The Summit House sits approximately 1,000 feet atop Mount Holyoke in Hadley, Massachusetts. Once a luxurious hotel, the Summit House is now part of the J.A. Skinner State Park. Visitors come from near and far to take in spectacular, panoramic views of the Connecticut River and Pioneer Valley. Though the house sits upon a relatively small mountain, on a clear day, one's eye can still encompass not only Holyoke, Northampton, and Springfield Massachusetts, but also, Hartford, Connecticut and Mount Monadnock and Mount Greylock of New Hampshire as well. The more immediate views of Hadley and Amherst are a quilt of farmland, threaded by the winding bend of the Connecticut River. In season, vibrant colors paint the trees and trace the mountain sides with all the beauty of Autumn. Many a path have been worn into the slopes of Mt. Holyoke while this old house has seen many a visitor, both having stories to tell of vision, tragedy and prevalence.
It is the early 1800's. The Mt. Holyoke range is wrapped in a blanket of trees. Hemlock, Oak, White Pines as well as Beech, Birch, and Maple tress all take precedence and create safe haven for birds and wildlife. Rocks, some as big as boulders, others reduced to pebbles, clay, or stone, narrate the timeline of evolution when shifting land masses, erosion, oozing lava, and giant glaciers formed the New England landscape. Transportation and the conveniences of modern day living are limited. So why build a public structure on top of a mountain? The answer lied in the Valley below. While nestled, comfortably deep in the wilderness where life is still natural and untouched, one could look upon the landscape below and see the transformation of its people happening before their eyes. Trees were being cleared and harvested as farms were being sowed. We were a nation in transition and headed for greatness. And so, in 1821, a small cabin was erected at the summit of Mt Holyoke by business men from Northampton, Ma. who saw an opportunity and seized it. Their "if we build it, they will come" mentality paid off. The Holyoke Mountain Range was an attraction only second to Niagara Falls. Little did they know that even greater things waited on the horizon for this tiny piece of property atop this little mountain.
In 1849, John and Fanny French purchased the cabin along with ten acres of land. The cabin was disassembled and replaced by a small hotel they christened, "The Prospect House", in 1851. The concept remained the same to create a parallel between this woodland retreat and the ever-evolving society below. The visual marriage between the two would continue to be the draw. Poets and writers frequented the hotel and were inspired by the scenery before them. Such greats included Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorn and Henry Wadsworh Longfellow. Fanny was most remembered for her warm hospitality. She doted on her guest and worked hard to make their stay comfortable and enjoyable. This desire to please combined with John's pioneering ideas were, undeniably, a recipe for success. In 1854, John built the first tramway in New England. Originally, his objective was that born of ease and efficiency. He would use the tram to carry goods and supplies up the mountain's side. However it wasn't long before he would further accommodate his guest by using the tram to transport them to and from the hotel. John also provided steamboat service from across the river in Northampton at the Smith Ferry Railway Station. Guest could be transported from the railway station via steamboat to a tram at the base of the mountain that would take them to the Halfway House; from their, guest would take another tram up the mountain to the hotel. Innovation didn't stop here. John and Fanny installed one of the first phones in the area. Not surprisingly, Fanny utilized the phone as a source of entertainment. She would dial up the local glee clubs to have them serenade guest over the phone. All their hard work was paying off and life at the hotel was good. So good, that in 1861, John and Fanny built an addition triple their current size. However, things would soon take a turn for the worse as the French's had one major flaw: poor money management. Business isn't very forgiving when finances run out and debts are left unpaid. As the French’s situation grew dim they resorted to desperate measures. At one point, they had sold off hotel furniture to pay back taxes. Something needed to be done, and quickly.
In 1871, the French’s made a deal and sold the hotel to a businessman from New York named John Dwight. It was agreed that the French’s would live on the premises and continue to run the hotel. This proved to be a wise decision. John French died 1891, just three years shy of seeing the hotel take yet another transformation. In 1894 the hotel doubled in size. The hotel now had 44 guest rooms and could seat 200 people in the dining area. French and Dwight would continued to reap the benefits of the hotel's success for the rest of their years until they past away at the turn of the 20th century.
A consortium of three business men established The Mount Holyoke Company in in 1908. Allen Skinner, an industrialist, L. Threadway of Threadway Inn, and Christopher Clark held the land in a trust until Skinner took complete ownership and renamed the hotel the "Summit House". Lives and times were changing. The depression hit hard and limited the travel of many while the automobile became a hot commodity for those more fortunate. People could travel further and faster. They now had more options to choose from when deciding on a vacation destination. Despite Skinner's attempts to stay competitive by updating the hotel with electricity and new roads, it wasn't enough to return the hotel to the grander and prosperity it once knew. The final nail in coffin came with the Great Hurricane of 1938 when the addition that Fanny French and John Dwight constructed was destroyed. With noble intent and a need for intervention, Skinner gave 375 acres of the land along with the hotel to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in June of 1940.He asked only that the state preserve the land as a park and that the park would take his namesake.
Unfortunately, hardship for the Summit House would continue into the years that followed. The tramway stopped running some time during World War Two. Shortly thereafter its roof collapsed entirely. What was left of the tramway was removed in 1964. By the mid 70'S the condition of the Summit House had deteriorated to such a degree that it was on the verge of being condemned and demolished, It was then that voices came together and convinced the state to restore this regional landmark. In 1988, renovations were completed and the Summit House appeared as it did at the turn of the century.
Today, the road that leads to the Summit House is open from April through November while over seven miles hiking trails remain open year round. One can gain access to the park by turning onto Mountain Road, off Route 47 in Hadley, Massachusetts. The house itself is opened weekends and holidays from Memorial Day through mid October.
The park is a bird lover’s paradise. One can catch glimpses of the Cerulean Warbler and Worm-eating Warbler which are both rarities in Massachusetts. One will also catch views of the Indigo Buntings, Common Ravens, and even Bald Eagles. The migration of the hawks takes place between mid-September and November. During this time, literally thousand of Broad-winged Hawks can be seen as they migrate over the mountain along with Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks as well.
For hikers or geology enthusiast there are some great trails where one can explore and study the geo-history of various rocks. At Devils Football, in some spots, a compass will pull away from the North and point to the rock. Other rock formations of interest include Titan's Piazza and the Conglomerate Rock.
Intrigued by incredible views and the transition of life, thousand of visitors continue to pay homage to the park each year. Both the Summit House and land on which it resides continues to tell an ongoing story of who we were and who we are now. For more information one can contact the park at 413-586-0350 or visit their website at http://www.mass.gov/dcr/parks/skinner/.
Written By : Jessica Layne
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