Mount Holyoke Summit, Hadley, Mass

A group of visitors sitting on the rock ledges near the summit of Mount Holyoke in Hadley, around the 1860s or 1870s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post, Mount Holyoke is a traprock mountain on the Metacomet Ridge, which runs roughly south to north from Long Island Sound to near the Massachusetts-Vermont state line. Although relatively low in elevation compared to the mountains of the nearby Berkshires, the ridge runs through the middle of the Connecticut River Valley providing dramatic views from atop the steep rocky cliffs. At 935 feet in elevation, Mount Holyoke is a few hundred feet lower than the highest peaks on the ridge, but it offers perhaps the most impressive views of any mountaintop in southern New England. Here, the Connecticut River flows through a narrow gap between Mount Holyoke to the east and Mount Nonotuck to the west, and the river is visible for miles in both directions.

The river takes a meandering course through the flat river valley to the north of Mount Holyoke. The most famous of these meanders is the Oxbow, a three-mile-long U-shaped bend in the river at the base of the mountain. This prominent natural feature was the focal point of Thomas Cole’s 1836 painting The Oxbow, which portrays the scene from near this spot at the summit. His work went on to become one of the most important 19th century American landscape paintings, but the actual view here from Mount Holyoke changed dramatically only a few years later. In 1840, a flood cut through the narrow neck of land in the middle of the bend, and the main current of the river shifted to the new shorter route, turning the Oxbow into a side channel.

The first photo was taken only a few decades later, and it shows the wide river passing through the lower right side of the scene, with the circular Oxbow beyond it in the distance. By this point, Mount Holyoke was a popular destination for visitors, including the well-dressed group of women sitting on the rocks in the foreground. Directly behind them, barely visible on the far left side, is the corner of the Summit House, also known as the Prospect House. This hotel was built in 1851, replacing an earlier building on the site, and it provided accommodations and refreshments for guests who either hiked up or took the inclined railway to the summit. The man in the center of the photo could very well be hotel owner John French or one of his employees, as the hotel provided telescopes for mountaintop visitors.

The hotel steadily expanded during the second half of the 19th century, and at some point a porch was added to the northern side of the building, as shown in the present-day photo. However, by the early 20th century mountaintop hotels had passed their heyday. Thanks to modernization efforts of Holyoke silk manufacturer Joseph Skinner, the Summit House remained viable for many years, but it ultimately closed after sustaining heavy damage in the 1938 hurricane. A large wing of the building, which had been added in 1894, was demolished after the hurricane, and in 1939 the property was donated to the state, becoming the Joseph Allen Skinner State Park.

Today, this scene at the summit of Mount Holyoke is still easily recognizable from the first photo, despite a conspicuous lack of women in hoop dresses. The Summit House is still standing, after having been restored in the 1980s, and it is now open seasonally as a museum. Further in the distance, the Oxbow is still there, although somewhat less prominent than in the first photo.

Part of the reason for this might be because of the increased tree growth along its banks, but also because the Oxbow has been heavily altered in the 20th century. It is now closed off from the upstream side, with only a narrow channel on the downstream side to link it to the Connecticut River. Along with this, Interstate 91 now passes directly over it, and a large chunk of the land inside the curve has been carved out to create a marina. As a result, it bears little resemblance to the undisturbed natural feature that Cole painted nearly 200 years ago, but it remains an important landmark that has long been associated with this view from Mount Holyoke.

Connecticut River and Mount Tom from Mount Holyoke, Hadley, Mass

The view looking south from the Mount Holyoke Summit House in Hadley, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019

One of the most important geological features in the Connecticut River Valley is the Metacomet Ridge, a long narrow traprock formation that runs roughly parallel to the river. It passes through central Connecticut and western Massachusetts, running from Long Island Sound to just south of the Vermont border. Its peaks are relatively low in elevation compared to the mountains of the Berkshires further west, with few reaching above a thousand feet, but the ridge stands out in the landscape because it rises so high above the surrounding low-lying river valley.

Because of this prominence, the Metacomet Ridge offers expansive views from atop its steep traprock ledges. However, perhaps none of these views are as celebrated as those from Mount Holyoke, which sits on the border of Hadley and South Hadley, Massachusetts. The 935-foot mountain is in the middle of a ten mile section that features some of the highest elevations of the entire ridgeline. This section is bookended by the two highest peaks of the Metacomet Ridge, with the 1,200-foot Mount Tom at the southern end and the 1,106-foot Mount Norwottuck to the east.

Although Mount Holyoke is comparatively lower in elevation, it has a unique position. Here, the ridge takes a sharp 90-degree turn across the Connecticut River, forming two perpendicular ranges bisected by the river. Mount Holyoke is located directly east of the river, so the top of the mountain provides dramatic views of the river as it winds its way through the surrounding farmland. Most famously, these scenes inspired 19th century artist Thomas Cole to paint The Oxbow, one of the most iconic landscape paintings in the history of American art.

The view captured in The Oxbow is not the same direction as the two photos shown here in this post. Cole’s painting faces almost due west, while these two photos were taken facing south, looking downstream on the river with the city of Holyoke in the distance on the left and Mount Holyoke on the right. Unlike the views to the west or north from the summit, this southern view is not nearly as celebrated in paintings or photographs. Part of this might be because the viewer is typically facing into the sun in this direction, creating a backlit scene. Another reason might be because the mountain has a much more gradual southern slope, so the landscape seems more distant when compared to the views from atop the steep northern and western cliffs.

Either way, the scene in the first photo shows some interesting contrasts. The jagged spine of the Metacomet Ridge runs across the horizon of the photo, parallel to the gently curving Connecticut River in the center of the scene. Further to the left, the prosperous industrial city of Holyoke in the distance contrasts with the open fields and scattered farmhouses of the foreground. The view is somewhat different in the present-day scene, as the trees now obscure most of the foreground, but both the river and the ridgeline remain dominant features in the landscape.

Both of these photos were taken from the porch of the Summit House, which was built in 1851 and expanded several times in the second half of the 19th century. At the time, mountaintop hotels were particularly popular, and the Summit House here on Mount Holyoke was just one of three in the vicinity; the others included the Eyrie House atop Mount Nonotuck, and the Summit House on Mount Tom, which is visible in the distance on the right side of the first photo.

It is difficult to tell, but the Mount Tom hotel in the photo appears to have been the first of three successive hotels at the summit. This one burned in 1900, probably soon after the photo was taken, and it was subsequently rebuilt twice in the early 20th century. The Eyrie House likewise burned in 1901 and was never rebuilt, yet the Mount Holyoke hotel has managed to avoid such a fate, and the building is still standing today as a museum.

More than a century after the first photo was taken, and nearly two centuries after Thomas Cole made the mountain famous, much has changed in the view from Mount Holyoke. The land is actually far more forested now than it was at the turn of the 20th century, so in some ways there are actually fewer obvious signs of human development. However, the abundance of trees also makes very clear the swath that Interstate 91 cuts across the modern-day landscape, about halfway between the river and the mountains.

Despite these changes, though, the view from Mount Holyoke remains perhaps the most impressive landscape view in southern New England. Although overnight guests no longer stay at the Summit House, the mountain remains a popular destination, with visitors driving up the auto road or climbing the relatively short hike from the base. In 1939, the summit and the surrounding land became the Joseph Allen Skinner State Park, after its namesake donated the land to the state. Much of the remaining land along the Holyoke and Mount Tom ranges has similarly been preserved, and the area affords some of the best hiking and other outdoor recreation opportunities in the Connecticut River Valley.

Mount Holyoke Summit House and Inclined Railway, Hadley, Massachusetts

The inclined railway leading up to the Summit House on Mount Holyoke, around 1867 to 1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post, the summit of Mount Holyoke was the site of one of the first mountaintop hotels in the United States. At just 935 feet in elevation, it is not a particularly tall mountain, yet it rises high above the surrounding landscape in the otherwise low, flat Connecticut River valley. It is part of the Holyoke Range, a narrow ridgeline that runs east to west for about eight miles. This, in turn, is a sub-range within the much longer Metacomet Ridge, a traprock ridge that extends from Long Island Sound in Connecticut to just south of the Massachusetts-Vermont border.

Mount Holyoke is not the highest peak in the Holyoke Range, as it stands nearly 200 feet lower than Mount Norwottuck. However, it forms the western end of the ridge, with the Connecticut River passing through a narrow gap between Mount Holyoke and the Mount Tom Range. This prominent location makes it a major landmark for travelers in the river valley, and it also means that the summit has nearly 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape.

The combination of dramatic views and proximity to large large population centers made Mount Holyoke a popular destination in the 19th century, and the first building at the summit was built in 1821. In the spirit of a traditional barn raising, it was built with the help of nearly 200 townspeople who climbed to the summit to lend a hand. Consuming, as one 19th century account described it, “a little water with a good deal of brandy in it,” the group completed the summit house in just two days. It was a modest structure, measuring just 18 by 24 feet, but it was dedicated with much fanfare, including a speech by Northampton native and U. S. Senator Elijah H. Mills.

This first building was soon joined by a rival establishment nearby, but the two buildings were consolidated under the same ownership in 1825. The business operated here for several more decades, and during this time the view from the top of the mountain was made famous by Thomas Cole’s 1836 painting The Oxbow, long regarded as a masterpiece of 19th century American landscapes.

However, despite the mountain’s growing popularity, the accommodations at the summit remained primitive until mid-century. This began to change in 1849, when Northampton bookbinder John French and his wife Frances purchased the property. They soon began making improvements, most significantly a new hotel at the summit, which was completed in 1851. It was named the Prospect House, and it had two stories, with a dining room, sitting room, and office on the first floor, and six guest rooms on the second floor. Above the second floor was a cupola, which was equipped with a telescope. The hotel was later expanded several times, but this original 1851 structure still survives as part of the present-day building.

In addition to constructing a more substantial building, French also improved access to the summit. Prior to his ownership, it was relatively easy to reach the spot where these two photos were taken, whether on foot or by carriage. In terms of elevation, this spot is more than halfway up the mountain, but from here the slope becomes significantly steeper, as is made particularly evident in the first photo. The only options for visitors during the first half of the 19th century were either to take the long, winding, narrow carriage road to the summit, or hike the short but steep path up the mountainside, gaining over 350 feet in elevation in just 600 horizontal feet.

Neither option was ideal for most visitors, and the situation also made it difficult for French to bring supplies up the mountain. Even water had to be either carted or carried up to the summit, requiring him to sell it for around three to five cents per glass, or about $1.00 to $1.50 today. However, in 1854 he solved both problems with the construction of an inclined railway. It began here at this spot, next to French’s residence, which was known as the Halfway House, and it rose to the top of the mountain. It was originally powered by a stationary horse here at the base, although in 1856 French switched to steam power. The railway itself was rebuilt several times, but it had largely assumed its final form by 1867, as shown in the first photo. By then, the railway had two tracks, was completely enclosed, and brought its passengers directly into the basement of the hotel.

In the meantime, the hotel also grew, with the first major addition coming in 1861, when it was expanded to ten rooms. Then, in 1871 French sold the property to South Hadley businessman John Dwight. However, John and Frances French remained here to manage the hotel, and they continued in that role until their deaths in the 1890s. Then, the hotel was expanded even further in 1894, with the addition of a large wing on the south side of the building. This increased the hotel’s capacity to 40 guests, along with a dining room that could seat 200 people.

By then, the hotel had several local competitors on the nearby Mount Tom Range, with the Eyrie House atop Mount Nonotuck, and the Summit House on Mount Tom. However, both of these were plagued by fires, which was a constant danger for wood-frame buildings on isolated mountaintops. The Eyrie House, built in 1861 and later expanded, burned in 1901, and the same fire also destroyed the partially-built structure of what would have been a new hotel. The Summit House on Mount Tom faced similar problems, with the original 1897 hotel burning in 1900, and its replacement suffering the same fate in 1929.

However, although older than the other nearby hotels and built of similar materials, the hotel here on Mount Holyoke managed to avoid catastrophic fires. It faced different challenges, though, most significantly the declining popularity of mountaintop hotels in general. John Dwight died in 1903, the property was subsequently acquired by a group of prominent locals, including Holyoke silk manufacturer Joseph Skinner. The new owners made significant improvements, including electricity and modern plumbing. The railway was also electrified, and the first automobile road to the summit opened in 1908.

Skinner would ultimately acquire full ownership of the hotel, and he continued to modernize it throughout the early 20th century. It continued to face challenges though, particularly with the onset of the Great Depression, but the hotel was ultimately closed after the September 1938 hurricane. The older section of the building survived, but the storm destroyed the large 1894 addition. A year later Skinner donated the property to the state, and it became the Joseph Allen Skinner State Park.

Both the hotel and the inclined railway deteriorated after the park was established, and much of the roof over the railway was destroyed in a heavy snowstorm in 1948. The remains of the railway were removed in 1965, and the hotel itself was also threatened with demolition around this time. Despite many years of neglect, though, the building was ultimately restored in the 1980s, and it is now a museum.

Today, nearly all of the historic 19th century mountaintop hotels in the northeast are gone, most having been lost to fire, neglect, or both. However, the Summit House on Mount Holyoke is still standing as one of the few surviving examples. This scene has changed considerably since the first photo was taken around 150 years ago, including the loss of the railway and the significant tree growth on the previously bare slopes, but the Summit House is still visible from this spot.

Mount Holyoke Halfway House, Hadley, Mass

The Halfway House on the northern slope of Mount Holyoke in Hadley, around 1867-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2019:

For the past two centuries, the view from the top of Mount Holyoke has been one of the most celebrated mountaintop scenes in New England. Although only 935 feet above sea level, the traprock mountain rises abruptly from the low valley floor, providing nearly 360-degree views of the Connecticut River and the surrounding countryside. As a result, the mountain has drawn countless visitors over the years, and its view has been the subject of many works of art, including one of the most iconic American landscape paintings, Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow.

During the Romantic era of the early 19th century, a new emphasis on nature helped to spur interest in landscapes and scenery. Mountains, which had previously been regarded as impediments to travel, became destinations in their own right, leading to a proliferation of mountaintop hotels, particularly here in the northeast. Among the first of these was a small cabin that was built at the summit of Mount Holyoke in 1821. A second, rival structure was built a few years later, but it would be another three decades before a real hotel was built at the summit.

In 1849, Northampton bookbinder John French and his wife Frances purchased the property at the summit, and soon began construction on a new, more substantial structure. Completed in 1851 and named the Prospect House, the hotel was two stories in height, with a dining room, sitting room, and office on the first floor, and six guest rooms on the second floor.

French originally intended to live in the hotel year-round, but the windswept summit proved too cold and isolated in the winter, so in 1852 he and his family moved into a house on the northern slope of the mountain, shown here in the upper right side of both photos. It was known as the Halfway House, and in terms of elevation it is just over halfway from the valley floor to the summit. However, beyond here the climb becomes significantly more difficult. Up to this point, it is a steady but moderate ascent, but after the Halfway House the most direct route to the summit is up a steep slope, gaining over 350 feet in elevation in just 600 feet.

When the Prospect House opened, the only way up to the hotel from the Halway House was either by riding along a winding, narrow carriage road, or by climbing the short but steep path to the summit. Not only was this challenging for visitors to reach the hotel, but it also made it difficult for French to bring supplies. With no springs anywhere near the summit, water was a particularly scarce commodity, as it all had to be carted or carried up these same routes. As a result, visitors were charged for the water that they drank, paying between three and five cents per glass, or about $1 to $1.50 today. In addition, other liquid refreshments sold for considerably higher on the mountain than elsewhere.

In order to solve these problems, in 1854 French built an incline railway from here at the Halfway House to the summit. It was originally powered by a stationary horse, but two years later French replaced it with a steam engine. The entire railway was 600 feet in length, and by the late 1860s it was completely enclosed by a wooden shed. These two photos were taken from around the spot where the railway began, and from here it brought visitors directly into the basement of the Prospect House, allowing them to reach the hotel without even stepping outside.

John French expanded the hotel in 1861, and in 1867 he added a second track to the railway. Throughout this time, he and Frances resided at the Halfway House. The 1870 census shows them here with their 21-year-old daughter Frances. At the time, they also had three employees who lived here with them, including a clerk, a domestic servant, and a teenager who was listed as a “boy of all work.” The census listed the value of French’s real estate at $20,000, plus a personal estate valued at $8,000, for a total net worth equivalent to around $575,000 today.

French ultimately sold the hotel a year later in 1871 to South Hadley businessman John Dwight. However, Dwight retained John and Frances to manage the hotel, and they continued to live here in this house. The 1880 census lists them here along with a number of employees, including a telegraph operator, two cooks, a waiter, and an engineer. However, it seems unlikely that they would have all lived together in this small house, so they may have lived in other nearby buildings, or perhaps even in the hotel itself.

John French lived here until his death in 1891, and Frances until she died in 1899. By then, the hotel had been expanded even further. with an 1894 addition that gave the building a capacity of 40 guests. However, despite this growth the hotel entered a decline in the early 20th century. It was eventually acquired by wealthy Holyoke silk manufacturer Joseph Skinner in 1915, and he set about modernizing the building. Despite these improvements, though, the the heyday of mountaintop hotels had passed, and the Great Depression further compounded the problem. Then, the 1938 hurricane caused substantial damage to the hotel, requiring the demolition of the 1894 addition.

Skinner ultimately donated the hotel and its property to the state in 1939, with the land becoming the Joseph Allen Skinner State Park. However, the state showed little interest in the buildings on the property, which were largely neglected for many years. The inclined railway was last used in the early 1940s, and it was badly damaged after the roof of the shed collapsed in a heavy snowstorm in 1948. The remains of the railway were ultimately removed in 1965, and the hotel itself was also nearly demolished in the second half of the 20th century. However, it was instead restored, and it now serves as a museum.

Today, despite the loss of the railway, the Halfway House itself is still standing. It has been enlarged since the first photo was taken, with the addition of a second story above the rear part of the building, but otherwise it is still recognizable from its 19th century appearance. Although there are no longer any overnight accommodations at the summit, Mount Holyoke remains a popular destination. Most visitors still pass by the Halfway House on their way up the mountain, either by way of the auto road on the left side of the scene, or the hiking trail that crosses the road here before ascending steep slope to the summit.

Northampton from Mount Holyoke, Hadley Mass

Looking west from the summit of Mount Holyoke toward Northampton, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2015:

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Not a whole lot has changed in this scene in the past 115 years. From this distance, there aren’t too many noticeable changes in the city of Northampton, which has grown in population by more than 50% since 1900. The area near the river has hardly changed at all; this floodplain continues to be used as farmland.  Even Interstate 91, which passes through between the farms and the city, isn’t noticeable in the present-day scene.  In fact, the only really obvious difference here is something that is entirely natural – the island that has formed in the middle of the Connecticut River.

Connecticut River from Mount Holyoke, Hadley Mass

Looking north toward the Connecticut River from the summit of Mount Holyoke around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2015:

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One of the things that amazes me about then and now landscapes of New England is the difference in trees.  It seems counterintutitive, but in most cases the present-day scenes are substantially more forested than they were in the past.  In part, this is because of agricultural changes over the past century.  This section of the Connecticut River Valley has some of the best farmland in New England, and there are still plenty of active farms today, but New England’s short growing season and limited land has prevented the area from being used for large-scale farming.  Today, some of the former farms have been developed into residential neighborhoods, but much of the land, especially in the floodplains along the river, has reverted to forest over the course of the past century.