Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Eyrie House: William Street's Home in the Clouds

Stumbling upon the ruins of the strong traprock foundation astride the summit of Holyoke's Mt. Nonotuck, one might wonder what magnificent structure had perched atop these sills, what glorious architecture capped such a solid base that suggests grandeur in every stone laid. The fact of the matter is that these massive basalt walls have never supported anything but such visions and mind-pictures in the century passed, calamity and competition leaving unfinished one man's dream.

In 1893, William Street began construction of a new stone and concrete-built summit house to replace the aging Eyrie House hotel and resort he owned and operated from the lofty heights of  his treasured property at the very top of Mt. Nonotuck. Street's plan to build an elegant four-story fireproof structure on the site just below the original hotel came to a blazing end around 8 p.m. on the night of April 13, 1901, when the mountain went aflame, a result of loose embers from a fire Street had started earlier as a crematory pyre for two deceased horses. Thinking the ashes of his fire had been reasonably contained, Street, alone on the summit, had gone about his evening business, the orange and red glow of the hungry and growing eraser traveling up the mountain alerting him to the pyre's re-spark too late as the barn went up, the first casualty in the ensuing path of destruction the desperate hotelier was helpless to halt.

Street, known for his frugality, was woefully under-insured. Three years of fierce competition from the nearby Mt. Tom Summit House and Railway Park, opened in 1897, and before that, years of sustained rivalry with the Prospect House, atop Mt. Holyoke across the Connecticut River, had also severely cut into Mr. Street's seasonal receipts. Unable to rebuild, broken and broken-hearted, William Street gave up his mountain perch to live out the rest of his days a recluse, to his death refusing to acknowledge the $5,000 the Mt. Tom Reservation Commission had deposited into an escrow account in his name after taking his property per eminent domain when negotiations between the two parties about the acreage's true value had come to a stubborn stand still. William Street died in 1918 at the age of 78. Having remained a bachelor all of his life, his sole heir was his sister, Ann, who inherited what was left of Street's estate, including, presumably, the $5,000, which he had left untouched for fourteen years. Mr. Street's Mt. Nonotuck has been enjoyed by visitors to its climes as part of Mt. Tom State Reservation for over a century now.

Officially opened on July 4, 1861, the Eyrie House had expanded its facilities as well as its reputation by the time this 1871 advertisement for the busy summer resort appeared in the book, Attractions of Northampton, by Charles Chandler. Patrons could visit a collection of creatures Mr. Street, an amateur zoologist, kept as a mountain menagerie. Options for viewing the valley and surrounding blue-tinged ranges were numerous, with platforms and walkways and mountain paths leading to natural lookouts. A telescope provided breathtaking views of the Connecticut River's meandering Oxbow or the growing town of Northampton, shining in the upriver distance. Bands appeared and picnics were held, the grove filled to its edges most summer days, well over a hundred folks at a time enjoying the fresh mountain air of Western Massachusetts.

William Street had begun the Mt. Nonotuck enterprise with a partner, Hiram Farnum, who sold his share in the operation in August of 1861, the architectural and recreational creation born atop the mountain thereafter the pursuit of Street's sole and personal vision. The image above shows the north face of the Eyrie House. It was taken facing the summit from the area of where the previously pictured foundation ruins of the never-to-be replacement hotel can be found today. From meager beginnings on leased land, Street's mountain resort grew and expanded each year as he sunk his heart and soul into his dream. In 1875, he purchased the property from his lessor. By 1885, an improved road was carrying Eyrie House patrons up the mountain to stay in one of the hotel's more than thirty well-decorated, wainscoted and black-walnut trimmed guest rooms. Wooden decks and promenades soared above the treetops, leading to attractions scattered around the property. Companies held picnics there and families made an annual tradition of vacation pilgrimages to the elevated retreat.

The faint figures of people utilizing the observation deck atop the Eyrie House can be seen in this photograph. The four decade old, all-wooden building and its surrounding decks and promenades took little time to burn on that fateful Saturday night in the spring of 1901, a somber spectacle seen for miles around, like a tragic beacon illuminating the nearly 900 foot high Mt. Nonotuck summit. According to an article in the April 14, 1901, Springfield Sunday Republican: "The progress of the fire was watched by hundreds of people at Northampton, Easthampton and Holyoke, and it made a brilliant sight way up against the clouds. There seemed to be no resistance to the flames, and they rushed through the long three-story building at will, and by 11 o'clock the whole structure was in ashes."  Street was badly burned on one of his hands as he bravely battled the fire and later maintained that, had he gotten help sooner, the house may have been spared the inferno. Very few items were saved before the hotel was consumed, the telescope, some souvenirs and bedding retrieved all that Street had left to remember his mountain paradise. Those and a sturdy traprock foundation begun, that sadly, would never see progress again. Unlike the Phoenix, the Eyrie House would not rise from the ashes.

Folks from all points had options for getting to William Street's Eyrie House with local road, rail and water travel experiencing giant leaps forward toward modernity in the 19th century. The final leg of the journey, though, was always uphill, the mountain road a vital link to success which Street continuously tried to improve over the years, purchasing land and securing rights-of way necessary to ease the toll of the climb on his patrons. Indeed, simultaneously with construction of the stalwart, left-behind foundation of the new hotel, a railway was being built to carry passengers from the flatland below to the heights of the resort. Remnants of the rail bed, begun around 1894, can still be seen in thick, high, stone support walls chasing time down the slopes. That endeavor, too, was abandoned as a result of the 1901 Eyrie House fire.

This radio beacon tower, constructed by the Defense Department in the mid-40s and maintained today by the FAA, is located almost in the center of where the original Eyrie House once stood. Snapped from the foundation ruins of the never-completed "new" Eyrie House, the angle of the photograph is very similar to the angle of the one three photographs up, the one depicting the north side of the hotel. Standing here, one can imagine the house at it was, proprietor William Street, the "hermit of the mountain" as he had been known, opening his doors to happy and satisfied guests for a few months of the year. Selling his creation on the mountain one night at a time to folks who returned year after year to behold the new wonders he had in store. It isn't every hotel owner who kept a bear in the basement...

Now under the charge of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Mt. Tom State Reservation is a place of basalt ghosts and keystone memories, specters we can revisit on snowy hikes or summer days to contemplate dreams borne upon wings to summits in the sky. Today, through doorways and beyond walls fixed in stone and mortar, we can walk among the nestled rock puzzle remnants of one man's vision: An ever-welcoming crown atop an unforgiving mount, William Street's eyrie among the clouds.

We can look off into the valley, over the hills, and marvel at all that has changed from William Street's day. We can wonder, too, of all that remains the same. And still, we pay our coin, we take our view, and some will see further than others.

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

For more information on visiting Mt. Tom State Reservation, including how to get there and a printable trail map, be sure to visit the mass DCR's park web page at:

For a great video history of the Eyrie House check out Mt. Tom historian Robert Schwobe's presentation, Mt. Nonotuck and the Eyrie House Hotel, at Easthampton Community Access Television's blog:

And here's a link to an excellent chronology of Eyrie House history by Bob Genest over at the Pine Cone Johnny blog:

Tony Mateus, author of the blog, in the valley, has also visited the Eyrie House and Mt. Tom, here's a link to his post, with his ever-present awesome photographs:

And another link to a great web site called, Mt. Holyoke Historical Timelines, which mentions the Eyrie House a few times:

The two vintage Eyrie House photographs and the map are courtesy of the always-expanding ImageMuseum (thanks!):

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Tony said...

Superb history and pictures, Mark; and with a touch of your trademark poetic style. Excellent post!

Jeffrey Byrnes said...

The Eyrie House is near and dear to me. I explored it as a child. And now that I am older it has been a background for my work. I have formed memories there from childhood till now. It is a great place to hike to. Good post.

Robert Genest said...

fantastic post.

Mark T. Alamed said...

Thanks, everyone!

I highly recommend watching the Eyrie House video linked to at the bottom of the post. Really informative and some great vintage shots of the old resort.

Debbie said...

Hi Mark, I lost track of you for the past few years. Glad to see you 're still writing your blog and taking great photos!
My husband and i just walked up to these ruins the other day. It as a beautiful hike and the linden trees at the ruins were in spectacular fragrance. I can highly recommend this fairly short hike, not too taxing for us 60 year olds and not buggy at all until the sun started to dip, around 7 pm.

Anonymous said...

Is it free .?? And can I go at any time and any day ..?