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Tourists have flocked to the historic Summit House for centuries
October 3, 2018
When I finally reached the top, the view from the peak of Mount Holyoke in Hadley left me more breathless than the hike.
From the 942-foot summit, I spotted cars whizzing over the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Bridge to Northampton. Nestled in a patch of trees, the University of Massachusetts W. E. B. Du Bois Library resembled the size of a Tic Tac. The silhouette of Mount Greylock loomed in the distance.
Hikers have flocked to Western Massachusetts for centuries to behold the Connecticut River valley from Mount Holyoke’s historic Summit House. In fact, the landscape inspired The Oxbow, a famous 19th-century painting by Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole.
Located in J. A. Skinner State Park, just under 10 miles from Northampton, the peak makes the perfect day trip. And the mountain is ripe with history.
The Summit House, a former hotel opened in 1851 by a Northampton bookbinder, juts out from the edge of a cliff. The highest point on the mountain is in the building’s basement, said David Meuser of the nonprofit Friends of the Mount Holyoke Range.
Stilts support a wide porch that wraps around the building, offering a 360-degree view of the valley below. Red double doors and windows trimmed in blue paint pop from the simple, white siding.
While the house no longer functions as a hotel, the FOMHR partners with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation to host tours and other events there. Free self-guided tours of the hotel are available every weekend through Oct. 8.
A paved road going up the mountain provides easy access to the summit. When I visited with friends, we trekked up two of the park’s 19 blazed trails – the Two Forest and the Devil’s Football.
The hike took about 45 minutes at a comfortable, steady pace. Rainwater washed away part of the Devil’s Football this year, so hikers must take caution. It is a steep, but short trek.
But it’s one that many have made. In the 1830s, Mount Holyoke was the second most-visited tourist attraction in the United States, just under Niagara Falls, Desiree Smelcer of the South Hadley Public Library confirmed.
“Over 120 to 130 years ago, [the town of Holyoke] was considered this jewel in Massachusetts,” she said.
The city (a town back then) was bustling in the 19th century, Smelcer said. It was once the largest paper producer in the world. Those who came to visit the town would often hike Mount Holyoke.
New England’s first tramway was installed on Mount Holyoke in 1854, three years after the Summit House opened. It lugged supplies and guests up the mountain.
Halfway up the mountain, I wished a train would whisk me to the summit. But the thigh workout was well worth the view from the wraparound porch.
From there, trees resemble shaggy, green carpet. The Connecticut River snakes through acres of farmland. Other mountains dot the horizon. I dreamed about what it must have been like to book a hotel room with a bird’s eye view of the Pioneer Valley.
Over the years, the hotel changed ownership three times, and renovations and enlargements were made. The current Summit House has been preserved to resemble the 1861 version of the hotel.
In the early 1900s, a local silk manufacturer named Joseph Allen Skinner took ownership of the hotel. But the invention of the automobile, the Great Depression and a 1938 hurricane put the hotel out of business. In 1940, Skinner gave the hotel and 375 acres of land to the state.
The DCR now operates the park, named after Skinner.
Some activities the FOMHR have hosted include nature walks and astronomy nights. The Summer Concert Series, organized by Meuser, is one of the most popular events. From July to August, local musicians play the Summit House on Thursday nights.
“When you have all those people in there, it just feels like the building is doing what it was intended to do,” Meuser said, which is to bring joy and a sense of community.
The bands take an intermission, of course, to watch the sunset from the peak. The shows typically sell out of all 170 tickets, he said.
The park, at 10 Skinner State Park Rd., is open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The journey by bus is arduous, but parking at the main entrance is free.
“To me, [the Summit House] is a really precious resource in our area,” Meuser said. When I looked out from the former hotel’s balcony, I knew just what he meant.
Email Nicole at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @Nicole_DeFeudis