Last updated: July 8, 2020
The Mount Greylock Summit Historic District, in northwest Massachusetts, is located on the highest mountain in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at 3,492 feet. The spectacular views from the summit have been an attraction for visitors since the 19th century. Mount Greylock became Massachusetts’ first state reservation in 1898, with the donation of 400 acres of land. Today the reservation includes over 12,500 acres, including an 11.5-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail.
The isolated Mount Greylock has remained sparsely populated in recorded history. The Mahican tribe hunted in the area prior to European settlement, but there is no evidence that they ascended the summit. Once the Europeans arrived, they were slow to move to this remote section of Massachusetts. The colonials performed the first surveys of the land in 1739 and 1740. After that, in the late 18th century the region’s early settlers' primary occupation was farming, supported by small industries such as sawmills, grist mills, and cider mills. Jeremiah Wilbur owned a farm in the area northeast of Greylock known as the Notch in the late 1700s. The 1600-acre farm extended up the slopes of Greylock, and included an orchard, woodlots, and pasture. Wilbur built the first trail up the mountain, connecting his farmhouse in the valley with the farm's upper slopes. In the 19th century, farmers, railroad companies, and a growing number of industries logged Greylock’s slopes for timber and fuel.
The spectacular view from the summit made the mountain an attractive tourist destination early in the 19th century. In 1800, guided by Wilbur, Timothy Dwight visited the mountain summit and described the view in his book Travels in New England and New York. Mount Greylock’s popularity as a destination for tourists increased beginning around the 1830s and 1840s. Williams College faculty and students hiked on the mountain and built two observation towers on its summit in 1830 and 1841. In 1863, several Williams College and Williamstown hikers formed the Alpine Club, one of the first hiking clubs in the country.
During the Romantic and Transcendental eras, several literary figures made pilgrimages to Mount Greylock and described it in their writings. William Cullen Bryant, who attended Williams College, wrote several poems about the area. Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Mount Greylock in 1838, and described the mountain in his American Notebook, and in his story “Ethan Brand.” Henry David Thoreau came in 1844. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, he described a cold night he spent on the summit of Mount Greylock (which he called “Saddle-back”), sandwiched between boards pulled from the wreckage of the former Williams College observatory. The next morning, he found the landscape transformed by fog that filled the valley.
Of all the authors who visited Mount Greylock, Herman Melville was perhaps the mountain’s biggest fan. Melville, who lived in nearby Pittsfield, loved the view of the mountain from his window so much that he dedicated his novel Pierre to Mount Greylock, which he described as “Most Excellent Purple Majesty”:
IN OLD TIMES authors were proud of the privilege of dedicating their works to majesty. A right noble custom which we of Berkshire must revive. For whether we will or no, majesty is all around us here in Berkshire, sitting as in a grand Congress of Vienna of majestical hill-tops, and eternally challenging our homage. But since the majestic mountain, Greylock—my own more immediate sovereign lord and king—hath now, for innumerable ages, been the one grand dedicatee of the earliest rays of all the Berkshire mornings, I know not how his Imperial Purple Majesty …will receive the dedication of my own poor solitary ray. Nevertheless, forasmuch as I, dwelling with my loyal neighbors, the Maples and the Beeches, in the amphitheater over which his central majesty presides, have received his most bounteous and unstinted fertilizations, it is but meet, that I here devoutly kneel, and render up my gratitude, whether, thereto, The Most Excellent Purple Majesty of Greylock benignantly incline his hoary crown or no.
—Herman Melville’s dedication to his novel Pierre (1852)
Tourism increased through the second half of the 19th century, as new railroad routes provided a direct link between North Adams and Boston. A modest summit house built on Mount Greylock by 1875 provided simple meals and lodging for summer visitors. Although tourism increased, utilitarian uses of the mountain’s timber resources were accelerating as well. By the mid 1800s, the heavy logging of Mount Greylock’s slopes and summit led to problems of soil erosion, fires, and landslides.
Alarmed by the problem, a group of local businessmen formed the Greylock Park Association and purchased 400 acres of the summit to prevent future damage. They hoped to create an attractive tourist destination at the summit and constructed a new, 40-foot-tall observatory and a toll road to reach it. When the business venture failed, the Greylock Park Association offered to donate the land to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a public reservation, with the stipulation that the state would buy additional several thousand acres of land around the summit. In 1898, Mount Greylock became Massachusetts’ first state reservation.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts built a War Memorial on the summit in 1930, and between 1933 and 1936, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed a number of additional structures on the summit, including the rustic Bascom Lodge, built of native stone and timber. They also built roads, trails, and a campground on the Greylock reservation.
Tourism was a popular draw, but also had its drawbacks. After World War II, a proposal for a large tramway to the top of the mountain led to formation of the Mount Greylock Protective Association. The organization opposed logging activities and a large ski resort planned for the site. Management of the Mount Greylock reservation transferred to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Department of Natural Resources in 1966 in response to conservationist protests over management. Debates over the size, scale, and appropriateness of developments on the mountain continued throughout much of the 20th century. Preservation arguments increasingly focused on ecological as well as scenic values of the property.
Today, the reservation provides habitat for numerous species, including 40 species of rare plants. A 1600-acre tract of old growth red spruce trees was designated in 1987 as a National Natural Landmark.
Mount Greylock Summit Historic District is located in the northern Berkshires of western Massachusetts, approximately three hours west of Boston and north of New York City. Mount Greylock State Reservation is in North Adams, Adams, Lanesborough, Cheshire, Williamstown, and New Ashford, MA. The Visitor Center is at 30 Rockwell Rd, Lanesborough, MA. The park is open year-round from sunrise until dusk for day-use recreation. Weather permitting, roads to the summit are open late May-November 1. The Veterans War Memorial Tower is open seasonally. The Bascom Lodge, a historic Arts & Crafts building, is open 7 days a week, June through mid October, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and lodging. The Mount Greylock Campground is accessible by hiking only. The Mount Greylock Scenic Byway is accessible by automobile from mid-May through October 31 as long as safe driving conditions permit. Access is free, though a $2 fee applies at the summit parking lot only. For more information about Mount Greylock State Reservation, visit the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. For more information about the National Byway, visit the National Scenic Byway Program Mount Greylock Scenic Byway website.
To discover more Massachusetts history and culture, visit the Massachusetts Conservation Travel Itinerary website.