastered, you ended up on the golf links (Overclyffe) – a half mile away. The drawback was the hill faced south and the sun would sometimes make it too sticky! The final track was established behind the clubhouse at the golf links. In Atwood’s article he says, “There is nowhere a more delightful chorus of hysterical shrieks than the vocal ensemble of humans coasting in sardine fashion on a fast toboggan chute.” There are just some things you really want to travel back in time and see for yourself and that chute would be one for me!

About the Center

The St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center is located at 421 Summer St. Our winter hours are Monday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. thanks to a wonderful staff of volunteers. Please stop in and check out what is happening in this election year as far as an exhibit in progress goes!

This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home and barn a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. Browse our web site at www.stjhistory.org and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer St., St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802-424-1090.

Peggy Pearl is the executive director of the St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center.

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