Mount Tom Railroad, Holyoke, Mass

The trolley Rowland Thomas on the Mount Tom Railroad in Holyoke, around 1905-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

The early 20th century was the heyday of electric trolleys in the United States. In the years prior to widespread car ownership, most cities and even many small towns were served by networks of trolley lines that were generally run by private companies. In order to maximize profits, these companies often built picnic groves, amusement parks, and other recreational facilities along their lines. Known as trolley parks, these generated revenue not only through admission fees, but also through increased trolley ridership on otherwise-slow weekends.

Here in Holyoke, the Holyoke Street Railway Company opened Mountain Park in the 1890s. It began as a small park at the base of Mount Tom, but it soon added amenities such as a dance hall, a restaurant, a roller coaster, and a carousel. Most significantly, though, the company also built a summit house at the top of the 1,200-foot mountain, allowing visitors to enjoy the expansive views of the Connecticut River valley. Mountaintop resorts were popular in the northeast during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and there were already several in the vicinity of Mount Tom, including the Prospect House on Mount Holyoke and the Eyrie House on Mount Nonotuck. However, unlike those establishments, the Summit House here on Mount Tom was not a hotel. Instead, it catered to day visitors, with a restaurant, a stage, and an observatory equipped with telescopes.

To bring visitors to the Summit House, the company constructed the Mount Tom Railroad, a nearly mile-long funicular railway that rose 700 feet in elevation from Mountain Park to a station just below the summit. It had an average grade of 14 percent, with a maximum grade of 21.5 percent at its steepest section. The lower part of the route was straight, as shown here in this view looking down from the midpoint, although there was a gentle curve right before the summit station. Like most funiculars, it consisted of two cars that were connected by a cable. As one car descended, it pulled the other car up the mountain, allowing gravity to do most of the work. The cable itself was unpowered, but the cars each had their own electric motors powered by overhead wires, in order to compensate for weight differences and energy lost to friction.

The two cars were named the Rowland Thomas and Elizur Holyoke, in honor of the early colonists who became the namesakes of Mount Tom and Mount Holyoke. Each car was 36 feet long, 9 feet wide, and could seat 84 passengers. They were connected to each other by a 5,050-foot-long, 1.25-inch steel cable, which passed over a large sheave at the summit. This sheave was mounted on an A-frame that was, in turn, bolted securely into the rock. In addition, the cars maintained constant telephone connection with each other, by way of telephone lines that ran alongside the tracks just above ground level, as shown in the lower left corner of the first photo. The cars connected to these by way of brush-like shoes that ran along the top of the wires as the car moved.

Because of the steep grade of the railroad, the cars’ braking ability was of critical importance, as an uncontrolled descent would likely have had deadly consequences. To prevent this, the cars had several independent braking systems. Each car was equipped with standard trolley brakes, but the cable itself was controlled by a centrifugal governor at the summit that automatically slowed the cable once it began moving faster than 1,400 feet per minute, or about 16 miles per hour. This second feature obviously only worked if the cable remained intact, but there was yet another braking system in the event of a catastrophic failure of the cable. As shown in the first photo, a third rail ran inside the tracks next to the cable. In an emergency, the motorman could activate a lever that would cause the car to clamp on to this rail. This could also be done automatically, by a governor that was set to engage the rail once the car exceeded 1,500 feet per minute, or 17 miles per hour.

In any funicular railway, one of the other challenges is determining how the two cars will pass each other. The simplest solution is to have two parallel tracks, with each car operating on its own track at all times. However, this requires a wider right-of-way, along with significantly more materials than a single-track railway. One alternative is a three-rail funicular, in which each car has its own outside rail and shares the middle one, diverging only at a short passing section. The other option is to have one track for both cars, with a turnout at the halfway point. This requires the least amount of land and materials, but it requires a complex track arrangement at the turnout to ensure each car takes the correct path and safely crosses over the cable.

Here on Mount Tom, the railroad engineers chose the third option, as shown in the first photo. The two cars met at a passing loop, which is visible in the lower center of the photo. At first glance it looks similar to a standard railroad switch, but the key difference is that it has no moving parts. Instead, the cars and tracks are designed so that each one can only take one path, which remains the same regardless of whether the car is heading up or down the mountain. As such, the Rowland Thomas always took the tracks on the north side (the left side when viewed from this direction), while the Elizur Holyoke always took the south side.

To achieve this, the two cars had different wheel arrangements. The wheels on one side of the car had a wider tread than on the other side, which caused them to be guided along deflector rails onto the correct track. For the Rowland Thomas, these wide-tread wheels were on the left side when it was headed uphill, and for the Elizur Holyoke they were on the right side. On the same side as these wheels, each car also had an extra set of wheels that were slightly raised above the others and hung out about 15 inches from the main wheels. Because the turnout required gaps in the main rail to allow the cable to pass through, there was a short section of rail next to these gaps. As the main wheels approached the gap, the auxiliary wheels would roll along this additional rail, preventing what would otherwise be a derailment.

Work on the railroad began in March 1897, and it was completed in time for the summer season, opening on May 25. It operated throughout the summer and into the fall foliage season, before closing for the winter at the end of October. Round trip fare was 25 cents, and included the trolley ride along with use of the Summit House. The trolleys were scheduled to run twice an hour, with extra trips as needed. However, by September this schedule was insufficient to keep up with demand, as indicated by a Springfield Republican article that criticized the railroad for dangerously overcrowded trolleys.

During the early years of the railroad, perhaps its most distinguished passenger was President William McKinley, who visited Mount Tom along with his wife Ida on June 19, 1899. A number of onlookers gathered at the lower station to catch a glimpse of the president, who sat in the front seat of the Elizur Holyoke trolley for the ride up the mountain. At the summit, he and Ida were likewise greeted by a large crowd, and they spent about an hour there, where they ate a light lunch at Summit House before heading back down the mountain.

As it turned out, the McKinleys would be the first of at least two presidential couples who would travel up the Mount Tom Railroad. About five years later, a young Calvin Coolidge and Grace Goodhue visited the mountain on a date. At the time, Calvin was a lawyer in Northampton and Grace was a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf. While at the Summit House, he purchased a souvenir plaque of the mountain, which became the first gift he ever gave her. They subsequently married in 1905, and he went on to become governor, vice president, and then ultimately president in 1923.

In the meantime, the original Summit House only lasted for a few years before being destroyed by a fire in 1900. Its replacement opened the following year, but this too would eventually burn, in 1929. By contrast, the Mount Tom Railroad itself appears to have avoided any major incidents throughout its history. However, there were occasional breakdowns that forced passengers to walk down the mountain, and in at least one instance causing a number of people to spend the night in makeshift accommodations at the Summit House.

On July 24, 1928, at around 9:15pm, the Rowland Thomas had to stop about 150 feet from the upper station because of a broken journal on one of its axles. This likewise caused the Elizur Holyoke to stop the same distance from the lower station. The passengers on the Elizur Holyoke were able to easily return to the station, but about 50 people were  stranded at the summit. Many chose to walk down the mountain in the dark, guided by railroad employees with lanterns, but 22 remained at the Summit House overnight. Some stayed up all night, playing bridge and dancing, and most descended the mountain after sunrise, although four guests stayed at the summit until railroad service was restored later in the day. A similar incident occurred less than a month later, when a spread rail stopped the trolleys at about 9:00pm. This time, 35 people walked down in the dark, but it does not appear that anyone spent the night at the summit.

After the 1929 fire at the Summit House, the railroad quickly constructed a temporary replacement at the summit. It had intended to then build a more permanent structure, but by the early 1930s the mountain faced declining numbers of visitors. Part of this was because of the Great Depression, which began just months after the fire here. Another factor was increased car ownership among the middle class, which meant that recreational activities were no longer limited to places that people could access by trolley.

At the base of the mountain, Mountain Park would remain a popular amusement park for decades, but both the Mount Tom Railroad and the Summit House closed in the late 1930s. The temporary Summit House was dismantled for scrap metal in 1938, and around the same time the railroad tracks were taken up and removed. The rails and other metal components were presumably reused or scrapped, but the wooden ties were discarded in piles alongside the right-of-way. More than 80 years later, many of these ties are still in remarkably good condition, and a few are visible in the lower right corner of the second photo.

The railroad ultimately sold the summit area and the right-of-way to the WHYN radio station, which constructed radio towers and transmitter buildings on the site of the old Summit House. The old railroad grade was paved over, and it became an access road for the radio station. As a result, the present-day scene looks very different from the first photo, although there are still a few remnants of the old railroad, including the ties, some discarded spikes, and metal support braces for the old utility poles that once supported the electrified trolley wire.

Pelham Town Hall, Pelham, Mass

Pelham Town Hall, at the corner of Amherst Road and Route 202 in Pelham, on December 20, 1932. Image taken by Stuart D. Pike, Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission.

The scene in 2015:

The old town hall here in Pelham was built around 1743, the same year that Pelham was incorporated as a town, and it is said to be the oldest continuously-used town hall in the country. Built long before the idea of separation of church and state, it was also used as the town church for nearly a century, making it one of the oldest surviving church buildings in the state.

Pelham was settled 1739 by Scotch-Irish colonists. Most had been part of a group of immigrants who arrived in Boston in 1718, but they faced discrimination in the largely English Puritan town, and many subsequently moved to Worcester. However, they received similar treatment there, and  by the 1730s they began looking west to what was, at the time, the frontier areas of Massachusetts.

In 1738, a group of 34 settlers purchased the land that would become Pelham from Colonel John Stoddard of Northampton. They then laid out house lots and roads, and within a few years they began construction of this meeting house here at the crest of a hill near the geographic center of town. The town hired brothers Thomas and John Dick to build it, and it may have been used for church services as early as 1741, although the entire structure was not completed until 1746.

Pelham was incorporated as a town in January 1743, and the first town meeting occurred here in this building a few months later on April 19. Among the items of business was the selection of town officials. These included five selectmen, a town clerk, and a treasurer, along with a variety of other offices, including two fence viewers, two hog reeves, and two “Officers to Prosecute ye Law Respecting Killing Deer,” which was apparently an 18th century equivalent of a game warden.

With the town government established, the next step was for the town to choose a pastor. During its first few years, the church did not have its own pastor. Instead, the weekly preaching was handled by “suppliers,” who were generally short-term itinerant pastors. One such supplier was Robert Abercrombie, a Presbyterian pastor who began preaching here as early as 1742. A native of Scotland, Abercrombie graduated from the University of Edinburgh and subsequently came to the American colonies, arriving in 1740.

In May 1743, the town selected three residents who would be responsible for consulting with other local clergymen and choosing an appropriate person to become the town’s full-time pastor. This committee subsequently recommended Abercrombie, and four other pastors submitted a letter endorsing him, including Jonathan Edwards, the prominent theologian and pastor of the church in Northampton. The letter read:

Whereas we ye Subscribers have had some considerable acquaintance with Rev. Mr. Abercrombie, Preacher of ye Gospel, and what we know of his qualification by Information and personal acquaintance, we advise ye people of God in Pelham to Invite ye sd Mr. Robert Abercrombie to settle in ye Work of ye Ministrie among them as their Pastor.

This letter was dated August 30, 1743, but the next day a group of 22 residents submitted a letter of their own, stating that they “Do protest against ye proceedings of Part of ye inhabitants of ye sd town in their calling of ye Rev. Robert Abercrombie to be their minister in sd town.” The specific reasons for their objections are unclear, but they succeeded in postponing a final decision until the following March. By that point, the opposition evidently relented, and the town extended a formal call to Abercrombie, which he accepted on March 5, 1744.

Abercrombie was ordained here on August 30, 1744, with Jonathan Edwards delivering the sermon for the occasion. Edwards is often remembered for his vivid metaphors describing sin and damnation that he employed in his famous 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but his message here in Pelham lacked the same level of intense imagery. He did, however, twice warn his audience here to “fly from the wrath to come,” a phrase that he had used in the closing part of his 1741 sermon.

Edwards’s sermon for Abercrombie’s ordination was titled “The True Excellency of a Minister of the Gospel,” based on John 5:35, “He was a burning and a shining Light.—” He used this verse to explain the role of pastors, and how they are to be a shining light to their congregation, just as John the Baptist was in this particular verse. The printed version of the sermon is nearly 9,000 words long, and likely would have taken around an hour to deliver. The first three-quarters of the sermon focused on the biblical responsibilities of pastors in general, including a grim warning about how pastors who are unfaithful in their positions will suffer torment in hell that is second only to the punishment of demons themselves.

Near the end of his sermon, Edwards turned his attention to Abercrombie. To the new pastor he declared:

You have now, dear Sir, heard something of the Nature and Design of that Office to which you are this Day, in the Name of Christ, to be solemnly set apart. You are therein called to be a Light to the Souls of Men, a Lamp in God’s Temple, and a Star in the spiritual World. And you have heard wherein, in Christ’s Esteem, consists the proper Excellency of one in that Office, and how in this a Minister of the Gospel becomes like his glorious Master, and glorifies him, and is likely to be the Instrument of the Salvation and Happiness of the Souls of Men, and to receive a glorious Reward from the Hands of God. . . .

God in his Providence has brought you far from your native Land, and from your Friends and Acquaintance there; but you will have Reason notwithstanding to acknowledge the good Hand of his Providence towards you, if he is pleased to make you a burning and shining Light in this Part of his Church, and by the Influence of your Light and Heat (or rather by his divine Influence, with your Ministry) to cause this Wilderness to bud and blossom as the Rose, and give it the Excellency of Carmel and Sharon, and to cause you to shine in the midst of this People with warm and lightsome, quickening and comforting Beams, causing their Souls to flourish, rejoice and bear Fruit, like a Garden of pleasant Fruits, under the Beams of the Sun.

Edwards then concluded by speaking directly to the people of Pelham, encouraging them to pray for and support Abercrombie:

If it be, as you have heard, the proper Excellency of a Minister of the Gospel to be a burning and a shining Light, then it is your Duty earnestly to pray for your Minister that he may be filled with Divine Light, and with the Power of the Holy Ghost, to make him so. For herein you will but pray for the greatest Benefit to your selves; for if your Minister burns and shines, it will be for your Light and Life. That which has been spoken of, as it is the chief Excellency of a Minister, for it renders a Minister the greatest Blessing of any Thing in the World that ever God bestows on a People.

Likely aware of the controversy that had divided the congregation a year earlier, Edwards then warned the residents of Pelham to not act in opposition to Abercrombie, and even implied that such people did so because the light of his teachings exposed their own personal sins:

[T]ake Heed that instead of this you don’t take a Course to obscure and extinguish the Light that would shine among you, & to smother and suppress the Flame, by casting Dirt upon it; by necessitating your Minister by your Penuriousness towards him, to be envolved in worldly Care; and by discouraging his Heart by Disrespect and Unkindness. And particularly when your Minister shews himself to be a burning Light by burning with a proper Zeal against any Wickedness that may be breaking out amongst his People & manifests it by bearing a proper Testimony against it in the Preaching of the Word or by a faithful Exercise of the Discipline of God’s House, instead of taking it thankfully, and yielding to him in it, as you ought, don’t raise another Fire of a contrary Nature, against it, viz. the Fire of your unhallowed Passions, reflecting upon and reproaching him for his Faithfulness.

He then ended the sermon on a more positive note, encouraging his hearers to:

[T]hus walk as the Children of the Light, and follow your Minister wherein he is a Follower of Christ, i. e. wherein he is as a burning and shining Light. If you continue so to do, your Path will be the Path of the Just, which shines more and more to the perfect Day, and the End of your Course shall be in those blissful Regions of everlasting Light above, where you shall shine forth with your Minister, and both with Christ, as the Sun, in the Kingdom of the Heavenly Father.

As it turned out, both Edwards and Abercrombie would go on to have turbulent relationships with their respective congregations. Edwards was dismissed from the Northampton church in 1751, and Abercrombie faced similar challenges here in Pelham. For Abercrombie, the issue appears to have centered around his refusal to baptize the infant children of parents who were living in unrepentant sin. The Presbytery in Boston ultimately suspended him in 1754 and dismissed him a year later, but he and his supporters here in Pelham did not go down without a fight. Contesting the authority of the Presbytery to dismiss him, Abercrombie refused to yield his position, and he had to be physically barred from entering the meeting house to preach.

Abercrombie would remain in Pelham for the rest of his life, farming his land while occasionally supplying the pulpit for churches in other towns. He also sued the town for pay that he believed he was entitled to, and the case dragged on for four years until the courts ruled in his favor in 1759. In the meantime, the divisions within the church prevented the town from selecting his successor for nearly a decade, so the church went through a series of “suppliers” until 1763, when a Hampshire County grand jury indicted the down for its negligence in failing to obtain a pastor.

Soon after the grand jury issued this indictment, the town selected Richard Crouch Graham, a 24-year-old Yale graduate who had evidently been one of the suppliers in the early 1760s. He was ordained as the second pastor of the church, with a salary of 60 pounds. This would later be raised to 80 pounds per year, but Graham nonetheless fell deep into debt. According to a 19th century Yale biographical sketch, “his mind gave way,” presumably under the pressure from his financial situation, and he died in 1771, a few weeks before he would have turned 32, leaving a widow and four young children.

As a result, the town was again without a pastor. However, this time it only took four years before Nathaniel Merrill was ordained as the town’s third pastor in 1775, a few months after the start of the American Revolution. While church-related issues had long been divisive here in Pelham, the question of American independence prompted little controversy, with 19th century historian Josiah Gilbert Holland later describing how, “[t]he people of Pelham were on the right side in the Revolution.” Most significantly, this included a vote at a town meeting here on June 20, 1776, when the town’s residents declared “by Unanimous Vote that we are willing to Come Under Independency from under the yoke of the King of Great Brittain.” Exactly two weeks later, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia likewise unanimously approved independence from Britain.

No battles were ever fought anywhere near Pelham during the Revolution, but the war nonetheless came at an economic cost to the town’s residents. Among other problems, the war led to ruinous inflation, causing Merrill’s salary to increase from 80 pounds in 1775 to 2,500 pounds in 1780. However, despite the town steadily raising his salary, Merrill was apparently unwilling to continue to be paid in rapidly-depreciating currency, and he left his position in 1781. That same year, Daniel Shays made his first appearance on the lists of town officers, as one of four men on the town’s Committee of Safety. He would serve in that capacity and in several other town positions over the next few years, before his name came to epitomize the economic plight of rural Massachusetts farmers.

In the meantime, Merrill’s departure meant that the town’s pulpit was once again vacant, so the town again resorted to short-term suppliers. This would, in turn, lead to the most bizarre incident in the long history of this building, involving one of early America’s most notorious con artists. It all began on a spring day in 1784, when a 19-year-old, who went by the name of Reverend Davis, arrived in town with a letter from Moses Baldwin, pastor of the church in Palmer. The letter recommended Davis as a suitable supply pastor, so the town invited him to preach for the next four weeks, at a rate of five dollars per week, plus board and horsekeeping.

As the people of Pelham would later discover, though, Davis was not his real name, nor was he an ordained minister. Rather, he was Stephen Burroughs, a Dartmouth dropout whose father, Eden Burroughs, was a pastor in Hanover, New Hampshire. Prior to arriving in Pelham, he had spent time as a “doctor” on a privateering vessel out of Newburyport. He had then returned to New Hampshire, where he found work as a schoolteacher. However, he ended up in trouble for stealing a beehive, and for his relationship with a “widow” whose husband turned out to be alive and well. Burroughs subsequently left New Hampshire, but not before making off with ten of his father’s written sermons. The doctor-turned-teacher had thus reinvented himself as a pastor, and he preached several sermons here in western Massachusetts before receiving the letter of recommendation from the credulous Reverend Baldwin.

Here in Pelham, the young “Davis” proved himself to be a capable preacher, but some of the parishioners began to become suspicious of him, especially after someone noticed that he was preaching from notes that were written on old, yellowed paper. Believing that he was merely recycling someone else’s sermons, one of the leaders in the church asked him on the following Sunday to preach from a portion of a specific verse, Joshua 9:5, which reads “And old shoes and clouted upon their feet.” However, despite the obscurity of this verse, and his minimal time to prepare, Burroughs delivered a strong sermon. He spoke of shoes as a metaphor of one’s spiritual journey through the world, and how old shoes represented old sins. In particular, he railed against the sin of jealousy, evidently targeting those who had doubted him.

His sermon was convincing, and the church responded by offering to let him continue preaching here for four more months. Burroughs remained here until September 1784, and he may have been able to continue the charade much longer if not for the arrival of Joseph Huntingdon, Burroughs’s friend from Dartmouth. He stayed in Pelham for a few days, and accidentally called Burroughs by his real name several times. Then, while Burroughs was accompanying him for part of his journey home to Coventry, they saw Justus Forward, pastor of the church in the neighboring town of Belchertown. Forward had, as his guest, another clergyman who recognized Burroughs and addressed him by his real name, despite Burroughs’s insistence that his name was Davis.

Realizing at this point that his identity had been exposed, Burroughs returned to Pelham, packed his belongings, and left town in the middle of the night, taking with him a five dollar advance that he had received for the upcoming week’s sermon. The town awoke the next morning to discover their pastor gone, and word soon arrived from Belchertown that he had been an impostor.

Pursued by angry townsmen, Burroughs made his way to Rutland, Massachusetts, where he had an acquaintance. However, the Pelham men soon tracked him down, leading to a confrontation in Rutland that left one of his pursuers with a broken arm and another with a head injury. Burroughs then armed himself with a scythe snath, entered a barn, and climbed to the top of the hayloft. In the meantime, a crowd of Rutland residents gathered along with the Pelham men, and the two groups began arguing over Burroughs. Despite the outrage of the Pelhamites, the Rutlanders seemed less concerned about the accusations, arguing that Burroughs had upheld his agreement to preach for the town, even if it was under an assumed name. Regarding the five dollars that he had received for the upcoming Sunday, they proposed that Burroughs use it to treat everyone to drinks at a nearby tavern.

This compromise proved acceptable to all parties, and Burroughs’s parishioners-turned-pursuers became his drinking companions for the evening, at least until the arrival of the man who had suffered the head injury. He rekindled the hostility toward Burroughs, and the Pelhamites decided to take him prisoner. However, with the aid of sympathetic Rutlanders, he was able to escape from the tavern.

As it turned out, Burroughs’s five months in Pelham was only the beginning of what would become a long and varied career as a con artist. He was subsequently able to talk his way into another four-week preaching stint, this time in Attleboro, Massachusetts, but he soon gave up preaching and turned his attention to the more potentially-lucrative world of counterfeiting.

With the help of one of his few remaining allies in Pelham, he made the acquaintance of Glazier Wheeler, a notorious counterfeiter. Wheeler sold his counterfeit dollars at a rate of three for a dollar, and Burroughs acquired 20 of them, which be brought to Springfield and used to purchase supplies at an apothecary, including sulfuric acid and arsenic, which were evidently needed for producing more counterfeits. However, the fraud was quickly detected, and he was arrested shortly after leaving the shop. Following his conviction, he was sentenced to stand in the pillory for an hour, and then serve three years of hard labor in jail. Within a few months, Burroughs attempted to escape by setting fire to the jail, and he was subsequently transferred to the state prison on Castle Island in Boston. He managed to escape the island with several other inmates, but they were subsequently recaptured.

Burroughs was later released, but his time in prison did little to reform his ways. He became a teacher in Charlton, Massachusetts, but soon found himself back in jail after attempting to seduce several of his students. After this incident, he left Massachusetts and eventually made his way to Georgia, where he was involved in land speculation schemes. He ended up losing money in this venture, and he later headed back north, living in northern Vermont and then in Canada. In 1798 Burroughs published a memoir detailing his life up to that point, and by the early 19th century he had resumed his counterfeiting career, this time forging American banknotes from the relative safety of Canada. However, at some point he settled down, married, raised a family, converted to Catholicism, and evidently renounced his former way of living. He remained in Canada for the rest of his life, and died in Trois-Rivières, Quebec in 1840.

Meanwhile, back here in Pelham the elderly Robert Abercrombie was still living in town during Burroughs’s five months in the pulpit. He was likely well aware of the subsequent controversy, and it is easy to imagine that he may have found some satisfaction in knowing that the town that had spurned him decades earlier had been duped by a teenaged con artist. Abercrombie would remain here in Pelham for the rest of his life, until his death in 1786, when he was in his mid-70s.

In a way, Abercrombie’s death marked the end of an era for the town, and it occurred right at the beginning of what would become the greatest crisis that the town would face in the 18th century. By the mid-1780s, America had won its independence from Britain, but the states were saddled with wartime debt. With Congress lacking the authority to levy taxes, the national government had resorted to issuing paper money to fund the war. The states issued their own paper money as well, and by the early 1780s these notes circulated far below par. Among those who had received payments in paper money were the soldiers in the Continental Army, who now returned home after the war with little to show for it except for paper money that the government might never redeem for face value.

Here in Massachusetts, the state was deeply in debt. In response, the state government, which was largely controlled by wealthy eastern merchants, raised taxes that had to be repaid in hard money, not in paper currency. This included a poll tax, which was levied on all males aged 16 and older, regardless of income. The other main tax was on property, which placed a greater burden on rural landowning farmers than on the merchants, whose wealth generally consisted of stock investments rather than land. In total, these taxes amounted to about a third of a typical Massachusetts farmer’s income, payable in scarce hard money.

Making matters worse for these farmers, they also faced new demands from their creditors. In an economy with little gold or silver in circulation, they had often paid merchants with goods from their farms. However, like the state government, the merchants were also now demanding payment in hard money. For those who were in debt to these merchants, it was nearly impossible for them to repay their debts while also meeting their heavy tax burden, resulting in many farmers losing their land to foreclosure.

Here in Pelham, life was difficult for the town’s farmers even during good times. Few of the farmers here were impoverished, but few were particularly wealthy either. Farms were generally small, and the town’s hilly, rocky terrain was hardly ideal for agriculture. This, combined with the town’s history of skepticism toward authority figures—whether it was a local pastor or a British monarch—helped contribute to the small town becoming an epicenter in a rebellion that would soon reverberate throughout the country and influence the design of the national government.

Daniel Shays, for whom this rebellion would subsequently be named, was one of these struggling Pelham farmers, although he lived in a few different places before coming to the town. Born in Hopkinton in 1747, he subsequently moved west to Brookfield, then to Shutesbury, and then to Pelham. He served throughout the American Revolution, eventually becoming a captain in the Continental Army. He even received a ceremonial sword from the Marquis de Lafayette, although he later had to sell it because of his postwar financial struggles.

Although he was a newcomer in a small town of close-knit families, Shays had no trouble finding like-minded residents with whom he could share his frustrations. About a half mile from his farm was the tavern of William Conkey Sr., and this became a gathering place for him and his rebels, where they could hold drills outside the building and discuss strategy over drinks inside. Conkey was one of the supporters of the rebellion, as was the rest of his family. Other allies of Shays included several of Robert Abercrombie’s sons, and even Ebenezer Gray, the town treasurer and church deacon who had fallen for Stephen Burroughs’s fraudulent claims several years earlier.

At the start of Shays’ Rebellion, the primary objective was to prevent courts from meeting, which would in turn prevent the courts from foreclosing on any property. To that end, the first major action in Shays’ Rebellion occurred in Northampton on August 29, 1786, when a group of about 1,500 rebels marched on the county courthouse. They succeeded in closing the courthouse, and this was followed by similar efforts in other towns, including Worcester, Concord, Springfield, and Great Barrington.

During this time, there was no national army, in part because of lack of funding and also because of fears regarding standing armies in peacetime. This meant that the Continental Congress was largely powerless against insurrections such as this, leaving it up to state militias to suppress the uprisings. However, given that many members of the militia, especially in here in western Massachusetts, were either participating in the rebellion or at least sympathetic to it, the militia was not necessarily the most reliable solution. Nonetheless, General William Shepard of Westfield managed to raise a sizable militia force here in western Massachusetts, and General Benjamin Lincoln raised a privately-funded militia in the eastern part of the state.

The climatic event of Shays’ Rebellion occurred in early 1787, when Shays and the other leaders set their sights on the federal arsenal in Springfield. With no federal soldiers to protect it, Shepard took control of the facility and guarded it with more than a thousand militiamen. On January 25, Shays approached the arsenal with a similarly-sized force, and advanced despite warning shots from Shepard. He then used cannons to fire grape shot into the insurgent lines, killing four and wounding many others. Armed with little more than swords, clubs, and old muskets, Shays and his men were badly outgunned by the well-equipped militiamen, and the rebels began to retreat.

Following the attempted assault on the arsenal, Benjamin Lincoln and his 3,000-man militia marched west from Worcester in pursuit of the rebels. Shays and much of his force ended up back in Pelham, where hundreds of his men encamped here in the area around the meeting house from January 28 to February 3. From here, Shays then moved on to Petersham, where Lincoln’s militia surprised them at their encampment, took some of them prisoner, and forced the rest to scatter.

Over the next few weeks there were several minor skirmishes, mainly in the Berkshires, but by this point the rebellion was effectively over. Nearly all of the rebels were ultimately pardoned, with about four thousand men signing confessions and taking an oath of allegiance in exchange for amnesty. Only a few of the leaders were excluded from the amnesty offer, and most fled the state, including Shays, who moved to Vermont. However, even he was subsequently pardoned in 1788 by Governor John Hancock, who took a conciliatory approach to the rebels. Shays eventually moved to upstate New York, where he lived in poverty until his death in 1825.

From a military perspective, Shays’ Rebellion was a failure. However, this attempted insurrection would prove to have significant political consequences, both at the state and national level. In 1787, the state legislature responded to some of the farmers’ grievances by lowering taxes and passing debt relief measures. During that same summer, the rebellion also had an effect on the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The fact that loosely-organized, poorly-equipped farmers had nearly taken a federal arsenal, and the fact that the arsenal required a state militia to protect it, convinced many skeptics of the need for a more powerful central government. As a result, the rebellion helped influence not only the writing of the new Constitution, but also the subsequent debate over its ratification.

Throughout all of these events, the old meeting house here in the center of Pelham remained in use as both the town hall and the church. Architecturally, the building was typical of mid-18th century meeting houses, and very different from the types of churches that would come to dominate the rural New England landscape of the 19th century. On the exterior, the building was essentially devoid of any ornamentation, and it had no steeple, which gave it an appearance more like a large colonial-era house than a church.

Another difference between this building and later churches was the interior layout. Rather than having the main entrance at one of the ends, it was located here on the south side, in the middle of one of the long walls. The high pulpit, with its sounding board above it, was located directly opposite the entrance on the north side of the building, and the pews were arranged to face it. During the mid-1700s the church had 27 pews, most of which were divided between two families. As was the case in most New England churches of the period, families purchased their pews, with prices that varied depending on the location in the church.

The interiors of colonial New England meeting houses were generally spartan, with little in the way of decoration or even religious symbolism. They also frequently lacked heat, with some Puritan-minded New Englanders even taking a certain measure of pride in their ability to sit through long sermons in frigid weather. Here in Pelham, the only heat source came from the hot coals that some parishioners would bring in foot stoves, which provided a small measure of relief from the cold. Not until 1831 would this meeting house finally get a stove, some 90 years after it had first been used for religious services.

In a sense, the installation of a stove was a sign of changing times, as Massachusetts continued to shift further away from colonial-era Puritan tradition. One major step in this process occurred two years later in 1833, when the state passed the eleventh amendment to its constitution, ending government involvement in religion. When it was first written, the First Amendment provisions in the U.S. Constitution applied only to Congress, so the individual states were not prohibited from establishing religion. Most states eventually codified religious freedom in their own laws or constitutions, but Massachusetts was the last to do so. State residents continued to be taxed to support local churches until 1833, when the new amendment declared that all religious groups “shall be equally under the protection of the law.”

Here in Pelham, this new doctrine of separation of church and state was soon followed by a physical separation between the two entities. After about a century of sharing the meeting house with the town government, the church moved into a new building of its own. It was completed in 1841, and it still stands just to the west of here. In the meantime, the old meeting house retained its role as town hall, but it was moved back in 1839, onto a portion of the burying ground behind the building. Then, in 1845 it was moved again, this time about 30 feet further north. Also in 1845, the large interior space was divided into two floors, with the upper floor being used for town meetings.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Pelham steadily declined in population. This trend was seen throughout rural western Massachusetts towns, as residents moved to growing industrial cities or west to seek better farmland. The town’s population had reached as high as 1,278 in the 1820 census, but two years later the eastern portion of the town was split off to create the town of Prescott. By 1900, Pelham’s population had dropped to 462, having lost nearly two-thirds of its 1820 figure.

The town’s dwindling population had also shifted west during this time. With the loss of land to Prescott, the meeting house was no longer close to the geographic center of town. In addition, by the early 20th century the majority of residents lived in the western part of town, near the border of Amherst. In 1921, residents considered a proposal to begin holding town meetings in the western village, rather than here. However, tradition won out over convenience, and the proposal was defeated by a vote of 52 to 11.

Aside from its use as a venue for town meetings, this building served several other purposes. By the turn of the 20th century the first floor housed offices for the selectmen and assessors, along with the town library and a vault for storing records. Elsewhere on the first floor was the town hearse, and the rest of the floor was used as storage space. The large space in the upper floor was, in addition to the town meetings, used for a variety of plays and other public events.

Although the town had voted to continue using the old meeting house in 1921, it soon faced a far more substantial threat in the subsequent decade. The Swift River valley, which included a portion of eastern Pelham, was being eyed as a potential water source for Boston. The project, which led to the construction of Quabbin Reservoir, would require the disincorporation of four entire towns, including neighboring Prescott, along with substantial land takings from other towns. Pelham itself would be able to remain a town, but its historic center here would be affected, since it was located directly on the watershed divide.

The first photo was taken as part of a project to document all of the buildings in the affected areas. The board in the lower right corner indicates the building’s location, along with its parcel number and other identifying information. Nearly all of the buildings that were photographed were eventually purchased by the state or taken by eminent domain, and were subsequently demolished in order to make way for the reservoir. However, both the town hall and the neighboring church were spared, although nearly all of the buildings to the east of here on the other side of US Route 202 were taken by the state.

Many of the places related to Shays’ Rebellion, including the site of Conkey’s Tavern and the farm that belonged Daniel Shays, were in the section of Pelham that later became Prescott. These sites were, in turn, taken as part of the formation of the reservoir. Neither the house site nor the presumed tavern site are underwater, but they are off-limits to the public on what is now known as the Prescott Peninsula. There is a certain amount of irony here, given that Shays and his fellow townsmen had taken up arms against the state to prevent the loss of their farms, only to have the state take that entire section of their town some 150 years later.

Today, the Pelham Town Hall is one of few remaining buildings with a direct connection to Shays’ Rebellion. It is also one of the oldest surviving church buildings in western Massachusetts. The old meeting house in South Hadley is a few years older, but it has been altered almost beyond recognition, so this one in Pelham is probably the oldest one that has retained much of its original appearance. Because of its historic significance, both the town hall and the adjacent church were designated as contributing properties in the Pelham Town Hall Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

More than 80 years after the first photo was taken, very little has changed here in this scene. The building is not used as frequently as it had been in the past, though. The town offices are now located about a quarter mile to the west of here, and since 1968 most of the town meetings are held at the elementary school in the west village. However, the town continues to hold at least one meeting here in the building each year, maintaining its distinction as  the purported oldest continuously-used town hall in the country. This unbroken streak, dating back more than 275 years, has withstood church feuds, the American Revolution, an impostor preacher, and a large-scale rebellion, and the town even managed to maintain the tradition during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a brief pro forma meeting here in October 2020.

 

Highland Light, Truro, Mass

Highland Light, also known as Cape Cod Light, in Truro, Mass, on February 14, 1859. Image courtesy of the National Archives.

The lighthouse around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2014:

Formed by glaciers at the end of the last ice age, Cape Cod is a long, sandy peninsula on the eastern edge of Massachusetts. It extends outward into the Atlantic Ocean with a hook-like shape that bears resemblance to a flexed arm, and beyond its coastline lies a variety of ever-shifting shoals and sandbars. In the four centuries since European colonization of the area, these attributes have made Cape Cod a significant hazard to navigation, and its shores have been the site of numerous shipwrecks over the years.

The first recorded shipwreck on Cape Cod occurred even before permanent European settlement in the area, when an unknown French ship ran aground sometime around 1617. Many more would follow over the years, including the notorious pirate Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, who died 1717 after his ship was wrecked near what is now Marconi Beach in Wellfleet. However, it would be many decades before the first lighthouse was built on Cape Cod to warn mariners away from the treacherous shoreline.

Finally, in 1796, at the behest of a group of Boston merchants, Congress appropriated $8,000 for the construction of the first lighthouse on Cape Cod. The site that was chosen for the lighthouse was here in North Truro, atop the 125-foot cliffs that gave the Highlands area its name. The government purchased ten acres of land, plus a right-of-way, from local resident Isaac Small for $110, and they subsequently hired him as the first keeper of the light, with a salary of $150.

The lighthouse was completed in 1797. It was octagonal in shape and built of wood, and it stood 45 feet tall. It featured a whale oil lantern, and it was evidently the first lighthouse in the country to use an eclipser, which gave it a flashing appearance to distinguish it from Boston Light. Aside from the tower, the light station also included the keeper’s house, a barn, and an oil shed.

The eclipser proved to be unreliable, and the tower itself also had its own problems, with an 1811 report describing it as having been “wretchedly constructed.” Part of the problem was that the tower was too high, so around 1812 it was lowered, and a new lantern was installed atop it. Following these modifications, this lighthouse would remain in service until 1831, when it was replaced by a new 35-foot brick tower.

Like its predecessor, though, the second lighthouse here proved to be similarly deficient in its construction. It was built by Winslow Lewis, a contractor who built many lighthouses along the east coast. However, his works were generally better known for their low costs than for the quality of their construction, and the upper portion of the new lighthouse had to be rebuilt less than a decade later. This part of the project was done by Lewis’s nephew, I. W. P. Lewis, who was by all accounts a far more competent engineer than his uncle.

Despite these improvements, the second tower ultimately proved to be short-lived. It is perhaps most famous as the lighthouse that author Henry David Thoreau visited several times during his visits to Cape Cod in the 1840s and 1850s. He included a chapter on the lighthouse in his book Cape Cod, including an account of how he put his surveying skills to use here and calculated that the cliff was 123 feet above sea level. He also estimated the rate of erosion here, and rather presciently predicted that “erelong, the light-house must be moved.”

Highland Light would ultimately have to be moved, although it would take 140 years before this was necessary, and it was a different lighthouse than the one that Thoreau saw. His last visit to Highland Light occurred in June 1857, and he noted in his journal that “A new lighthouse was built some twenty-five years ago. They are now building another on the same spot.” This lighthouse that he saw under construction was completed later in 1857, and it is the one that is shown here in these three photos.

The new lighthouse was a far more substantial than its two predecessors, standing 66 feet high, with brick walls more than three feet thick at the base. It was equipped with a new French-made Fresnel lens, replacing the 15 Argand lamps and silver-plated reflectors that had illuminated the previous lighthouse. The Fresnel lens cost $30,000, which was twice the cost of constructing the lighthouse itself, and it required a larger crew to maintain. As a result, the one lighthouse keeper here was joined by two assistant keepers. They lived here in two new houses that were connected to the tower by covered walkways. The head keeper lived in the house to the north of the lighthouse, on the left side of this scene, and the assistant keepers lived in the other house, which is visible just beyond the tower in the first two photos.

The first photo was taken less than two years after the new lighthouse was completed. It shows a man, presumably one of the keepers, standing on the lower balcony of the tower. He was probably one of the three keepers listed here in the 1860 census. The head keeper at the time was 55-year-old John Kenney, who lived here with his wife Jane. The first assistant, Hugh Hopkins, was 59, and he lived here with his wife Sarah along with their granddaughter Eliza Knowles and Sarah’s mother Abigail Smith. The second assistant, Thomas Kenney, was the youngest of the three at 50, and his family here included his wife Sarah and their daughters Mary and Elizabeth.

Despite the presence of the lighthouse, shipwrecks continued to occur here along the northeastern shoreline of Cape Cod. During the 19th century there were at least 60 recorded shipwrecks in Truro, many of which were lost with most if not all of their crews. In some cases, multiple ships would be wrecked during a single storm. A snowstorm on December 26, 1872 claimed two sailing vessels, the Peruvian and the Francis, with very different outcomes for the crews. The Peruvian sank with all hands, while the entire crew of the Francis was rescued by volunteers in a whaleboat, although the captain died of an illness several days later. Another deadly storm occurred on January 3, 1878, when 12 sailors died in three different shipwrecks.

The deadliest single shipwreck here in Truro was the Jason, a British sailing ship that was on its way to Boston from Calcutta. The Jason grounded a little north of Ballston Beach, a few miles to the south of Highland Light, during a storm on December 5, 1893. Out of a crew of 25, there was just a single survivor from the wreck. A few years later, these same shores saw the aftermath of one of the deadliest time disasters in New England history, after the passenger steamer Portland was lost off the coast of Cape Ann on November 27, 1898. There were no survivors, and some of the bodies and wreckage washed up here in Truro, despite being about 25 miles from where the ship foundered.

Lighthouse keepers here at Highland Light, as was the case elsewhere, had a variety of responsibilities, including maintaining the lighthouse and other buildings here at the facility. However, their most important duty was to ensure that the light was lit promptly at sunset, remained lit throughout the night, and was extinguished at sunrise. Each of the three keepers worked a shift during the night, with one keeper on duty until 8:00 pm, another from 8:00 to midnight, and then the third from midnight to 4:00 am. Then, at 4:00 the keeper who lit the lamp would return until sunrise.

By the late 19th century, Highland Light was illuminated by a Funck float lamp, which consisted of five concentric wicks of varying diameters. The lighthouse initially burned whale oil, but it later used animal lard and then eventually kerosene. The lamp produced about 500 candlepower of light, which was then greatly amplified by the prisms of the Fresnel lens. The original 1857 lens increased the intensity of the light roughly twentyfold, creating a fixed beam of about 10,000 candlepower. However, by the turn of the 20th century this was insufficient for the needs of maritime traffic, so in 1901 the old lens was replaced by a new first order Fresnel lens. The old lamp was retained, but the new lens further amplified its intensity to about 192,000 candlepower, or nearly 400 times the intensity of the lamp itself. The new lens also rotated, creating a flashing effect that made it much more noticeable at sea than the old fixed lens. A temporary light tower was in use here while the lenses were changed, and the new lens went into use on October 10, 1901.

The second photo was taken around 1940, as shown by the license plates on the cars in the foreground. The massive Fresnel lens is clearly visible in the lantern room, but in 1932 the old oil lamp had been replaced by a thousand-watt electric bulb. This gave the light an intensity of four million candlepower and a range of up to 45 miles, making it one of the most powerful lighthouses in the country. By this point, many American lighthouses had been automated, but Highland Light was still manned by resident keepers. However, this was far from the isolated outpost that Thoreau had visited nearly a century earlier. Automobiles had made the outer parts of the Cape far more accessible than before, and the photo shows a number of tourists here, including two cars from New York and one from Ohio. One sign on the fence indicates that the lighthouse visiting hours are from 10:00 am to noon, and then from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. Another sign advises that the grounds are closed to visitors from sunset until 9:00 am.

The head keeper at the time of the second photo was William A. Joseph. He had served here at Highland Light since the early 1920s, and he held the position of assistant keeper until 1935, when he was promoted to head keeper. By 1940 he was 52 years old, and he lived here with his wife Nellie. That year’s census lists his salary as $1,500, while the two assistant keepers earled $1,320 and $1,260. He remained here until his retirement in 1947, and he appears to have been the last civilian keeper at the lighthouse before the Coast Guard took over the operation of the light station.

Overall, despite being taken more than 80 years apart, the first two photos do not show major changes to the lighthouse or adjacent keepers’ houses. The alterations to the houses were mostly superficial, including the addition of a porch and a dormer window on the head keeper’s house, along with shingles that replaced the earlier vertical boards on the exterior of the houses. The lighthouse itself barely changed in the period between the two photos, aside from the upgraded lens and the addition of some sort of a pipe next to the lantern room.

By contrast, the second and third photos were taken less than 75 years apart, yet they show far more substantial change here at Highland Light. The old Fresnel lens only lasted a few more years after the second photo before being removed in the late 1940s and replaced by an aerobeacon. Then, in 1961 the assistant keepers’ house was demolished, and a new ranch-style duplex was built just to the southeast of the lighthouse. The lighthouse would remain actively staffed by Coast Guard keepers for several more decades after this, but it was ultimately automated in 1986 and a new aerobeacon was subsequently installed.

As lighthouses around the country were automated during the mid to late 20th century, this often led to the deterioration of the keeper’s houses and other associated buildings, which were typically rendered obsolete. However, here at Highland Light it was not just the keeper’s house that was endangered in the late 20th century. By the early 1990s, Thoreau’s prediction that the lighthouse would need to be moved was fast becoming a reality. The 1857 lighthouse was built on the same spot as its predecessors, which had been more than 500 feet from the cliff when the first one was completed in 1797. By the 1990s, though, the ocean’s steady erosion of the sandy cliffs had reduced this distance to just over a hundred feet.

The only real option for saving the lighthouse was to move it, but moving a 66-foot-tall, 450-ton masonry structure is no easy task, especially one that is nearly 140 years old. The lighthouse was first stabilized with a series of vertical two-by-fours that were strapped to the tower with steel wire. Then, 20 steel beams were inserted through the foundation, with two support beams laid perpendicular underneath these beams. These support beams were then slowly pushed along seven parallel roller beams. There were two sets of these roller beams, and the sets were alternated as the lighthouse moved along the beams. It took 18 days to move the lighthouse 450 feet west and 12 feet south of its original location, and the move was completed on July 29, 1996. The keeper’s house was not moved at the same time, but it was later moved and reattached to the lighthouse.

As a result of the move, the 2014 photo was taken a few hundred feet west of where the first two photos were taken, although it faces the same direction and shows the same view of the lighthouse as the other photos. The lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation, standing as both the oldest and tallest on Cape Cod. In the years since this photo was taken, the lighthouse has undergone a major restoration, including repairing the masonry, replacing or repairing corroded metal, installing a new ventilation system, and repainting the exterior. The lighthouse and keeper’s house have been closed to the public during this time, but they are expected to reopen for the upcoming 2022 season.

Eyrie House, Holyoke, Mass

The Eyrie House on the summit of Mount Nonotuck in Northampton (now Holyoke), around the 1890s. Image from author’s collection.

The scene in 2021:

During the mid-19th century, mountaintop hotels became popular destinations here in the northeast. Prior to this time, Americans generally viewed mountains unfavorably, as they were poor for farming, they formed barriers to transportation, and their slopes often sheltered wild animals. Few colonial-era settlers had any interest in climbing simply for the sake of it, but this started to change in the 19th century, with writers and artists who increasingly portrayed the mountains as places of natural beauty, in contrast to the rapidly-growing industrial cities of the northeast.

This influx of visitors to the mountains led to the construction of many mountaintop buildings and hotels in the northeast. The first of these was built just a few miles from here in 1821, at the summit of Mount Holyoke. This building was little more than a refreshment stand, but it was eventually rebuilt in 1851 as a true hotel, named the Prospect House. It was subsequently expanded several times, and it still stands atop Mount Holyoke today as a rare survivor among the 19th century mountain houses in the region.

In the meantime, the Prospect House faced competition in 1861 with the opening of the Eyrie House on Mount Nonotuck, which is shown here in the first photo. Like Mount Holyoke, Mount Nonotuck is a part of the Metacomet Ridge, a nearly unbroken line of traprock mountains that extends from Long Island Sound to the Massachusetts-Vermont border. The highest peaks on the ridge are located in the Mount Tom and Mount Holyoke Ranges of Massachusetts, which are separated from each other by the Connecticut River. The river flows through a narrow gap between Mount Holyoke to the east and Mount Nonotuck to the west, providing dramatic views of the river and the surrounding valley from the summits of both peaks. The view from Mount Holyoke was immortalized by Thomas Cole’s famous 1836 painting The Oxbow, but Mount Nonotuck also offered a similar view from the opposite direction.

Mount Nonotuck is located at the northern end of the Mount Tom Range, where it rises about 820 feet above sea level and nearly 700 feet above the river valley. It does not appear to have had a formal name until 1858, when Edward Hitchcock named it after the old Native American name for what is now Northampton. Hitchcock was a prominent geologist and former president of Amherst College, and he was responsible for naming many local hills and mountains, including several on the Metacomet Ridge. He tended to prefer Native American names, and in some cases replaced inelegant English names, such as Hilliard’s Knob, which became Mount Norwottuck after the Native American name for Hadley.

The “christening,” as newspapers described it, of Mount Nonotuck occurred on June 17, 1858, with a ceremony here at the summit. It was attended by Edward Hitchcock, who by this point had retired as president of Amherst College, and by his successor, William A. Stearns. About 500 other people gathered here, including dignitaries such as Lieutenant Governor Eliphalet Trask, Congressman Calvin C. Chaffee, and a number of local clergymen. Supposedly Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had also been invited, with the promise of naming the mountain “Hiawatha” in his honor, but he evidently declined, so the mountain became Nonotuck, which according to contemporary newspapers meant “mountain of the blest.” The formal honors of baptizing the mountain with the new name fell to Hitchcock, who scattered fragments of 12 stones that had been gathered from around the world, including specimens from the Alps, China, and Africa.

One newspaper account, published in the Massachusetts Spy, described how “[f]air women and brave men, toiled patiently up the steep ascent in a broiling sun, to enjoy the promised intellectual treat, breathe the pure mountain air, and drink in the extensive view.” Some of this is certainly embellished, as Mount Nonotuck is not exactly a difficult climb, yet it speaks to the motivations that drew mid-century New Englanders to the mountains. Similar articles appeared in newspapers throughout New England, and even in places as far away as Alexandria, Virginia.

It was perhaps as a result of the attention given to the newly-named mountain that, less than three years later, two local businessmen leased the summit area and built a small hotel in an effort to compete with the more established Prospect House across the river. The two partners, William Street and Hiram Farnum, sought advice from Edward Hitchcock on an appropriate name for their hotel, and he offered several suggestions. They ultimately chose Eyrie House, which according to Hitchcock’s memoirs was based on a line from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which reads “the eagle and the stork on cliffs and cedar tops their eyries build.”

The building, which would later be expanded several times, was originally small and roughly square in its dimensions, with two stories topped by an observatory on the roof. This original portion of the hotel is visible in the distant center of the first photo, showing the cupola still atop it. Upon completion, the building featured five guest rooms, but in its early years it seems to have focused primarily on attracting day visitors. Unlike those who came here three years earlier and “toiled patiently up the steep ascent,” visitors to the Eyrie House could choose between riding up the carriage road, or taking the mile-long footpath directly from the railroad station to the summit.

The hotel was formally opened on July 4, 1861. Appropriately enough, Edward Hitchcock was one of the speakers at the dedication. The previous day, the Springfield Republican ran an advertisement for the festivities, which included the following description:

A good TELESCOPE has been purchased for the use of visitors of the house, and arrangements are making for suitable amusements.

A good Band will be in attendance through the day.

All Refreshments desired can be had at the house or on the grounds. . . .

Excursion tickets will be sold from Northampton, Holyoke, and all the stations on the railroad, to the mountain, and as no pains will be spared to make the occasion one of interest, it is hoped the public will avail themselves on this opportunity to spend a pleasant day in listening to patriotic speeches and enjoying the beautiful mountain scenery.

Admission to the Grounds on the 4th, free; to the House, 15 cents; children 10 cents.

After opening day, Street and Farnum raised the admission to 25 cents for adults and 12.5 cents for children, which was identical to the rates at the Prospect House. However, unlike across the river, where only paying customers could access the grounds, the Eyrie House grounds remained open free of charge, and guests only had to pay admission if they wanted to enter the building. The Eyrie House also offered special discounted rates for schools and other groups, and an 1861 advertisement assured readers that parties “would be furnished anything desired at reasonable terms.”

The Eyrie House was open daily, except for Sundays, throughout July 1871. However, in early August the two owners dissolved their partnership. The hotel and grounds were closed for several weeks, but William Street ultimately acquired Farnum’s interest in the business, and he reopened the hotel by the end of the month. He was only in his early 20s at the time, but he ran the Eyrie House for the next 40 years. During this time, he developed a reputation as both a successful hotelier and also an eccentric recluse. A lifelong bachelor, Street lived here on the mountaintop, where he was known for, among other things, collecting rattlesnakes with his bare hands and keeping them in a den for curious visitors to see. Over the years he studied other native wildlife, and gathered specimens, both living and stuffed, for his collection here.

Eccentricities aside, Street developed Mount Nonotuck into a popular destination. The Eyrie House never achieved the same level of success as its more established competitor on Mount Holyoke, but the hotel prospered throughout the 1870s and 1880s. He expanded the building in 1870, increasing its capacity with five more guest rooms, and in 1875 he purchased the property from his landlord. He subsequently built several more additions, eventually increasing the hotel to a total of 30 guest rooms. He also built long promenades extending to the north and south of the building, along with a smaller promenade at the front of the building facing west. Here at the summit, the grounds also featured a pavilion, stables, a croquet court, a picnic grove, and a swing.

By the 1880s, the Eyrie House offered orchestral concerts every day during the summer months, with the exception of Sundays. In 1880, admission still cost 25 cents, with another 25 cents for those who wanted a ride to the summit. Overnight lodging was $8 per week in August and $7 in September, or $1.75 per day. Meals were 50 cents each, and the hotel’s restaurant offered a wide range of food each day. For example, an August 1880 advertisement in the Springfield Republican listed the following menu for Fridays:

SOUP.—Beef.
FISH.—Baked Blue Fish, Cream Sauce.
ROAST.—Spring Chickens, Ribs of Beef.
COLD.—Corned Beef, Tongue, Ham.
VEGETABLES.—Sweet Potatoes, Mashed Potatoes, Beets, Onions, Corn.
RELISHES.—Pepper Sauce, Pickles, Mustard, Halford Sauce, Tomato Catsup.
PASTRY.—Mince Pie, Lemon Pie, Apple Pie, Cocoanut Pie.
DESSERT.—Peaches, Apples, Watermelons, Confectionery, Raisins Vanilla Ice-Cream, Tea, Coffee.

The first photo shows the building sometime around the late 1890s. It was taken from the south promenade, facing north towards the hotel. The original 1861 portion is visible in the distant center, with two women standing atop the observatory. Closer to the foreground on the right side is one of the newer wings of the hotel, and on the left side is the small front promenade. Beyond it is a glimpse of the view to the north, showing a portion of the river valley and the hills further in the distance.

Although this photo shows guests here enjoying the scenery, it also reveals the poor condition of the hotel and grounds. This is particularly evident here in the foreground, where many of the boards on the promenade appear to be in poor condition and portions of the fence are leaning inward or outward. Faced with declining visitors and an aging building, William Street embarked on extensive building project in 1893. His goal was to build a new stone hotel, which would be located immediately below the summit to the northwest of the existing building. Rather than taking a carriage road or footpath to the summit, guests would be able to ride to the top on an incline railway that would bring them directly into the ground floor of the new hotel.

Street worked on these projects in the mid-1890s, but he ultimately had to halt them because of financial troubles, perhaps as a result the economic recession caused by the Panic of 1893. Only a portion of the railroad grade had been completed by this point, and the stonework for the new building had not progressed beyond the ground floor. In the meantime, the old Eyrie House remained open, but it faced further competition in 1897 with the completion of the Summit House on Mount Tom, located about three miles to the south of here. Although not a hotel, this large building featured a restaurant, a stage, and an observatory. It was a much more substantial building than the deteriorating Eyrie House, and visitors could reach it by way of a mile-long trolley line that connected the summit to the Mountain Park amusement park at the base of the mountain.

As it turned out, the original Summit House would last just three years on Mount Tom, before being destroyed by a fire on October 8, 1900. It is impossible to say whether the loss of this building would have led to any substantial increase in business for William Street in the following year, but the Eyrie House ended up meeting the same fate just six months later.

Two of William Street’s horses had died at the summit during the winter of 1901, and it was impossible to bury them in the frozen, rocky ground here. He ultimately waited until the spring, and then decided to dispose of the remains by cremation. To that effect, he built a pyre about 50 feet from the barn and cremated the horses on the afternoon of April 13, 1901. At some point in the evening he left the fire unattended and went back to the hotel, about 200 feet from the barn. However, around 8:00pm he looked out the window and noticed that the barn was on fire. Making matters worse, the wind had shifted in the meantime, and was now blowing the flames in the direction of the hotel.

Street was alone on the mountain at the time. The first people to arrive here to help were Richard Underwood and his son William, who lived at the base of the mountain. They reached the summit around 8:45, but by this point one of the promenades was ablaze, and the flames had reached part of the hotel. However, their firefighting efforts had little effect, although they did manage to rescue a few items from inside the hotel, including the telescope. About an hour after the Underwoods arrived, a group of five men climbed up here, including an Easthampton firefighter. A few others later showed up, but there was little that they could do, and the Eyrie House was completely destroyed by 11:00pm.

William Street burned his hand while trying to fight the flames, but this was likely the least of his concerns in the aftermath of the fire. It was a significant financial loss, as he had only insured the Eyrie House for $2,000 of its estimated $10,000 value. In addition, the emotional toll was likely even worse for Street, who lost the place that had been his home and business for the past 40 years. Reporting several days after the fire, the Springfield Republican observed that he “appeared completely broken down by his loss. He had become greatly attached to his mountain home, and tears filled his eyes as he told of the loss he had sustained.”

Another article, published in the Republican the day after the fire, provided the following descriptions of Street and his hotel:

The old house, built originally over 40 years ago, was for years a popular resort in the days before the electric and cable roads made the southern promontory of the range easily accessible. There William Street, the picturesque hermit of the mountain, has lived for years, visited lately by few, and seemingly content to live in his lofty home apart from his fellow-men. The house formerly rang with the shouts and laughter of merry-makers, and the long dance hall was the scene of many gay parties in the days of the resort’s prosperity. Of late the house has fallen into decay and had presented a somewhat dilapidated appearance. . . .

William Street, the owner of Nonotuck, is noteworthy and individual;—there is nobody else like him. He has loved the mountain and his eyrie there, where for a great part of the year he has led a solitary life, which just suited him. He used to be fond of collecting various wild creatures to show his visitors, and his rattlesnake den, very carefully made on the north side of his old house, was an object of much interest, and had something to do with the popularity of it. He has lived so much in the midst of the forest that he knows a vast lot of things that happen therein, the ways of its denizens, the birds that have surrounded him so many springs and summers; the osprey’s nests he has seen, and the eagle he has personally become acquainted with. Mr. Street has become a silent man, as is the wont of those who dwell where more is said than meets the ear or can be put into words. But to those who appreciate the manner of man he is, he can discourse most interestingly. A tall, spare, rugged figure, absolutely careless of dress or grace of any sort, he is nevertheless worth knowing; and there are few who have seen him in his beloved Eyrie who will not sympathize with him in the destruction of the queer structure which has been his home so long.

The loss of the hotel was obviously devastating for Street, but he would soon lose the mountain itself as well. By the early 20th century, the state was eyeing the property as part of a proposed Mount Tom State Reservation, which would encompass much of the Mount Tom Range. They offered him $5,000 for his now-empty mountaintop property, but he refused, insisting on $25,000 instead. The state ultimately took the land by eminent domain, and deposited the $5,000 in a bank account in his name. In his later years he continued to live as a recluse, rarely receiving visitors or leaving his house in Holyoke, except for occasional trips to buy supplies every few months. He died in 1918 at the age of 80, supposedly without ever having touched the money that the state had given him for his land.

It is hard to say what exactly happened to the $5,000 that the state paid to William Street, but his property remains a part of the Mount Tom State Reservation nearly 120 years later. The days of croquet, concerts, and overnight lodging here on Mount Nonotuck are long gone, yet the mountain remains a popular spot for modern-day visitors, who are drawn here by the ruins of the hotel buildings and grounds. The most impressive ruins are the massive stone walls of the unfinished 1893 building, although these are located out of view in this particular scene, down the slope on the left side of the photo. Here at the summit area, the ruins of the original Eyrie House are a little less visible, consisting primarily of a few low stone walls and several pieces of iron embedded in the exposed rock at the summit. A portion of the building’s former footprint is now occupied by a beacon tower. It was built during World War II, and it is partially visible through the trees near the center of the 2021 photo.

Although the Eyrie House was located in Northampton, this site is now part of the city of Holyoke. For many years, the Mount Tom Range was part of an unusual exclave of Northampton, which was separated from the rest of the city by a narrow wedge of Easthampton. However, this arrangement led to disaffected residents of the Smith’s Ferry neighborhood at the base of the mountain, who believed that Northampton was failing to provide services for them. They successfully lobbied the state legislature to transfer the land, and in June 1909 it became the northern section of Holyoke.

Aside from the changes in ownership and jurisdiction, the other major difference here on Mount Nonotuck is the view. Once heralded as being the near-equivalent of the view from Mount Holyoke, the mountaintop is now almost entirely forested. There is a scenic overlook a little below the summit, at the end of a now-abandoned park road, but otherwise there are only limited views here at the site of the Eyrie House. Overall, though, this scene probably does not look all that different from how it would have appeared to Edward Hitchcock and the other attendees of the 1858 christening ceremony, before any buildings or other structures were added to the summit. Perhaps some of Hitchcock’s rocks from around the world are also still here on the summit, intermingled with the 150-year-old remains of the hotel and the 200-million-year-old basalt traprock of the Metacomet Ridge.

William Cullen Bryant Homestead, Cummington, Mass

The William Cullen Bryant Homestead on Bryant Road in Cummington, around 1890. Image from Picturesque Hampshire (1890).

The scene in 2020:

These two photos show the childhood home—and later the summer home—of William Cullen Bryant, a prominent 19th century poet and newspaper publisher. The house was built in 1783 by his grandfather, Ebenezer Snell, who had moved to Cummington from North Bridgewater a decade earlier. At the time, Cummington was a small, remote settlement in the Berkshire Mountains, located along upper reaches of the north branch of the Westfield River. The first colonial settlers did not arrive here until 1762, and it was not formally incorporated as a town until 1779.

Ebenezer Snell and his wife Sarah were both in their mid-30s when they moved to Cummington. They brought four young children with them, including William Cullen Bryant’s mother Sarah, and they subsequently had a fifth child while living in Cummington. By the time they moved into this house in 1783, the younger Sarah was about 15 years old. She continued living here as an adult, and in 1792 the family took in a boarder, Dr. Peter Bryant. Like the Snell family, he was from North Bridgewater, and he he was a year older than Sarah.

According to tradition, Peter Bryant had fallen in love with Sarah while the Snells were still in North Bridgewater, and he subsequently followed them here to Cummington. This seems rather improbable or exaggerated, since he and Sarah were about five or six years old when the Snells left North Bridgewater. Either way, though, Peter and Sarah soon fell in love here in Cummington, and they were married in October 1792. They subsequently moved into their own house in town, where their first child, Austin, was born six months after their marriage.

Peter and Sarah’s second child was William Cullen Bryant, who was born at their home on November 3, 1794. Soon after, the family suffered financial trouble after Peter lost money in a risky investment. They lived in the nearby town of Plainfield for several years, and they ultimately moved in with Sarah’s parents here at their home in Cummington in the spring of 1799, when William Cullen Bryant was four years old.

The move here to the family homestead proved to be a transformative experience for the future poet. The house is located about two miles west of the town center, on a northeast-facing slope that overlooks the Westfield River Valley. The land around the house was mostly open fields and pastureland, but the outlying portions of the property were largely forested. Most famously, this included the Rivulet, a stream that flows past the house and through an old growth forest on the northeastern edge of the lot. This stream was a favorite childhood haunt of Bryant, who wrote some of his earliest lines of poetry along its banks, and he later memorialized it in his poem “The Rivulet.”

Writing many years later in 1872 in a letter to a friend, Bryant provided the following description of the landscape surrounding his childhood home:

The site of the house is uncommonly beautiful. Before it, to the east, the ground descends, first gradually, and then rapidly, to the Westfield River flowing in a dep and narrow valley, from which is heard, after a copious rain, in the roar of its swollen current, itself unseen. In the spring-time, when the frost-bound waters are loosened by a warm rain, the roar and crash are remarkably loud as the icy crust of the stream is broken, and the masses of ice are swept along by the flood over the stones with which the bed of the river is paved. Beyond the narrow valley of the Westfield the surface of the country rises again gradually, carrying the eye over a region of vast extent, interspersed with farm-houses, pasture-grounds, and wooded heights, where on a showery day you sometimes see two or three different showers, each watering its own separate district; and in winter-time two or three different snow-storms dimly moving from place to place.

Peter Bryant practiced medicine in an office here in this house, and during the early 19th century he achieved some success as a politician. In 1806 he was elected to a one-year term in the state house of representatives, and he subsequently served in that same capacity in 1808, 1809, and 1813, before serving in the state senate in 1818 and 1819.

Throughout this time, Peter Bryant was a staunch Federalist, and he instilled these political beliefs in young William. Although he would become famous for his nature poetry, some of William Cullen Bryant’s earliest poems were political. Among these was “The Embargo,” a satire that criticized Thomas Jefferson and the financial crisis caused by his infamous Embargo Act of 1807. Published in 1808 when Bryant was just thirteen, the poem is more than 500 lines in length. In one particularly scathing stanza, Bryant declared Jefferson to be “scorn of every patriot name, / Thy country s ruin and thy council s shame!” Bryant even alluded to the rumors about his affair with Sally Hemings, telling Jefferson to “sink supinely in her sable arms; / But quit to abler hands the helm of state.”

This poem and other similar politically-charged works would later become a source of some embarrassment for Bryant once he matured, but these poems earned him some notability as promising young poet. Although its reviewer disagreed with Bryant’s critical stance on Jefferson, the Monthly Anthology nonetheless admired his talents, declaring that “[w]e have never met with a boy of that age who had attained to such a command of language and to so much poetic phraseology.”

However, despite this early talent as a poet, Bryant’s career goal was to become a lawyer. To that end, he enrolled in Williams College in 1810 at the age of 16, but left at the end of the school year. He intended to continue his studies at Yale, but his father’s still-precarious financial situation forced him to change his plans. Instead, he read law—essentially a legal apprenticeship—with two different lawyers, and he was ultimately admitted to the bar in 1815.

Bryant began his legal career in Plainfield, but he continued to live here at the family homestead for a year, walking seven miles a day in each direction to get to his office. Then, around 1816 he moved to the much larger town of Great Barrington in the southwest corner of the state, where he practiced law for the next nine years. However, he was still publishing poetry during this time, including his most famous poem, “Thanatopsis.” Bryant had actually written the poem around 1811 when he was just 17, but it was published in 1817 and eventually became Bryant’s most significant contribution to the American canon of literature. The poem approaches death from a naturalistic perspective, describing how death is not something to be feared since the body becomes part of the natural world. The poem includes many vivid descriptions of nature, which were likely influenced by Bryant’s time here at the homestead in Cummington.

“Thanatopsis” would prove to be the high point of Bryant’s career as a poet, but he subsequently went on to achieve prominence as a newspaper editor. Having grown tired of Great Barrington, Bryant moved to New York City, where he worked as a magazine editor before becoming editor-in-chief of the New York Daily Post in 1829. He would go on to hold this position for the next half century, until his death in 1878. Throughout this time, the Post was one of the nation’s leading newspapers, and he used the paper to advocate for liberal causes such as abolitionism, organized labor, and immigrant rights. In 1860, he played an important role in Abraham Lincoln’s nomination, using his influence to generate support in the eastern states for the relatively obscure former congressman from Illinois.

In the meantime, the rest of the Bryant family also began to look beyond the old family homestead here in Cummington. Just as Ebenezer Snell had moved his family west from North Bridgewater in the 1770s, the later generations of his family also saw greater opportunities further to the west. Farming was difficult in the rocky, mountainous hill towns of western Massachusetts, and many families were drawn to the newly-formed territories and states, lured by promises of better farmland and greater opportunities. Many of these towns experienced population loss in the mid-19th century, including Cummington, which peaked in population in 1830 with 1,261 residents, before entering a 90-year decline. By 1920, the town had barely a third of its 1830 population, and experienced only moderate growth in the second half of the 20th century. Even today, the population of Cummington and many other hill towns is substantially lower than it was in the mid-19th century.

Among those who joined the exodus from Cummington were William Cullen Bryant’s younger brothers Arthur, John, and Cyrus, who moved away in the early 1830s and eventually made their way to Illinois. This left only the eldest brother Austin here at the homestead with their widowed mother Sarah, who continued to struggle financially and fell into debt. William helped with the interest payments on the loans, but Sarah and Austin ultimately decided to sell the property in 1835, much to William’s disappointment.

The new owner of the house was Welcome Tillson, a farmer who was in his mid-30s at the time. He lived here for the next 30 years, and at some point during this time he removed the wing that had once housed Bryant’s father’s office. This small piece of the building was, according to Bryant, subsequently moved down the hill to the banks of the Westfield River. During the 1860 census Welcome and his wife Sarah were in their late 40s, and were living here with their 28-year-old son Cyrus and his wife Elizabeth. He owned about 500 acres of improved land and 35 acres of unimproved land, and his agricultural output in 1860 consisted primarily of butter, cheese, wheat, corn, oats, potatoes, and maple syrup.

In 1865 Bryant, who was now 70, purchased the property from Tillson for use as a summer home. It was also intended to serve as a place of quiet rest for his wife Frances, who was in poor health. He soon set about making renovations, including adding a third story by raising the original section of the house and then constructing a new first floor underneath it. Bryant also added a replica of his father’s office to the southwest corner of the house. This one-story wing served as Bryant’s study, and it is visible on the left side of both photos here. However, Frances Bryant did not live long enough to see these renovations completed; she died in July 1866, just a year after her husband purchased the house.

Aside from these changes to the house, Bryant also made improvements to the grounds, including planting some 1,300 apple trees and a variety of other fruit trees. Immediately to the west of the house, in the distance of the first photo, Bryant planted a row of pine trees to act as a wind break, and further down the hill from here he built a small pond to serve as a source of ice that could be harvested and stored for the summer. In addition, he made two different additions to the barn on the other side of the street, first in 1866 and then in 1875. This barn had been built by Welcome Tillson after he purchased the property, replacing an earlier one that Peter Bryant had constructed on the same site in 1801.

Bryant continued to spend his summers here in Cummington for the rest of his life, generally arriving in late July and staying until early September. He died in New York City on June 12, 1878 at the age of 83, but this property remained in his family for several more generations. His younger daughter Julia inherited the house, and she owned it when the first photo was taken around 1890, although she spent most of her later years in Paris, where she lived with her cousin and presumed romantic partner, Anna Fairchild.

Julia died in 1907 and left this house to Anna Fairchild, who owned it until 1917, when she sold it to Julia’s niece Minna Godwin Goddard, who was the daughter of Bryant’s older daughter Frances. Minna then owned it until her own death in 1927, and in her will she left the property to the Trustees of Reservations, with the stipulation that her son Conrad would have life tenancy rights. The family also donated furniture and other items to the Trustees, and in 1931 Conrad built a caretaker’s house to the north of the main house, just out of view on the far right side of this scene.

Today, nearly a century after the Minna Goddard left this property to the Trustees and more than 230 years after her great-great grandfather Ebenezer Snell built the house, this house is still standing as an important historic landmark. As shown in these two photos, very little has changed here in this scene since the first photo was taken around 1890. Even some of the trees are still standing from the first photo. The three large maples in the foreground are the same ones from the first photo, and they were originally planted here in the early 19th century by the Bryant family.

The Bryant Homestead is still owned by the Trustees, which owns a number of other historic sites and conservation areas throughout Massachusetts. Here in Cummington, this property features not only the historic house but also nearly 200 acres of surrounding land. Several hiking trails wind through this landscape, including one that runs alongside the Rivulet, through the same old growth forest that first inspired Bryant more than two centuries ago. Overall, the homestead looks much the same as it did when Bryant acquired it in 1865, and it is one of the many important literary landmarks here in New England.

Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company, Adams, Mass

Workers outside of the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company, facing east on Hoosac Street at the corner of Depot Street in Adams, in August 1911. Image taken by Lewis Wickes Hine, courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Child Labor Committee Collection.

The scene in 2020:

The first photo was taken in August 1911 by prominent photojournalist and social reformer Lewis Wickes Hine. In the early 20th century, Hine traveled across the country on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee, taking thousands of photos that documented and exposed child labor conditions in factories, mines, farms, and other workplaces. He made several trips to New England during this time, including a lengthy visit in the summer and fall of 1911, when he investigated the region’s prosperous textile industry. Among his stops was the town of Adams in the northwestern corner of the state, where the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company had a large factory complex along the Hoosac River. This photo shows the view looking down Hoosac Street toward the river, with Mill No. 1 in the distance on the left and the corner of Mill No. 3 in the foreground on the right side.

The Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company was established in 1889 by the prominent Plunkett family. The family patriarch, William C. Plunkett, had owned several local cotton mills in the mid-19th century, and he also served for two years as the state’s lieutenant governor in 1854 and 1855. He died in 1884, and five years later two of his sons, William and Charles Plunkett, organized the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company. They built a new mill, which became Mill No. 1 here on the left side of the scene. The building featured some 35,000 spindles and 700 looms, but the company quickly outgrew this facility. Just two years later, the company began construction of a second mill directly behind this one, which more than doubled the number of spindles and looms.

The second mill was completed in 1892, and it was dedicated in a ceremony that included a speech by William McKinley, who was then serving as governor of Ohio. McKinley was a close friend of the Plunkett family, who supported his platform of high tariffs to protect American manufacturers. He would later return to Adams several times as president, including in 1897, when he spent the night at William Plunkett’s house and then toured the factory buildings the next day. By this point, the facility had been further expanded with the completion of Mill No. 3, which was built in 1896 on the opposite side of Hoosac Street, as shown in the foreground of the first photo. The company would make one more major addition in 1899, with Mill No. 4, located beyond Mill No. 3 on the other side of the railroad tracks. President McKinley was again on hand for this project, and he laid the cornerstone of the building in June 1899.

McKinley was ultimately assassinated in 1901, but he was commemorated here in Adams with a large statue just around the corner from here, at the intersection of Maple and Park Streets. In the meantime, the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company continued to prosper, thanks in large part to the protective tariffs that McKinley had championed as a congressman and as president. By the turn of the 20th century, the company employed over two thousand workers, representing about half of the town’s entire workforce. The October 1908 issue of the trade journal Textile American included an article about the company, which described the facility as “the largest plant manufacturing fine goods at this time.” These fine goods, according to the article, included “carded and combed cotton goods, comprising lawns, organdies, mulls, India linens, etc.”

The first photo was taken only a few years later, and it was one of at least 25 photographs that Hine took during his visit. Most feature interior scenes of the factory, showing teenagers working as spinners and spooler tenders, among other jobs. He identified the ages of most of these workers, who were typically between 14 and 16 years old. This particular photo was one of the few exterior views that he captured, showing a group of workers gathered around the entrance. He does not provide any ages, but most of the employees appear to be adults, with the exception of the child in the center of the scene. Regarding this child, Hine wrote in his caption:

While I was photographing these workers (Berkshire Mills) the watchman dragged out the smallest boy, saying, “Here, photograph ‘Peewee'” Location: Adams, Massachusetts.

“Peewee” appears in one of Hine’s other photos, were he is sitting on the curb outside one of the factory buildings. Neither caption identifies his name or age, which is somewhat unusual for Hine, who typically provided at least one of these pieces of information about his subjects. However, his appearance is characteristic of many of Hines’s subjects, particularly his small size and his lack of shoes. This is further emphasized here in this photo by contrasting the boy with the otherwise well-shod and relatively well-dressed adults who are gathered around him, laughing and smiling.

It is unlikely that any of the workers in the 1911 photo would have realized it, but by this point the textile industry in New England was nearing its peak, and within the next few decades it would face a steep decline. Much of this was brought on by competition from the southern states, in addition to overseas competition that McKinley and his tariffs had sought to stave off. Many textile companies closed in the 1920s, and those that survived were typically hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company lasted longer than most here in New England, and in 1929 it merged with four other textile companies to form the Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates. In consolidating, the company hoped to be in a better position to compete with southern manufacturers, and over the next few decades it continued to acquire other mills. Most significantly, in 1955 it merged with Hathaway Manufacturing Company of New Bedford, forming Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Despite these many mergers, though, the textile industry in New England was in an irreversible decline. Berkshire Hathaway produced textiles here in Adams for only a few more years, before ultimately closing these mills in 1958, leaving some 1,200 workers unemployed. The company closed many of its other facilities around this time, before ultimately being acquired by a young Warren Buffett in 1965. Under his ownership, the company steadily moved away from textile manufacturing and into the realm of insurance and finance, eventually becoming the modern-day holding company headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska.

In the meantime, the old Berkshire mills here in Adams were sold off to other owners. Mill No. 2 was demolished in the early 1960s to build a supermarket on the lot, and Mill No. 3 was demolished about a decade later. As shown in the present-day scene, the site of this mill is now a surface parking lot. However, Mill No. 1 is still standing today, partially hidden by trees on the left side, as is Mill No. 4, which stands further in the distance in the right-center of the photo. Mill No. 4 is currently vacant, but No. 1 was repurposed as an apartment building in 1987. Despite these many changes, the building’s exterior has remained well-preserved over the years, and in 1982 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.