Berkshire County myths debunked

Sunday July 8, 2012

Ever hear the story about the treasure buried in the Berkshire hills by soldiers during the Revolutionary War? Or the one about how the monument atop Mount Greylock actually was designed to be a lighthouse?

How about the massive PCB fire on Silver Lake? Or the story about mountain lions that prowl the backwoods of Western Massachusetts?

If you have heard them, you aren’t alone, but you might be misinformed.

There is no proof of any buried treasure, and the Veterans War Memorial Tower was designed to be just what it is. As for Silver Lake, something certainly caught fire, but it wasn’t PCBs.

And about those mountain lions ... scientists say they last were here in the 1850s, but just mention those big cats at your next party and watch how many people tell you their neighbor’s cousin saw one in their backyard not long ago.

Tall tales permeate lore in every outpost of society, and Berkshire County isn’t without its stories that are more fun than fact.

Today, The Eagle explores three local legends that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Myth 1: Captured Revolutionary War soldiers buried a treasure in the Berkshires.

This story has roots in a handful of communities in the county, including Dalton, Lanesborough and Monterey. Each story varies slightly, but the general pattern involves Brunswick/Hes sian soldiers captured at the Battle of Saratoga, N.Y., in 1777, after General John Burgoyne’s defeat.

As legend has it, these soldiers were being transported to Boston when their convoy stopped in Berkshire County -- giving some of them just enough time to bury their valuables for safekeeping.

The first issue with this tale is why prisoners would be carrying gold in the first place.

Bernard Drew, historian and author of the book "Henry Knox and the Revolutionary War Trail in Western Massachusetts," said there would be a need to pay for beef and other rations to feed the prisoners, but the reasons for carrying currency would stop there.

It was largely a barter economy at the time, according to Drew, and the modest homes along the trail provided little incentive for potential looters.

Some stories, like that of a money chest stolen from a chimney during an encampment in Lanesborough, are similar to tales in other communities, while popular tales of Hessians hiding their loot on Day Mountain in Dalton seems to be counterintuitive.

Drew said it would have made more sense for travelers to go around the slope on Grange Hall Road rather than carrying all that weight over top.

While anything’s possible, Drew said, he has serious doubts that there ever was a large treasure buried in the county.

"It’s the kind of story that takes on a life and is not easily verified or disproven," Drew said.

Myth 2: Veterans War Memorial Tower was designed as a lighthouse.

The sloping granite monument topped by a massive glass globe doesn’t look much like a classic New England lighthouse, and looming atop Mount Greylock more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, it’s certainly not directing boats near shore.

But with its ball of light and seemingly remote placement, it’s not difficult to see how this folklore has carried through the generations.

The myth, according to local historian, editor and writer Gary Leveille, tells of the structure originally being intended for use as a lighthouse in Boston.

"It was never a lighthouse in Boston Harbor, even though that story has been repeated over and over," Leveille said.

The truth is that the 93-foot-tall memorial was built in 1932 and dedicated the next year as a tribute to "courage, endurance, loyalty and self-sacrifice, wherever these qualities have been shown, by the state’s men and women in the uniform of the state or nation," according to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation website.

The site was selected, in part, because it’s the highest point in Massachusetts (3,491 feet).

The confusion over the tower’s origins sprang from the fact that the company chosen to design it also had submitted an unsuccessful bid to design a World War I memorial on an island in the Charles River in Boston.

Over time, according to Leveille, those disparate events got mashed into one story to create the myth that lingers.

Myth 3: PCBs caused a massive fire on Silver Lake.

Silver Lake once was in the shadow of the massive 250-acre General Electric Co. plant and stands as a lasting reminder of the high levels of contamination released from the former transformer manufacturing site.

But one tale of Silver Lake is cited from time to time as the ultimate symbol for the pollutants that are still being dealt with today.

As the story goes, the lake was so contaminated with PCB runoff that it sparked a massive fire. A picture of the plume from the blaze made its way to The Eagle’s front page in 1923.

GE used PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, until 1977, the same year most uses of the probable cancer-causing chemical were banned by the federal government. Since the late 1990s, GE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, and other local, state and federal agencies have collaborated on a massive cleanup of roughly two dozen sites in and around Pittsfield.

The PCB fire seems to make sense at first glance, but the reality, it turns out, is more complicated than the myth.

For starters, GE didn’t even use PCBs in Pittsfield until 1933 -- a decade after the infamous fire spread from a shoreline bonfire. And the reason GE began using PCBs was because of their resistance to fire.

"It could have been any number of different solvents," said Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski.

Czerwinski said he recently saw a copy of the picture snapped on Dec. 6, 1923. The plume, Czerwinski said, is characteristic of a fire started by gas or oil, but not PCBs.

Czerwinski said the fire could have been started by solvents dumped or leaked into the lake from any number of sources, including a storm drainage system that used to collect much of the nearby runoff and empty it into Silver Lake. The system was later upgraded to run through an oil-water separator, Czerwinski said.

Today, Silver Lake is one of three remaining major cleanups connected to the former GE plant contamination that are yet to get under way.

Work is expected to commence this week and largely will consist of capping the lake bed and excavating portions of the shoreline. It is expected to take two years to complete.

To reach Trevor Jones:,
or (413) 496-6214.
On Twitter: @BE_TrevorJones


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