The Vermont Central Railroad was chartered October 31, 1843, to build a line across the center of Vermont, running from Burlington on Lake Champlain east to Montpelier, and then southeast and south to Windsor on the Connecticut River. Initial plans had the main line running through Montpelier. However, due to the difficulty of building through the Williamstown Gulf, a narrow valley south of Barre, Vermont, and to land interests of Charles Paine in Northfield, Vermont, a course to the west was selected, leaving the state capital to be served by a short branch line. Construction began on December 15, 1845, and the first section, from White River Junction west to Bethel, opened on June 26, 1848. Subsequent sections opened to Roxbury on September 17, 1848, Northfield on October 10, 1848, Montpelier (including the branch from Montpelier Junction) on June 20, 1849, Middlesex on August 30, 1849, Waterbury on September 29, 1849, and the full distance to Burlington on December 31, 1849. The part along the Connecticut River from Hartford south to Windsor opened on February 13, 1849.
The Vermont and Canada Railroad was chartered October 31, 1845, as a continuation of the Vermont Central north and west to Rouses Point, New York, splitting at Essex Junction, Vermont (east of Burlington) and running north via St. Albans and Swanton. A branch split at Swanton and ran north to the border with Canada. On August 24, 1849, the Vermont Central leased the Vermont and Canada, and it was completed in 1851. However, the Vermont Central defaulted on rental payments, and the Vermont and Canada returned to its original owners on June 28, 1852. The lease was later reinstated.
The Montreal and Vermont Junction Railway was chartered in 1860 and opened in the 1860s, extending the Vermont and Canada's branch from the international border north to St. Johns, Quebec, on the Grand Trunk Railway's Montreal and Champlain Railroad. From opening it was operated as an extension of the Vermont and Canada.
The Sullivan County Railroad continued south from Windsor to Bellows Falls, Vermont, where it met the Cheshire Railroad towards Boston. At first it was operated by the Central Vermont, but later the Boston and Maine Railroad gained control of it, giving trackage rights to the Central Vermont. Similarly, the Vermont Valley Railroad, running south from Bellows Falls to the New London Northern Railroad in Brattleboro, was originally owned by the Rutland Railroad and later by the B&M.
In 1867 the Vermont Central leased the Stanstead, Shefford and Chambly Railroad, running east from St. Johns to Waterloo, Quebec. The Waterloo and Magog Railway was later built as an extension from Waterloo south to Magog.
The Vermont Central leased the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad on March 1, 1870, extending its line from Rouses Point west to Ogdensburg, New York. On January 1, 1871, the Vermont Central leased the Rutland Railroad system, giving it routes from Burlington to Bellows Falls, Vermont, and Chatham, New York. The New London Northern Railroad was leased on December 1, 1871. On November 2, 1872, the name was changed to the Central Vermont Railroad.
Though chartered as an independent entity in 1867, control of the Missisquoi Railroad was gained shortly thereafter, and it was formally leased in July 1873, providing a branch from St. Albans northeast to Richford, Vermont. It was operated until November 15, 1877, when the Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad took it over. The company was reorganized in December 1886 as the Missisquoi Valley Railway, and was once again leased to the Central Vermont.
The Montpelier and White River Railroad opened in 1876 and was leased to the Central Vermont, running from the end of the Montpelier Branch south to and beyond Barre.
The Consolidated Railway was formed on June 30, 1884, to consolidate the Central Vermont and Vermont and Canada and to settle litigation between the two companies. A new Central Vermont Railroad was formed on July 1, 1884 to take over from the Consolidated Railway