The Summit House | The Tramway | Writers and Painters

The Summit House as it stands today is of the same dimensions and similar room arrangement as the hotel enlarged by the Frenches in 1861. John built the first tramway in New England in 1854, originally to transport hotel supplies up the mountain, and shortly thereafter to transport hotel guests. It must be remembered that in a day when train rides were still relatively novel, a mechanical conveyance up the side of the mountain was unique! John also provided steamboat service for guests who arrived at the train station on the Connecticut River’s west shore, not far from a competing hotel on Mt. Norwottuck’s summit.  John thus ensured the guests’ efficient arrival at his hotel on the east side of the river. John and Fanny installed one of the first telephones in the area.  It served not only as a form of communication but also as a form of entertainment: The Frenches dialed up local glee clubs who sang into the telephone, providing live music for the guests.  The story of the hotel is, indeed, the story of “Aunt” Fanny’s gracious hospitality and John’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Financial acumen, however, wasn’t one of John French’s talents.  He once resorted to selling hotel furniture to pay back taxes. He put the hotel up for sale in 1869, wishing to avoid the business risk of competing summit houses nearby.   Two years later the Frenches sold ownership of the Prospect House to John Dwight, a local man with a thriving business in New York City.  While risk averse, the Frenches made a smart move.  John and Fanny continued to run the hotel and retained for themselves a “life estate” on the mountain. Three years after John French’s death in 1891, Fanny French and John Dwight more than doubled the hotel’s size, enlarging it to 44 guest chambers and a 200-seat dining room.

Both Fanny French and John Dwight passed on around the turn of the 20th century.  Joseph Allen Skinner and a group of like-minded businessmen created the Mount Holyoke Company in1908.  Their interest in the hotel was more one of conservation than of entrepreneurship.   Skinner, a local industrialist and philanthropist, took sole ownership in the next decade.  He brought modern conveniences to the hotel.  But even indoor plumbing, electricity and a new auto road could not sustain the popularity Mt. Holyoke and the Prospect House enjoyed during the French-Dwight time. The automobile increased travel options for vacationers. The economic depression of the 1930’s made the hotel out of reach for others.  The final blow came with the devastating 1938 hurricane.  While sparing the 1851 and 1861 hotel sections, it so severely damaged the 1894 addition that Skinner had it torn down.

Skinner had repeatedly asked the Commonwealth to buy the property to create a park.  He now resolved to make the land a state park by donation.  Thus, in 1940, he gave the hotel, its related out buildings plus 375 acres to the state.  He asked for nothing in return, save that the park be named in his honor.   At the dedication ceremony, Skinner expressed the wish that the place be a “thing of beauty and a source of joy to the people of the Commonwealth.”  A plaque on a rock outcrop in the picnic grove commemorates this event.

In 1988 an extensive renovation of the Summit House was completed, returning the structure to its turn-of-the-century appearance.