Bernard A. Drew: National Park Service at 100


GREAT BARRINGTON >> I stood 2,602 feet above sea level, on Massachusetts' second highest mountain (after the four-pack of peaks at Greylock). It was Aug. 25 and I tipped my cap to the National Park Service (NPS) on its 100th birthday. I was standing on the Appalachian Trail, Berkshire's one link to the NPS.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act into law in 1916. The first national park was Yellowstone in California (already protected as a state park). President Barack Obama, to celebrate the NPS, relied on a tool shaped under President Theodore Roosevelt's term in office, the Antiquities Act. The first designation was Devil's Tower in Wyoming. With broad presidential power to protect significant natural, cultural and scientific features, Obama declared Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine a national monument.

Alec Gillman of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation organized several short hikes that day to celebrate the NPS anniversary and 100 years of shared stewardship of public lands Gillman, who has overseen interpretive programs at Mount Greylock and other properties in this area, is now west region interpretive coordinator with responsibilities extending to all the commonwealth's holdings to the Connecticut River.

He's used to telling the story of glacial formations eons ago and of Civilian Conservation Corps activities in the 1930s. But Harry Potter fans and Pokemon seekers are something new to his repertoire. He is determined to create new ways to get word out about the Massachusetts park system, and to create inviting walks, talks and other ways to encourage visitation.

I joined Gilman's hike from Gilder Pond at Mount Everett State Reservation in Mount Washington along the AT to The Dome. At the parking lot, bottles of water and other "trail magic" greeted through hikers. One pair, hoping to reach Jug End by nightfall so they could be picked up to spend a couple of days respite with one of the pair's grandparents, said the heat and humidity had been intense as they navigated New York. Once the reach Katahdin, they expect to train back to Harper's Ferry and from there complete their hike to Georgia.

As we headed up to the summit we dodged a small sea of newly hatched toads crossing the AT. Gillman pointed out scarring on the schist outcrops and said it was glacial, from when there as a mile of ice above the mountaintop.

Centuries old

At the crest we entered a 20-acre old-growth forest. In miniature. The trees, which survived because they are unmarketable, are mostly contorted (by weather) dwarf pitch pine and scrub oak, ranging in height from 1 to 10 feet. Old-growth, by the commonwealth's definition, is a forest "lacking any evidence of past land use and containing five canopy trees greater than 225 years old per hectare (2.47 acres), which indicates establishment prior to European establishment." There are six old-growth stands in the Mount Everett Forest Reserve.

The first Massachusetts natural space holdings were the Metropolitan Park Commission in Boston in 1892, followed by Mount Greylock State Reservation in 1898 and Mount Everett State Reservation in 1908. The latter two were initially monitored by three-member boards that answered to the Berkshire County Commission. In 1923, the Massachusetts legislature transferred Mount Everett Reservation to the Department of Environmental Management.

I had an added agenda in the hike. I wanted to find benchmarks on the peak. So visible from the Housatonic River valley floor, Bald Peak (an earlier name for Mount Everett, which was also called Taghkanic and The Dome) was the obvious spot to establish a triangulation point for the commonwealth's 1830 Trigonometric Survey Commission, better known as the Borden Survey. The highest point on Mount Everett is shown in Simeon Borden's resulting 1844 map.

According to information on the National Geodetic Survey website (in the state/county/station name listing, look for Bald Peak), a point — probably the same one — was established in 1862 with a brass pin punched into a drill hole in the schist. The Coastal and Geodetic Survey in 1938 re-established the benchmarks in 1938. Two circular brass medallions are easily found near the four concrete pillars from the old fire tower. No. 1 and No. 2, as they are called, have arrows that point to the pin. The dial faces are scuffed and hard to read.

When the commonwealth established a survey of town boundaries in 1911, many more points were established. I found one of the drill holes. The others are no doubt hidden beneath the tenacious dwarf forest. I was happy to have found one.

A hiker stood dumbfounded in the center of the four concrete piers at the summit. There was a fire tower here the last time I came through, he said. That must have been before 2002, Gillman told him. There were three fire towers on this site, the first in 1918, the second in 1845, the last in 1970.

The now-removed fire tower allowed visitors to climb above the wizened trees for a view. Even if the tower had been there the day of our visit, clouds and miasma were so heavy, there was nothing to see.

We were enclosed in another world.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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