To steal a line from the pages of this paper, there is “a scheme on foot that ought to interest all the public spirited people of this village.”
On Monday the Vermont Land Trust publicly announced ongoing efforts to purchase Observatory Knob in the heart of St. Johnsbury and preserve the land for public use.
Observatory Knob is the highest point in the village. The land is used by local camps, as a training site for the St. Johnsbury Academy cross-country team, for hiking and snowshoeing, and more, but for many in town it feels like a hidden gem with informal trails on the land that the owners have allowed the community to use. But The Knob, which is visible from all over town, I-91, Route 5 and beyond, hasn’t always been out of the public’s view.
The original “scheme” documented in The Caledonian-Record dates back over 130 years, when The Caledonian reported on Charles A. Hastings’ request that folks in town donate their time to help construct an observatory platform atop the hill, hence the location’s adopted name.
“The idea is to fix a place where people can go to get a good view of the mountains and surrounding country, and the plan is for all those who are interested to meet at Mr. Hasting’s house on Spring Street at 1 o’clock next Saturday afternoon armed with a hammer, saw or paint brush and lend a hand toward the erection of the observatory,” reported the Sept. 15, 1887, edition that described a 22 foot tall observation deck with a roof and flag pole. “The afternoon will be sufficient to complete the job. This spot is less than a mile from the village, easy of access and will be sure to furnish a special attraction to summer visitors in St. Johnsbury. The view is one of the finest to be seen in Northern Vermont. Mt. Washington and the entire Presidential and Franconia ranges are visible as well as Moosilauke to the south and the Burke mountains and Willoughby to the north.”
Vermont Land Trust is now hoping that the spectacular views and easy access that attracted St. Johnsbury residents to The Knob 137 years ago will inspire the same sense of civic engagement to support the fundraising to preserve this cherished location.
The latest scheme is to acquire and protect a 118-acre parcel that runs from Mt. Pleasant Street up the hill to The Knob. According to VLT, the cost to buy, conserve, and establish a modest management fund for Observatory Knob is $275,000 of which over $260,000 has already been committed with a recent $200,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, $20,000 from the town of St. Johnsbury, $10,000 from Passumpsic Bank and additional private donations. The drive has $12,000 to go.
The bulk of the property would be purchased from a family trust that owns about 114 acres along Mt. Pleasant Street. David Brown, who owns adjacent property on the knob and has allowed trails on his property for years would donate 5 acres of his lot to ensure the apex and some current and future trails would be preserved.
If the effort is successful, the Town of St. Johnsbury will own and manage the land as a community recreational and educational asset, ensuring access for future generations, states VLT.
St. Johnsbury Town Manager Chad Whitehead said, “The Town of St. Johnsbury is super excited to see this project funded by VHCB, and thankful for the work done by the Vermont Land Trust. This will not only ensure the preservation of this historic site, but will also provide an outdoor recreational asset immediately adjacent to St. Johnsbury’s Downtown.”
“I have been an adjacent property owner for almost 50 years; for the last 13 years I have permitted hikers to use the trails on my land to access the Knob. We strive to find ways to make St. Johnsbury a wonderful place to live, and to make St. Johnsbury attractive to newcomers. The effort to save Observatory Knob can provide our town a wonderful recreational resource,” said Brown. A little over a decade ago Brown installed a bench and mailbox for logbooks that recent visitors to the knob will recognize.
The original observatory tower stood for a little over a decade before high winds knocked it down, a second tower was constructed and lasted until 1914 when weather took it again, reported St. Johnsbury History and Heritage Center Director Peggy Pearl in a column from 2012.
The effort has received support the town Recreation Department and Chamber of Commerce, St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center, NEK Council on Aging, Passumpsic Valley Land Trust, Caledonia Trail Collaborative, and from numerous residents.
Tracy Zschau, Vice President for Conservation at VLT, said while the land would be under conservation restrictions and land and forest management plans, it would allow for development that furthered the stated goals of recreational and educational purposes.
Zschau said a new observation tower could even be a possibility in the future with the right plan.
Zschau commended the local partners and donors thus far and the Robert Tetley Trust which owns the land and has helped make this land acquisition a possibility by giving VLT the time necessary to line up funding and accepting a below assessed value in the pending sale.
“They have been very gracious in working with us,” said Zschau.
Whitehead said there would be public input sessions in the future about the best use and development of the land should the remaining fundraising be successful.
To donate to the effort visit vlt.org/knob.