The world-famous Mohawk Trail, which runs from the Berkshires to Boston along historic Route 2, officially became a National Scenic Byway this year. This designation is a rare honor awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation to some of the nation’s most scenic roads. The Mohawk is one of only 34 byways nationwide to receive this designation since 2009. 

Just what makes this western Mass highway worthy of scenic byway status? Berkshires environmentalist and writer Lauren Stevens explains the creation and history of this iconic touring road to Executive Producer Tony Dunne. 

This story originally aired June 10, 2020.


Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: There’s a saying among travelers that a trip is all about the journey, not the destination. And if you’re looking for a road trip to take this Memorial Day weekend, we’ve got just the one for you.

Earlier this year, the world-famous Mohawk Trail, which runs from the Berkshires to Boston along historic Route 2, officially became a national scenic byway. It’s a rare honor awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation to some of America’s most scenic roads. And the Mohawk is one of only 34 byways nationwide to receive this designation since 2009.

To celebrate, Berkshires environmentalist and writer Lauren Stevens explains the creation and history of this iconic touring road to executive producer Tony Dunne.

Lauren Stevens, Environmentalist/Writer: To local people today, the Mohawk Trail means a way of getting from here to there.

Officially, the Mohawk Trail runs from Williamstown, basically from the New York border, to Orange. The Trail started out as an Indian trail, probably not really the Mohawk so much as the Mohicans, because this was their territory. The Mohawks were over in the Mohawk River on the other side of the Hudson.

The good government of North Adams in 1912 or so contacted the state and said, “please, can’t we have some kind of an improved highway?” State said, “OK, it’s going to be a major engineering feat, comparable almost to the to the Hoosac Tunnel, but we’ll do it.” And it opened in 1914.

When the trail was first improved by the state, it wasn’t it was still an adventure. It wasn’t paved, it was simply a gravel road. It wasn’t plowed in the winter; the good citizens of Florida shoveled it off. Neither the state nor North Adams, when it started, really thought of this as any kind of historical road.

A prominent North Adams businessman who owned a hotel, whose name was CQ Richmond said, “you know, let’s celebrate the opening of this road by having a big pageant.” And it played to tens of thousands of people, had a cast of hundreds. The pageant and its popularity initiated the idea that became what was, essentially, a linear Indian-themed park.

And all of the businesses that grew up along the Trail, they all picked it up and said, “well, we’re going to call this the Mohawk Trail.” And it was a very enthusiastic place to be.

And if you look at the early postcards of the traffic on the Trail, I mean, it was extraordinary, particularly in the leaf season.

In 1954, the proprietors of a shop over in Charlemont, in fact, put up a 28 foot high Indian in Plains-style garb, and he soon gave the name to their shop, the Big Indian Shop. People were really excited about the West, and it seemed more immediate to think about the Western Indians than the Eastern Indians. So, that big twenty eight-foot-tall Indian was really not so much a mistake as an attempt to capitalize on what was more exciting at the time.

For example, the scale of the Sunrise statue, which is in Charlemont, was put up by the Ancient Order of Redmann, which was a fraternal organization, and they put up the statue honoring a Mohawk Indian. And you know, it’s a little bit of irony there is that they themselves were a white male organization. So, had had a Mohawk Indian or Mohican Indian or Plains Indian come up to them and said, “we’d like to join your organization,” they wouldn’t have been allowed.

So, the Indian message is a mixed message, but the message about automobile days and the pure enjoyment — and adventure — because cars were breaking down all the time, that I think this is the real message.

This hairpin turn, this was put in in order to reduce the angle of climbing. There’s a restaurant, the Golden Eagle, there at the elbow of the curve that has had its share of accidents as trucks came down the hill here and couldn’t quite make that curve.

And they actually kind of moved it back a little bit in order to protect it. That was one of the properties that originally was built by a fellow named Charles Kennedy, who also built the shops and originally a viewing tower up at Whitcomb summit at the top. And Kennedy had been a reporter, photographer, actually, from the North Adams Transcript.

There are moments on the Trail, and some of them are perhaps painful. If you go over the Trail from North Adams and head down the other side, there’s an ominously named Dead Man’s Curve, and there have been some fatalities there, where the road takes a sharp turn, there’s a steep bank.

And then, of course, we can’t forget much more recently, Hurricane Irene, which wiped out the whole side of the trail, going down from from Florida Mountain down into into Charlemont. And it amazes me to look at that now and see that they had to start really all over again, and with a fill and, you know, creating a ledge where no ledge any longer existed.

For a little while after Henry Ford had made the Model T available to most people, this was a wonderful route. And people drove not so much to get somewhere, as to experience the trip. And the Mass Turnpike drew most of the traffic, and with it the business, off of this road.

And unfortunately, the interstate highway system has made us all eager to get where we’re going with no stops in between. And so, I think we’re we’re missing out on a lot.