History of the Summit House

Joseph Allen Skinner State Park is a state-owned, public recreation area located in the towns of Hadley and South Hadley.  The state park surrounds Mount Holyoke, the westernmost peak of the Mount Holyoke Range. At the summit is the historic Prospect House, an old hotel first opened in 1851. The park is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery is just a hop skip and a jump from J.A. Skinner State Park – an area with a unique history and story.  You can visit the Old Prospect House, or Summit House, year round by hiking to the top.  You can also take the auto road in the summer time – the house is often only open on the weekends.  We recommend you either start or end your trip to the summit with a stop at Barstow’s for lunch or for ice cream!

The Summit House as it stands today is of the same dimensions and similar room arrangement as the hotel enlarged by the Frenches in 1861. John French built the first tramway in New England in 1854, originally to transport hotel supplies up the mountain, and shortly thereafter to transport hotel guests. It must be remembered that in a day when train rides were still relatively novel, a mechanical conveyance up the side of the mountain was unique! John also provided steamboat service for guests who arrived at the train station on the Connecticut River’s west shore, not far from a competing hotel on Mt. Norwottuck’s summit. The story of the hotel is, indeed, the story of “Aunt” Fanny’s gracious hospitality and John’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Financial acumen, however, wasn’t one of John French’s talents.  He once resorted to selling hotel furniture to pay back taxes. He put the hotel up for sale in 1869.  Two years later the Frenches sold ownership of the Prospect House to John Dwight, a local man with a thriving business in New York City.  John and Fanny continued to run the hotel and retained for themselves a “life estate” on the mountain. Three years after John French’s death in 1891, Fanny French and John Dwight more than doubled the hotel’s size, enlarging it to 44 guest chambers and a 200-seat dining room.

Both Fanny French and John Dwight passed on around the turn of the 20th century.  Joseph Allen Skinner and a group of like-minded businessmen created the Mount Holyoke Company in 1908.  Their interest in the hotel was more one of conservation than of entrepreneurship.  Skinner, a local industrialist and philanthropist, took sole ownership in the next decade.  He brought modern conveniences to the hotel.  But even indoor plumbing, electricity and a new auto road could not sustain the popularity Mt. Holyoke and the Prospect House enjoyed during the French-Dwight time. The automobile increased travel options for vacationers. The economic depression of the 1930’s made the hotel out of reach for others.  The final blow came with the devastating 1938 hurricane.  While sparing the 1851 and 1861 hotel sections, it so severely damaged the 1894 addition that Skinner had it torn down.

Skinner had repeatedly asked the Commonwealth to buy the property to create a park.  He now resolved to make the land a state park by donation.  Thus, in 1940, he gave the hotel, it’s related out buildings plus 375 acres to the state.  He asked for nothing in return, save that the park be named in his honor.   At the dedication ceremony, Skinner expressed the wish that the place be a “thing of beauty and a source of joy to the people of the Commonwealth.”  A plaque on a rock outcrop in the picnic grove commemorates this event.

State funds for maintenance of the summit house and tramway during the intervening years were inadequate. The remains of the tramway were removed in 1964 and by the mid-1970s there were proposals to condemn and demolish the summit house. This led to a public outcry and in the mid-1980s the Summit House, consisting of the original 1851 structure and the 1861 addition, was restored by the state. The building was reopened for tours following restoration work performed in 2014.

The park offers scenic views, picnicking, and over 40 miles (64 km) of trails including an 11-mile (18 km) stretch of the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail.

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