Skinner State Park embraces the slopes and summit of Mount Holyoke, the westernmost peak on the Mount Holyoke Range. At just under 1,000 feet, the summit gives a panoramic view of the valley below and highlands beyond, including New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock to the north, Mount Greylock to the west, and Connecticut's East Rock to the south. Visitors can see the cities of Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield, Massachusetts. Hartford, Connecticut, is visible on clear days.
Native Americans traditionally used the Connecticut River as a corridor for transportation and commerce. This pattern was reproduced with European settlement. Cities like Hartford and Springfield grew from small settlements into large centers of population and commerce. The Valley forests with their rich soils, as well as rockier upland locations, were cleared for agriculture, pasture, and the harvesting of wood products.
From the early 1800s, Mt. Holyoke played a significant role in the cultural identity of the United States. The view from the summit – cultivated farm fields, framed by rugged mountain and impenetrable forest – told the story of a young nation transforming itself from wilderness into a civilized landscape. It was this vista that made Mount Holyoke an important tourist destination in those days, second only to Niagara Falls.
Recognizing the mountain’s appeal, a group of businessmen from neighboring Northampton built the summit’s first structure, a small cabin, in 1821. There, visitors could take shelter from the elements and enjoyed “refreshments of every kind…for individuals and parties of pleasure.” Some 3,000 visitors annually made their way to the mountain in the three decades that followed. Today an interpretive sign and stone foundation at the summit mark the place where the cabin stood.
Everything changed in 1849 when a young newlywed couple, John and Fanny French, bought the cabin and ten acres of land. They replaced the cabin with a small hotel and named it the Prospect House (later renamed the Summit House). Fitted out in "the most modern style," the hotel provided the trappings of civilization from which to enjoy the view. It held a dining room, a handful of chambers for overnight guests, and an observatory equipped with a 60-power telescope.
Many mountaintop hotels like the Summit House dotted the New England and Hudson Valley landscapes in the second half of the 1800s. Most are gone, consumed by fire or demolished as derelict buildings. An interpretive tour of the building today reveals how changing technology and the changing expectations for amenities and leisure pastimes is reflected in many of the hotel’s features. It gives a glimpse into the early days of family vacations for this country’s newly-emerging middle-class.
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