Exploring Ruins Reveals Local History and Culture
Scattered throughout western Massachusetts are remnants of the homes, industries, and culture of the past. Historic buildings line our downtown neighborhoods, stone walls crisscross the now forested hills, and old mill buildings have found new, modern uses. In addition to the still-visible, preserved and/or re-purposed signs of the past are a handful of ruins, speaking volumes about the human history surrounding both their creation and their eventual demise. By safely exploring the ruins of local fame, families can explore local history and culture as a microcosm of national history and culture. Additionally, explorations of such areas can illuminate the ways in which nature eventually reclaims land, no matter what has been placed in its way.
In the Pioneer Valley, monuments to tourism of the past stand atop mountains on either side of the Connecticut River. Atop Mt. Nonotuck, hikers can discover ruins meant to be a part of the Eyrie House Hotel, a once-grand hotel built in 1861 and destroyed by fire in 1901. The stone walls and arches found atop Mt. Nonotuck were not part of the hotel, but were built as part of an expansion of the hotel before it burned.
Just across the river, Mt. Holyoke’s summit house marks the grandeur of a 19th century tourist hotspot. Once home to a tramway (quite novel 150 years ago!), a 200-seat dining room, and 44 guest rooms, the hotel allowed guests easy transportation by offering steamboat rides from the western shore of the Connecticut River – literally ferrying them away from competing hotels like the Eyrie House. The hotel eventually closed after economic hardships and extensive damage from the 1938 hurricane, and the building was restored to its early 20th century appearance.
Just outside the Pioneer Valley, the Quabbin Reservoir’s shores are home to endless cellar holes and other signs of the communities that once inhabited the Swift River Valley. At Quabbin Park in Ware, visitors can find a large and very in-tact cellar hole not far from the northern end of the Webster Road trail. Explorations of the former Dana Common, accessible via Gate 40 (Petersham), will reveal cellar holes, fence posts, stone walls, roads, and open spaces – all part of life in a community that no longer exists.
In the Hilltowns, the Plainfield Historical Society’s Hidden Walls, Hidden Mills walking tour series invites families to conduct self-guided adventures and learn to read the human-made elements of the local landscape. Included in the tours are stone walls, mill foundations, a cemetery, a historic school, and what’s left of the Plainfield Aquaduct Company’s infrastructure. Brochures are free and can be printed from the historical society’s website.
Further north, just before the Hilltowns turn into Vermont, the Franklin Land Trust’s The Benson Place Blueberry Trail begins with a cellar-hole and chimney remains that mark the home of the farm’s namesake. Nearby, a walled enclosure reveals the now-forested version of what once held livestock. The single cellar hole, coupled with the trail’s emphasis on exploring and learning about the barren landscape, illuminates the area’s agrarian history and connects today’s sustainable farming practices on the land to the farming that took place there in the past.
In the Berkshires, explorers can visit the ruins of one of the region’s many grand estates. At Ashintully Gardens, the Doric columns of an early 20th-century Georgian-style mansion loom atop a hill. Destroyed by fire in 1952, the home was known as the Marble Palace by locals. The ruins at Ashintully serve as a reminder of the grandeur of times past: while the Berkshires remain a destination for culture and natural beauty, the decadence implied by the Marble Palace’s columns is that of another era.
The northernmost reaches of the Berkshires are home to a monument to industries of the past. Natural Bridge State Park in North Adams is home not only to the only naturally formed marble arch on the continent (in itself serving as the glacial equivalent of a cellar hole), but also to the only man-made marble dam in North America. An abandoned marble quarry is also a part of the park, marking the place where marble used to create many local buildings was extracted from the earth. In operation from 1810-1947, the quarry serves as a modern reminder to the early development of communities in western Massachusetts and the resources with which they were built.