Lauren R. Stevens | Hikes & Walks: After Irene's wrath, The Spruces now a place for all to get out in Williamstown
Somewhat over seven years ago, everything changed along Route 2, Main Street, east of Williamstown center. The Spruces, a mobile home park until tropical storm Irene flooded it in late August 2011, is now a town park with mowed walking paths, picnic tables and doggie litterbags. When the snow is deep in the hills, The Spruces maintains valley conditions for holiday snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or even walks.
Williamstown, where the Hoosic River enters Pownal, is the lowest elevation in Berkshire County — and The Spruces isn't that much higher. You drive down to Williamstown from every direction. Lower elevation governs weather, including reducing the amount of snow. Of course, within a couple of miles, on the summit of Mount Greylock, the highest elevation in southern New England, all that changes.
Spruces developer Albert Bachand got into the then brand-new mobile home business in 1950, establishing the park in 1954. He sold it in 1966. Present floodplain regulations that prevent developing such land did not exist, yet apparently he was aware of the danger of flooding. In 1955 he drove a bulldozer down the adjacent Hoosic River, lowering its bed by three feet and using the spoils to create a berm along the edge of his property. Such activity would be regulated now — and may have been then.
The berm ends where Mount Williams Brook, which captures Paull Brook descending from the North Adams reservoirs on the side of Greylock, enters the Hoosic. It was here that the river, swelled by up to 9 inches of Irene's rain, poured into the park. The berm, instead of protecting the 200 mobile homes, prevented the water sheeting off.
There was no loss of life, but 325 residents lost their homes, which constituted a large segment of the town's moderate income housing. Although the town and a volunteer group called Higher Ground tried to help, the loss was devastating.
A farmer continues to grow corn on a large part of the 40-acre plot; in the formerly developed portion many large spruces — of course — pine, yew and arbor vitae remain from decorative plantings. Two new plantings: a pollinator friendly wildflower garden by the pond and native trees and shrubs along a drainage swale.
A reuse committee has plans for ball fields, pavilion and bathrooms, which await the go-ahead from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In the meanwhile, deer have taken over; bear, moose and various raptors have also been spotted.
The walking, on mowed path or former roads, is flat. Although for the most part the river is hidden behind the berm, the occasional views, including of an island, are dramatic. The nearly 360-degree view of the mountains is exhilarating.
Bachand once posted a sign over the entrance of the park: "Be ye of kind heart, gentle mind, and neighborly spirit, then through these portals pass, friends, for thou art welcome." Nowadays that sounds like an invitation to take a walk at The Spruces. Happy trails to you.
Information on the early days of The Spruces draws on the late Carl Westerdahl's talk, "The Spruces: The History of a Model Mobile Home Park," delivered April 21, 2012, at the Williamstown Historical Museum and available on Willinet.
Lauren R. Stevens is author of "50 Hikes in the Berkshire Hills," Countryman Press/ W.W. Norton, 2016.
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