Thanks to reader “Williamstowner” for sending in this copy of the Bob Quay article from OnCampus.

Who blazed the Mohawk Trail? A look at the rise of auto tourism

By Bob Quay ’04

I wrote my thesis for the American studies department about the history of the Mohawk Trail, one of the first scenic highways in the country. Most people who have taken this route from Boston to Williamstown notice the 28-foot statue of an Indian in a Plains-style headdress advertising the Big Indian Shop in Charlemont. In a sense, I wrote my thesis to figure out what the Big Indian is doing there.

One of my favorite aspects of doing the thesis was that it was about a local subject.  Without venturing too far afield, I was able to sift through postcards, guidebooks, souvenirs, and other memorabilia from the Trail’s heyday in the collections of the Archives and Special Collections at Williams and the Memorial Libraries in Deerfield.  Through free publicity in local newspapers, I found a number of amateur local historians and several people whose families have been connected with the Mohawk Trail since the highway’s inaugural years in the 1910s. As I met with these local residents, I heard anecdotes and saw photographs and other memorabilia that I would not have been able to find otherwise.

Paul Marino, considered by many to be the unofficial city historian of North Adams, was particularly generous with his time. He showed me how to navigate through the archives of the North Adams Transcript, a resource which I used extensively. After spending a couple hours with Mr. Marino at the Transcript office, I realized that he has spent more time sifting through the newspaper’s archives than anyone else, including any member of the newspaper’s staff. A couple of weeks after Transcript employees told me that it was only indexed back to about 1950, Mr. Marino showed me a card file in a forgotten filing cabinet that contained an index of the paper dating back to about 1905.

That and a couple of other similar experiences made me realize how quickly historical information can be lost. After struggling to piece together details of events that happened a few generations ago and a dozen or so miles from campus, I gained a deeper appreciation for historians who work to uncover the details of events that occurred centuries ago across continents.

There were several items that were probably relatively ubiquitous at one time that I was simply unable to track down. For instance, I was hoping to compare the length of the train trip from Boston to North Adams to the length of the corresponding drive on early highways, but was unable to find a train timetable from the 1910s. (The thought that a future historian might be looking for something I just threw away gives me a new perspective on all the stuff I’ll likely discard as I frantically prepare to leave campus next month.)

Spending time with people who have direct connections to the early days of the Mohawk Trail has made the story of the Trail seem more tangible and more relevant to my surroundings. Knowing that living descendants of the historical actors I was writing about would read my thesis made me work harder to balance the need to critically evaluate the Trail’s history with the need to fairly describe the actions of individual historical actors. Without the knowledge that descendants would be reading my work, it would have been tempting to force some of these actors into simplistic caricatures—greedy entrepreneurs or racist appropriators of American Indian culture. It also made me think about the creation of the Mohawk Trail’s tourist landscape not only as the result of vague historical phenomena such as “the rise of middle-class automobile tourism,” but also as the result of the actions of specific people.

My topic also introduced me to other research being done here. Professor Hank Art, who is director of the Center for Environmental Studies, shared postcards and other Mohawk Trail memorabilia that he has acquired. He is collecting postcards that reflect the changes which have happened to the local landscape over the past few decades, in particular the transition from cultivated land to forests. Fueled by the popularity of the Trail among tourists, early 20th-century printers produced postcards featuring images of a few dozen different viewpoints along the Mohawk Trail.

Recently, Professor Art and I drove the Trail with Stan Brown, a historian from Florida (the town just east of North Adams, not the state) to determine exact locations of the vistas featured on the postcards. I looked forward to that drive with Professor Art and Stan Brown, as I hope that it represents the first of many times when my thesis will be able to assist future scholars with their research.

Quay, who is graduating with a B.A. in American studies, first traveled the Mohawk Trail on his way from his home in New Hampshire to his grandparents summer house in Lee, Mass. At Williams, he has been president of the Williams Outing Club, a junior advisor, an assistant scoutmaster in the Williamstown Boy Scout Troop, a writer in the news office, and member #2491 of the Olde Forge Beer Club. After biking from Santa Fe to Glacier National Park this summer, Quay hopes to teach history and social studies at the middle or high school level in the fall.

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