iewed against the 10,000 year-old backdrop of North Adams’ spectacular Natural Bridge — featuring the only water-eroded natural marble bridge in North America — most other historic sites are simply young pups, even in the history-rich hills of Berkshire County.
Long a privately owned and operated attraction, Natural Bridge is now a Massachusetts State Park. Visitors can marvel at the wondrous marble bridge, formed during the last ice age, then stroll the walkway above a 500-foot long gorge where water rushing over 500 million year old rock still sculpts the gracefully undulating walls and numerous pot-holes, as it has for tens of thousands of years.
History buffs will also appreciate North Adams’ showpiece, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), which is housed in a vast complex of 19th century factory buildings. The nation’s largest contemporary arts center, MoCA brings modern visual and performing arts to a National Historic Register site, one whose fascinating history encompasses more than 200 years of New England’s economic, industrial and architectural development.
Also not to be missed is the adjacent Western Gateway Heritage State Park, where the visitor’s center depicts the history of the Hoosac Tunnel, in its day the longest tunnel in America. The nearly five-mile long rail tunnel, under construction from 1850-1874, took 196 worker’s lives and cost the then-astronomical sum of $21 million. The visitors’ center at Heritage Park is filled with fascinating photographs and artifacts illustrating the tunnel’s history. The North Adams Museum of History and Science, also located in the park, features more than 25 exhibits on three floors, which portray a microcosm of America through the history of North Adams and the Berkshires.
A little bit south, in Adams, most places in town afford a view of the state’s highest peak, Mount Greylock, and its landmark monument, the Greylock War Memorial. No visit to the area is complete without a detour to the summit (reached via access roads from Route 7 in Lanesboro or Route 2 in North Adams). At the top, a WW II-era Civilian Conservation Corps stone lodge, located beside the War Memorial, offers food and rustic lodging in season. Be sure to climb the Memorial for stunning views of the summit and four states.
In the center of the county, at Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, is a restored 200-year-old original Shaker village featuring 21 historic buildings. Visitors can see Shaker furniture, crafts, demonstrations of Shaker work, farming and other activities. Also in Pittsfield is Arrowhead, the home of Moby-Dick author Herman Melville from 1850-1862. You can walk the grounds, tour the home and even visit the study where Melville wrote his masterpiece. Another Pittsfield site that is not to be missed is the Colonial Theatre, an exquisite 1903 vaudeville house that is currently undergoing an historic restoration.
Continuing south, you’ll begin to see an increasing and fantastic array of historic farmhouses and country inns, and examples of the grand Berkshire “Gilded Cottages,” the summertime mansions of turn-of-the-20th-century New York aristocrats. The Mount, in Lenox, is a classical mansion built by Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Fromme, and The House of Mirth. The house and grounds have recently undergone a spectacular major restoration. Another Lenox restoration is underway at the Museum of the Gilded Age’s Ventfort Hall, used as the orphanage in the feature film “Cider House Rules.” Ventfort Hall is an imposing Jacobean Revival-style mansion built in 1893 for George and Sarah Morgan, the sister of J. P. Morgan. This historic home & museum offers tours, lectures,Victorian teas, special exhibits, Children’s programs, theatrical performances, has a museum shop and is available for private rentals. Ventfort Hall interprets the great changes that occurred in American life, industry, and society during the Gilded Age, a fascinating period of American history. Open Daily year round.
One town over, in Stockbridge, you can tour Chesterwood, the home of Lincoln Memorial sculptor Daniel Chester French, visit the studio and garden, and take a woodland walk. Each year, during the month of May, French left his permanent home and studio in New York for six months and moved with his family to Chesterwood, where he worked on over 200 public and private commissions. French’s summer home includes a garden dating from the 1920s. His studio and barn contain sculptural studies for a number of his works, including the famous statue of Abraham Lincoln that is now in Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial and the Minute Man in Concord, MA.
Massachusetts’ Trustees of Reservations maintain two Stockbridge homes, Naumkeag and the Mission House. Naumkeag, designed by Stamford White in 1885, is a 26-room Gilded Age mansion filled with Chinese porcelain, antique furniture and elegant rugs and tapestries. Its gardens, designed by the preeminent 20th century landscape architect Fletcher Steele, are among the finest in America. The Mission House was built in 1739 by John Sergeant, first missionary to the Stockbridge Mohican Indians. It contains a fine collection of period furnishings and a charming garden of herbs and perennials.
Other historic sites dot Berkshire County from top to bottom; many are open to the public for visits, dining or lodging, and every one offers unique insights into bygone days. For additional information on Berkshire County family attractions, call the Berkshire Visitors Bureau (866-444-1815) or visit their web site at www.berkshires.org
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