Mount Washington

Tuesday, April 24
There's no Berkshire community older, and none more isolated, than the oasis-like town of Mount Washington, surrounded by state forest land and nestled in the far southwestern corner of the state, bordering New York and Connecticut. Fewer than 40 families reside in the town, which used to be the least-populated in the state, but now ranks third from the bottom with 146 residents counted in the latest town census.

The town is best known for its cornucopia of state forests and parks, clustered on a mountain plateau.

The standout attraction here is the spectacular Bash Bish Falls, offering the state's most dramatic waterfall vista. The origin of the name is variously described as an Indian word or a corruption of a Dutch word. Bash Bish is situated only 200 yards inside the state line. Water cascades through a series of gorges, dropping more than 60 feet over rocks covered with moss and fern into a clear, rock-rimmed, sparkling pool.

The falls should be especially impressive now, thanks to the heavy rain and snow of the past several months — a photographer's paradise. In summer, it can attract as many as 3,000 daily visitors from both sides of the border.

Access from South Egremont is via Mount Washington Road; it's about 11 miles to a designated, small parking lot. There are no trail maps or brochures, just a steep trail down to the falls. From Taconic State Park in Copake Falls, N.Y., there's a wide, easy trail leading to the base of the falls; there are maps, picnic trails and 112 developed camp sites.

According to legend, a love-sick Indian maiden and her daughter took their lives by plunging into the falls, and swarms of butterflies are said to mark their watery graves. It's no legend that several hikers have suffered accidents — in one case fatal — by venturing too close to the edge of the falls, and the state has put up a strong wire fence to upgrade safety at the site.

The 400-acre plus Bash Bish Falls State Park is part of the 4,169-acre Mount Washington State Forest, which includes 30 miles of rugged trails as well as wilderness camping. Much of the forest land was clear-cut from the late 1700s to mid-1800s to produce charcoal fuel for local iron forges.

Among the most rewarding hikes is the South Taconic Trail to the summit of Alander Mountain (2,250 feet).

A more challenging hike follows the Appalachian Trail south along the extended Mount Everett ridgeline and through Sage's Ravine.

The nearby Mount Everett State Reservation has a variety of hiking trails within its 1,110 acres and picnicking at Guilder Pond (the state's highest freshwater pond). A road from Route 23 leads to a parking area and a trail to the 2,602-foot summit where, on a clear day, it seems you can see forever.

The views into three states — Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut — are memorable. Hikers can continue to the adjacent summit of Mt. Frissell (2,453 feet), which straddles the border with Connecticut and boasts views to the east, south and west.

The entire area is a springtime paradise, filled with mountain laurel and azalea. The second half of June is the ideal time to see a spectacular floral display.

Named after George Washington

The roots of the Mount Washington community go back to 1692, when the first of six Dutch families from New York state started cultivating land. Under the 1705 Patent of Westenhook, a Scotsman named Robert Livingston — who had married into the wealthy Van Rennselaers — boldly expanded his land holdings from Livingston Manor in the Hudson Valley eastward as far as Sheffield. Livingston held 175,000 acres at the time, and when the first English settlers arrived, he charged many of them rent for land that had been granted as free, first-come, first-served homesteading territory by the Massachusetts Colonial Legislature.

Violence eventually broke out when settler William Race, who resisted Livingston's land claims, was murdered in 1755 by Livingston's henchmen.

A syndicate of 40 proprietors purchased a plantation on Taghconic Mountain in 1757 as an attempt to gain legal control of the land. Livingston's agents burned six of the group's farms in retaliation. Despite government intervention, it took 17 years to finally resettle the area under the ownership of the local residents.

The town of Mount Washington was incorporated in 1779, named after George Washington. By the 1830s, the population soared to 337 as charcoal was manufactured to supply the area's iron forges. Several small schoolhouses served the local children.

According to Hayward's New England Gazetteer of 1839, "about 100,000 bushels of charcoal are manufactured annually, and the residents keep 600 sheep. A mountain stream affords them water power for an axe factory and forge. These people appear to be more independent of the common wants of mankind than other folks, for they have no minister, physician, lawyer, post office, or tavern, yet they are remarkably healthy; and as far as we can judge, intelligent and kind."

From industry to tourism

The peak of industrial activity came in the 1850s, and summer tourism followed as industry declined. At least four boarding-houses served visitors to the area's natural attractions, but overnight visitation faded during the early 20th century.

Mount Washington originally included the community of Boston Corners at the western foot of the mountains, an isolated gathering place for rogues, ruffians and fugitives, which was annexed to New York state in 1857 and is now a hamlet within the town of Ancram in Columbia County. According to an 1878 history of Columbia County, the mountain barrier separating Boston Corners from the rest of Mount Washington made it "a sort of 'city of refuge' for criminals and outlaws of all classes, who fled to it to escape from the reach of the officers of the law. On this account it also became a resort of prize-fighters, who could here carry out their brutal and inhuman purposes secure from the interference of the authorities. The celebrated fight between John Morrissey and 'Yankee' Sullivan occurred here. For these reasons, it finally became necessary to make some change to enable the civil authorities to enforce the laws protective of peace and property, and in December 1848, the inhabitants petitioned to be annexed to the State of New York. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts consented in May 1853. The cession was accepted by New York, July 21,1853; confirmed by Congress, Jan. 3, 1855; and the corner was annexed to Ancram, April 13, 1857."

A tranquil oasis

For the past 150 years, Mount Washington has been an oasis for tranquility; these days, it's a unique refuge from the high-stress, high-tech lifestyle centered around cell phones, e-mail, the Internet, TV and video games. There's no cell phone service in the town, and residents can only access the Web by slow, dial-up land-line connections. Blackberries and their ilk are of no use; TV reception generally requires a satellite dish.

"I've lived in New York City, Minneapolis and I've traveled in Europe," says Lesliann Furcht, who married into an old Mount Washington family and serves as the part-time secretary in Town Hall. "I feel very fortunate to live here, it's this very special place."

She cites the tight-knit community and the interesting mix of residents.

"It takes a certain type of person to live up here," she observes, "someone who can be satisfied living in a very remote area with a simplified lifestyle."

She's amused when she gets strange looks after telling friends outside the area that she doesn't own a cell phone.

"When 9/11 happened, there was a definite sadness here, but no fear, we knew it couldn't happen here," she added. "You just really love it or you can't imagine living up here. There's nothing but the Town Hall, the Shed (the road maintenance garage) and the Church of Christ."

The church is open during the summer when about 100 second-home residents nearly double the year-round population.

Furcht cites the big summertime event in town — the softball game every Sunday.

"There are a lot of interesting characters here," she says. "Everyone from the wealthiest person to the person who works in a trade gets together and socializes. You don't feel like you have to keep up with the Joneses.

"People who are second-home owners really appreciate living up here," Furcht says, adding that the more recent arrivals tend to be even more "territorial and protective" than the full-time residents. "The newer people very much want to maintain what they came up here for."

The only drawbacks Furcht can think of are the long winters ("we're definitely ready for spring"), the mud season that afflicts the dirt roads in town, and for some people, the isolation can be a problem.

But, overall, a comparison of Mount Washington to Shangri-La is an apt one, according to Furcht. To an occasional visitor, one might add that a trip to Mount Washington is the closest thing to time travel one can imagine. Unlike some towns in the county, residents here are united by the desire to keep things just the way they are. And who can blame them?


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions