Route 2, the Mohawk Trail, on Columbus Day faintly approximated what it must have been like for 40 busy years after one of the first deliberately designed scenic highways in the United States opened. The Trail, which winds officially from Williamstown to Orange, will be 100 years old in 2014, setting off, we trust, suitable celebration.
It defined an era in America when roads connected towns and encouraged leisurely travel with the opportunity to stop here and there to savor the local scene -- and buy a snack or souvenir. Those days ended for the Mohawk Trail with the 1957 completion of the Massachusetts Turnpike, which sucked away Route 2's traffic and signaled locally that highways were to avoid towns and get drivers to their destinations as quickly as possible.
Originally the Trail was a project to get folks over the Hoosac Mountain, connecting North Adams with Charlemont in a dramatic way, without any pretense of history, as Robert I. Quay explained in his 2004 Williams College thesis. The Indian hoopla seems to have begun with a professional pageant director's notion, based perhaps on the phrase "old Mohawk war-path" in Arthur Latham Perry's "Origins in Williamstown," describing the route.
Although the New York-based Mohawks passed over the mountain to conduct a raid on the Pocumtuks in the Connecticut Valley, the Hoosac Valley through which they walked was Mahican territory, so the Mohawk name was something of a misnomer. And that was compounded by the fascination Americans held when the highway opened for the closing of the frontier and the accompanying romance of western Indians.
So the Indian portion of the massive "Pageant of the Mohawk Trail," which played to more than 10,000 spectators on four occasions at Hoosac Valley Park in North Adams in 1914, gave the wrong tribe the starring role and confused area history with western expansion. The Mohawk name stuck and the account inspired entrepreneurs who established themselves along the Trail.
That culminated, as Quay points out, with the erection of a 28-foot-high Indian, in Plains-style garb, that in 1954 gave the name Big Indian to a souvenir shop in Shelburne, accompanied by a western Indian teepee, and fake horse pulling a fake wagon. The shop recently changed its name to Native Views, "with special respect for the Native American people."
Other anomalies abound. Among the closed Indian-theme cabins, restaurants and stores along the Trail, in Charlemont stands "Hail to the Sunrise," the statue of a Mohawk Indian erected in 1932 by the Improved Order of Redmen, a fraternal organization limited to white men -- Indians need not apply.
The pageant featured the Indian and French attacks on Fort Massachusetts. The current memorial to that fort, an outpost on the Indian trail, is located adjacent to the Price Chopper supermarket parking lot in North Adams. The tree is a replacement for the one, felled by Dutch elm disease, planted by historian Perry to commemorate the fort. The chimney is left over from a replica of the fort, erected in 1933, as part of Trail-inspired historic revival.
So the Trail may not be a satisfactory reminder of the Indians in Colonial days, but it serves as an apt reminder of the days when driving was, well, more fun. At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.
A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.