The Summit House | The Tramway | Writers and Painters


A challenge presented itself after John French opened the hotel on the Summit of Mount Holyoke in 1851 – getting supplies up the steep side of the mountain to the top. Initially, French used a Canadian pony pulling a cart to carry food and water to the hotel. With a rising number of visitors however, he needed to find a better solution. In 1854, French found the solution by installing a horse powered tramway to the summit from the halfway area. Built originally to carry supplies and “invalids”, it did not take French long to realize that healthy visitors would also pay to ride the tramway to the top, paying 25¢ each way for the privilege, and half price for children.

Being the first tramway in New England, riding it was a new and frightening experience for passengers at the time, and many had concerns for their well-being. One visitor in July of 1858 wrote:

“Now, tramping up a flight of five hundred steps in a hot day, requires an expenditure of physical strength that few persons are inclined to part with; and yet to ascend the fearful height of six hundred feet suspended by a rope needs a good deal of courage, and so the question is debated and all manner of queries are propounded, - ‘Is it safe?’ ‘Won't the rope break?’ ‘Did any accident ever happen?’ ‘Are you sure we shall not all be killed?’ ‘Oh dear! I know we shall never reach the top alive!’”

 

For those who were too nervous to ride the tramway, or those who did not wish to spend the money, there were a set of stairs available between the tramway rails. Periodic platforms to the side allowed those walking up to step out of the way of the tramway as it went past them.

Finding the tramway to be a success, French upgraded it two years later by replacing the horse with a steam engine. In 1860, he again upgraded it, expanding from one track to two tracks. As an added convenience, the new tramway exited directly into the hotel lobby. Visitors who wished to walk to the summit could continue to use the staircase built into the original tramway.

With increasing visitation to the hotel, French upgraded the tramway once more in 1867. Instead of following the contour of the earth, he built it on an even level, and enclosed it with walls and a roof, protecting the riders from the elements. A new staircase ran inside the passage next to the tramway, continuing to provide an alternative for those who were too nervous to ride the tramway, although French now charged visitors to walk up the staircase. In July of 1869, one visitor writes:

“…we feel a good deal of trepidation about taking this flight and some time is occupied in debating whether to risk our necks in the car, or walk the flight of five hundred and twenty-two steps by its side”

Despite the fears of its riders, only one accident occurred on the tramway. In 1857, two women fell out of the car when it rose off the tracks. Rather than being an issue with the tramway, two “gentlemen” riding on the luggage rack caused the accident when they decided to scare the women by shaking the car. Knocked unconscious by the fall, one of the women required a week-long stay in the Summit House to recover. Despite the potential for serious harm, neither woman had any lasting injuries. To alleviate concerns about the safety of the tramway, French reported between 50 and 100 passengers rode the tramway the next day without any problems.

“This accident will of course teach a lesson of moderation. The shaking of this car in so perilous a position, simply to frighten timid females, is like rocking a boat in deep water to gain amusement from the fears of the passengers.”

A final upgrade to the tramway happened in 1927 when Joseph Skinner modernized it. He replaced the steam engine with an electric engine, and the hemp rope with a steel cable. In addition, he had an emergency brake put onto the tram, so in the event of the cable braking, the tram car would stop before reaching the bottom.

“But the view and the refreshing air at once dissipate all fancied fears of danger, and the visitors dispose of themselves as best may suit their fancy.”

With lower visitation to the mountain in the first half of the 20th century, the tramway entered a period of decline. In 1942, the electric engine burned out, but the war effort prevented repairs from taking place. The tramway passage collapsed under heavy snow in the winter of 1948, and while area residents attempted to get funding to repair it, they were unsuccessful, and state workers burned the remains in 1965.

Extremely successful, even with with the fears of the riders, the tramway safely carried over two million passengers throughout the course of its history. As the visitation at the Summit House grew, the tramway expanded to meet the new needs, though today it is only a fond memory. Could John French have imagined what the future would bring when he first installed it in 1854?

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We are always on the lookout for any additional information or photographs of the Mt. Holyoke tramway. Please email us at holyoke.range@state.ma.us or call us at (413) 586-0350. Pictures that we are especially interested in are the original 1854 tramway and the interior of the tramway terminal barn.