Hoosac Tunnel, East Portal in Florida. Built in the mid-1800s, it still carries an active freight rail; to avoid accidents, visitors must have permission from owner Pan Am Railways to enter the tunnel. Here, Kevin McMillan of Zoar Outdoor gets a close look.
Photo Credit : Carl Tremblay
Since New England’s first official “scenic tourist route” opened on October 22, 1914, millions of drivers have discovered that once you meander along the 60-plus miles of the Mohawk Trail, the road’s personality makes it much more than a way to get from one place to another. It becomes the reason to go.
The silver Saab convertible in front of me is emblazoned with a bumper sticker that boasts, “I Love Elvis.” But it could also say something like “I Like Driving Slow” or “I’m Afraid of Going the Speed Limit.” You see, we’re going a few ticks under what the law allows, poking along a stretch of quiet country beside the Deerfield River. Not that I mind the pace. In fact, I’m more than happy to take my time.
The Mohawk Trail inspires that. This is a road of endless curves, postcard-ready views, small towns, and intriguing side roads. Interstate 90 it’s not. Nope. The Mohawk, one of the oldest scenic byways in the country, doesn’t so much blast around territory as bring you into it, slicing through Berkshire villages and some of the most scenic beauty in all of New England, maybe the country.
Officially a 63-mile portion of Massachusetts Route 2 between Millers Falls and the New York border, the Mohawk is at its most elemental level a 42-mile two-lane link between Greenfield and Williamstown. But its history and allure give it a legacy few roads can match. For centuries, the Mohawk served as a main Native American footpath for tribes living between the Hudson and Connecticut River valleys. Its beauty and utility continued even after the arrival of European settlers. By the mid-1800s it had became the domain of horses and wagons, many of whose passengers marveled at the beauty and the sometimes imposing terrain. “Often it would seem a wonder how our road was to continue, the mountain rose so abruptly on either side,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1836.
In 1912 construction began on converting the Mohawk stagecoach road into something that could accommodate America’s newest obsession: the automobile. Its completion two years later came with all the fanfare of an inauguration. On October 22, 1914, nearly 300 automobiles and 1,800 people gathered at Whitcomb Summit, high above the little town of Florida, for a daylong celebration of speeches, food, and picture taking. It wasn’t the road we use today—it was still gravel and just wide enough for a single car—but its arrival helped usher in a new era of travel and daytripping. Motels and cottages, restaurants, and kitschy shops soon sprang up along the roadside. You didn’t just drive the Mohawk Trail—you went to it.
It continues today. There’s a restless quality to the road—it has no single identity. You’re on a mountain. You’re beside a river. You’re in a small town. You’re passing through farmland. You can buzz along at 50 mph, or just let yourself get lost, meandering off on some inviting side road.
I did. Just outside Shelburne I ventured off the beaten path, climbing up and up until I reached Davenport Maple Farm, where amid the rolling pastures, stately maples, stone walls, and grazing cows I felt as though I’d parked myself in a painting.
But more than just a place to visit, the Mohawk Trail, and the region around it, is also a home. On an early-September afternoon last year, I veered off the main road again and onto Zoar Road in Charlemont. North of there in Rowe, at a bend in the land known as Zoar Curve, sits an old white-clapboard Cape and a converted chicken coop, now housing Zoar Books & Gallery. “Unique Pre-Loved Books” was the promise, and so I had to stop.
Outside, one of the home’s owners, Bonnie Lee Nugent, was chugging behind an old lawnmower, while her husband, Dale Bulmer, was flipping through a few paperbacks in his shop. Fronted by the meandering Deerfield and a pair of train tracks where the original Mohawk stagecoach road had once run, the property seemed like the perfect place to stop venturing wherever you’re headed and settle in for an afternoon.
That’s sort of what Bonnie had done. She’d bought the property in 1968, and with her first husband, fixed up the old place and raised two sons. They fished and swam the Deerfield, looked for moose and deer, and when the big train rumbled by waited eagerly for the engineer to whistle a hello.
“When we looked at it, the place hadn’t been lived in for two years and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know,’” recalled Bonnie as we sat on the porch looking out at the river. “And then the train goes by and my two little boys are jumping up and down, waving. The engineer and brakeman leaned out the window and waved back, smiling and pulling on the whistle. My boys just look up at me with these wide eyes. ‘Can we live here?’ they asked. What could I do? But it ended up being a fun place to live.”
Still is. Even after all these years, Bonnie cherishes where she lives and being on the Mohawk Trail.
“I love it here,” she said, glancing out at the river. “It’s heaven.”