Carole Owens: The Melvilles at Bash Bish

Saturday February 23, 2013


Bash Bish are the highest falls in the commonwealth. Starting near the summit of Mt. Washington, water collects and travels downhill 200 feet culminating in an impressive drop into a pool. It is a popular spot, but how did it get its name?

The beautiful Bash Bish is falsely accused of adultery by an envious tribeswoman. (In another version, the same envious tribeswoman accuses Bash Bish of witchcraft.) As punishment, Bash Bish is tied to a canoe, let loose upstream of the falls, and left to float to a calamitous end. Just as the canoe tips over the falls, Bash Bish is engulfed in a ray of sunshine and a cloud of butterflies. When the canoe crashes to the bottom of the falls, Bash Bish is no longer in it.

White Swan, the equally beautiful daughter of Bash Bish, is unable to bear children. Her husband, Whirling Wind, might take another wife so he can have children. White Swan is grief-stricken at being barren and possibly deserted. As she sits staring down over the falls, she hears her mother call her. Bash Bish tells White Swan to come to her. White Swan leaps. Whirling Wind sees her and leaps in after her. Whirling Wind’s body is found smashed on the rocks at the bottom of the falls; White Swan’s body is not.

So it is said that when the light is right from sun or moon, you can see the faces of Bash Bish and White Swan smiling up at you from under the water in the pool or from behind the falls.

For many this tale is romantic and so Bash Bish Falls is considered a romantic destination. In the 19th century, Timothy Dwight and Edward Hitchcock wrote of its natural beauty in their travel books. For either reason or both, in 1863, Herman Melville selected Bash Bish as the destination for a trip with his wife Lizzie that biographer Hershel Parker calls "his second honeymoon."

1863 is the year Melville sold Arrowhead to his far more financially secure brother and prepares to move into a rented house on South Street behind the Backus Block (the corner of South and Park Square today). Selling Arrowhead and moving into the rental house while preparing the New York City house as their permanent residence might seem enough to be going on with; nevertheless Lizzie is thrilled to go on the proposed trip.

She wrote, "I cannot sufficiently congratulate myself that I have seen it before leaving Berkshire."


"It" refers to Berkshire scenery, and it is odd that Lizzie saw so little of it in the 13 years they lived at Arrowhead. Melville traveled all over the county, but frequently Lizzie stayed home. Now, on August 10, 1863, as they set out in a buggy, Lizzie was delighted that she would see "the wildest most enchanting scenery both mountain and valley."

From Pittsfield, they arrived in Great Barrington in time for dinner. They continued on to Smith’s Inn near the Dome of the Taconic, and spent the night. Next day, they drove to the falls.

Their destination was Bash Bish House. What would they find when they arrived?

Thanks to Daniel Dempsey who owns the poster, and Mandy Pieczarka, who brought it to my attention, we know just what Herman and Lizzie found when they arrived.

"To Pleasure Seeker! Messrs. Blodgett and Chapin have opened The Bash Bish House and are prepared to extend to guests the best accommodations during the summer months. The Bash Bish Falls and the romantic scenery of the place present unequaled inducements to those who desire to witness the charms of Berkshire scenery. A band has been engaged to furnish music for dancing commencing June 10th."

A few years earlier, in 1839, Edward Hitchock painted a different picture of getting to the Falls.

"In the first place it is an enterprise of no small magnitude to get to the place; especially for the ladies. None of whom but the most resolute and vigorous should attempt it until the roads are improved, or rather made, for there are no roads tolerable for carriages and it is a two mile walk to the falls."

Presumably in the intervening years, the road was made, perhaps by innkeepers Blodgett and Chapin. Lizzie and Herman arrived without incident or complaint and drew their buggy up to the door.

They stayed in Bash Bish House for under 10 days. In all probability they sat on the veranda; it was built so closely over the Falls that other visitors spoke of feeling the spray. The Melvilles then took a different route home increasing, to her delight, the number of Berkshire places Lizzie saw.

They arrived home on Aug. 22. Later in 1863, the Melvilles left the Berkshires.

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


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