MassDOT might mark route of famous French general through Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD — One June day in 1825, a man who left his country to fight for another passed through Berkshire County.

The Marquis de Lafayette stopped to speak to an audience at the Congregational Meeting House at 29 East St. in Pittsfield and was hosted a block away at the Joseph Merrick Coffee House, formerly of 26 Bank Row.

If local lawmakers have their way, gone will not mean forgotten.

People traveling the same route will be reminded of trans-Atlantic loyalties — and this aristocrat's heroism.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, recently secured Senate approval of a measure to extend a trail already marked in Lafayette's honor all the way through the county along existing roads.

The French nobleman, born Gilbert du Motier, became rich through inheritance at 13. At 19, he was commissioned as a major general with the Continental Army after volunteering to help Gen. George Washington beat back English occupiers and give birth to a nation.

Washington would later credit Lafayette with helping turn the tide of war in America's favor, earning him fame throughout the colonies. In 1787, Massachusetts and two other states made him an honorary American citizen.

Lafayette would say of the Revolutionary War: "Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country."

As the 50th anniversary of a pivotal battle in that war neared, Lafayette returned to the United States in 1824, at the invitation of President James Monroe. He was in his late 60s, having survived revolution and imprisonment in his own country.

"Lafayette is kind of known as a voice who had no trouble speaking truth to power," said Peter Bergman, director of communications and community relations for the Berkshire Historical Society. "Which we could use now."

In 1824 and 1825, Lafayette made his way through all 24 existing states. That included his trip through Pittsfield, Dalton, Hinsdale and Peru, on his way to attend the laying of the cornerstone at the Bunker Hill monument.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, fought June 17, 1775, was one of the first major clashes between colonists and the British army. Years of fighting and deprivation lay ahead, including the rough winter of 1777 that Lafayette spent at Washington's camp at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, as the British held Philadelphia.

A-half century later, the French general was celebrated and feted along his route through the young nation. Crowds gathered to hear him speak. After leaving Pittsfield, he traveled through Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru and into Worthington, in Hampshire County, where he spoke near Pierce Tavern, on the site of the current town library. A plaque placed in 1925 marks the spot.

As the 200th anniversary of Lafayette's journey nears, Valery Freland, the French consul general in Boston, asked for Hinds' support in lifting the visibility of the current General Lafayette Trail, created by the Legislature in 1997. It runs from Williamsburg to Peru along Route 143, as noted by signs erected by the state Department of Transportation.

Hinds' measure needs approval in the House, where the legislation is co-sponsored by state Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield; Paul Mark, D-Peru; and John Barrett III, D-North Adams.

As Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts & Cultural Development, Hinds is interested not only in flagging the state's historic relationship with France, but in promoting travel through the region.

"The more we can emphasize these potential tourist attractions, especially for small towns, the better," Hinds said.

Charles Kaminski, president of the Berkshire Historical Society, agrees that a trail designation could spur public interest.

"I see that as something that would certainly meet the needs of the historical society, bringing people to Arrowhead [writer Herman Melville's home] or any of the historical sites," he said.

Lafayette's role in American history is notable, Kaminski said. "It was kind of an international event. There was Lafayette's involvement [in the Revolution] and [Britain] paid Hessians to come on board."

Marked route

If approved, the legislation would compel MassDOT to create signs to mark the missing portion of Lafayette's west-to-east route through the Berkshires.

That path follows Route 20 from the New York border into Pittsfield, then up South Street to Park Square and east on the current Route 9 to its intersection with Route 8. From there, it follows Route 8 into Dalton and then turns south on Route 8 into Hinsdale.

The current trail officially stops at Routes 8 and 143 in Hinsdale.

Julien Icher, a French graduate student working for his country's consulate in Boston, is helping prepare for the anniversary of Lafayette's American return by documenting the general's 1824-25 itinerary with an online map.

Lafayette died in France on May 20, 1834. When he was buried, a son scattered American soil around the grave.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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