Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Ride on the Mt. Tom Railroad, Holyoke

Electricity, entrepreneurship and an eye for entertainment transformed the highest peak on the Mt. Tom Range from a knuckle in the stone spine of the Metacomet Ridge into the happening local destination of the 1890s and beyond, thanks to William S. Loomis, owner of the Holyoke Street Railway Company.

As a Holyoke businessman dissatisfied with the pace of the street railway's line expansion, Loomis decided to take matters into his own hands, purchasing the four-year old company outright in 1888. Electrification of the lines came in 1891 and, despite a faltering economy, the Holyoke Street Railway grew apace under his ambitious stewardship.

In 1895, Loomis's railway began shuttling weekend passengers in search of respite and recreation to a 365-acre parcel on Holyoke's Mt. Tom that he had purchased and begun to groom some years before. Opened in 1894 and named Mountain Park, the new connection to the Holyoke Street Railway resulted in a steady increase of visitors and profits.

In 1897, with a state charter to build a pleasure resort in hand, Loomis strove to make his vision blossom, adding a restaurant (with open-air dining), a dance hall, and a 2,500-seat theater named The Casino. A unique switchback railway (a new type of roller coaster, the first of which had been built just 13 years before at Coney Island, NY) beckoned the daring soul, with a merry-go-round and water ride providing additional, less-challenging, amusement.

The Holyoke Street Railway's weekend trolley park on the mountain served both pleasure and profit, with day-off fares proffered by grateful workers free on holiday to board trains that would else sit idle as a Sunday factory: Indeed, a combined natural win for both city folk and stakeholder.

Mountain Park & Mt. Tom Summit House, Holyoke, Mass., between 1900-1910
No self-respecting turn of the 20th century mountain resort was without a crowning summit house. Locally, proprietor William Street's Eyrie House hotel and resort had perched at the apex of Holyoke's Mt. Nonotuck for 36 years - the summit house atop Mt. Holyoke in one form or another for much longer - by the time the Mt. Tom Summit House opened in 1897. The fresh and fierce competition for patrons, coupled with a calamitous fire, drove William Street from the pleasure business into bitterness and seclusion by 1901. Mt. Holyoke's summit house fared better, operating as the Mt. Holyoke Hotel into the 1930s.

Lower station, Mt. Tom Railroad, Holyoke, Mass., between 1905-1915
Key to the success and popularity of the Mt. Tom Summit House as a satellite of Mountain Park, despite its location atop the highest peak of the Mt Tom Range, was the construction of the Mt. Tom Railroad in 1897. An offshoot of the Holyoke Street Railway Company, the two lines' convenient connection at Mt. Tom's lower station made the steep, uphill climb a painless, even pleasurable, experience for patrons.

In the photo above, cars of the Holyoke Street Railway service passengers at the lower station platform. Access to the Mt. Tom Railroad is on the opposite side of the station.

Mt. Tom Railroad elevating car, The Elizur Holyoke, between 1900-1920
The Mt. Tom Railroad was uniquely engineered to master the steep, uneven terrain using two special elevating cars, designed with seats that automatically leveled themselves to the immediate incline for passenger comfort. Each car could carry up to 80 fares.

The duo were named in honor of contemporaries Elizur Holyoke and Rowland Thomas, 17th-century surveyors of the area from the down river settlement of Springfield and namesakes of Mt. Holyoke and Mt. Tom. Elizur Holyoke married Springfield settler and magistrate William Pynchon's daughter Mary in 1640, the first marriage recorded in Springfield.

 The Rowland Thomas, after passing turn-out, between 1905-1915
With two cars shuttling passengers on one line, it was necessary to incorporate a turn-out, or bypass, on the Mt. Tom Railroad constructed to be capable of allowing the overhead electric cables of each car to pass unimpeded on their meeting.

In the photo above, the Rowland Thomas (foreground) climbs toward the Mt. Tom summit after passing the Elizur Holyoke, the turn-out visible between them.

The Elizur Holyoke climbs Mt. Tom, Holyoke, Mass., between 1905-1915
Basalt barriers blasted, mountain flora cut to earth: a mile of wooden ties and steel racks were tacked to rugged stone slope to create the Mt. Tom Railroad, linking Mountain Park and the Mt. Tom Summit House, 700-feet above. Bordered by traprock piles, desolate in their displacement, the railroad's construction cut what would be a time-consuming - or even impossible for some - on-foot ordeal into a short, 10-minute ride to the top, accessible to anyone with the price of the fare, twenty-five cents (as recorded in 1912).

Approaching Mt. Tom Railroad's upper station, between 1900-1906
The Elizur Holyoke appears in the distance climbing toward the Mt. Tom Railroad's upper station. The two cars on the line, as well as the upper and lower stations, were linked by telephone, affording ease in communication and providing an extra level of safety and service. A full-service telephone was available for public use at the Mt. Tom Summit House.

The Elizur Holyoke crests the final rise of the Mt. Tom Railroad, between 1900-1906
Trade union publication, The Railroad Trainman, with an appreciative eye for the innovative, took note of the newly-built Mt. Tom Railroad in its July, 1898, issue:
"The summit of Mt. Tom was not easily accessible until the construction of the Mt. Tom Railroad in the year 1897. Now, the street cars of Holyoke (which connect with the Springfield system of street cars, and with the Boston & Maine and N. Y., N. H. & Hartford railroads) run to the lower station of the Mt. Tom Railroad, and in less than ten minutes afterward the mountain cars deliver their passengers on the summit. The Mt. Tom Railroad is a cable-trolley-electric, modern mountain railway. The two cars are connected, and balanced by a 1 1/4 inch tested steel cable, made of 120 steel wires, twisted into the six minor cables which form the strong steel rope which runs over an eight-foot sheave at the top of the incline."
Electric brakes were backed up by an automatic, speed-sensitive braking system, as well as a cable brake. Power to spark the whole line traveled through pole-supported electric wires from a generating source five miles distant.

Pulling into upper station on the Mt. Tom Railroad, between 1900-1906
President William McKinley and First Lady Ida were very important passengers on the Mt. Tom Railroad on an outing to the Mt. Tom Summit House in 1899. The 25th president of the United States, accompanied by Massachusetts governor Roger Wolcott, was taking in the local sights while visiting Western Massachusetts to attend his niece Grace's June 20th graduation from the esteemed Mt. Holyoke College. Re-elected to a second term in 1900, McKinley perished September 14, 1901, assassinated by an angry anarchist at the age of 58. McKinley was the last sitting president to have served in the Civil War and the first to be captured on film in a 'moving picture.'

Upper station, Mt. Tom Railroad, Holyoke, Mass., between 1905-1915
Over a thousand feet above sea level, the vista outside the Mt. Tom Railroad's upper station exploded in stretching immensity, offering striking, breathtaking views of the valley and beyond. Visitor conquerors of the jagged cap of Mt. Tom Range alighted in the heavens from electric chariots full-lunged and fresh, ready to enjoy the amenities and entertainment scattered about the peak for their pleasure.

Steps away from the upper station beckoned the Mt. Tom Summit House - perched on a basalt tor defiant - with its maps and telescopes, sitting nooks and myriad wide windows inviting visitors to drink in the distant and near. The top-notch Top-O-Tom restaurant provided an upscale ambiance to the rugged natural surroundings offering diners both fine food and magnificent views in a classy atmosphere. The establishment was noted for its unique, ivy-covered interior walls.

The Mt. Tom Summit House, Holyoke, Mass., between 1905-1915
The original Mt. Tom Summit house, built in 1897, was destroyed by fire on October 8, 1900. The Holyoke Street Railway Company wasted no time rebuilding, employing laborers over the winter to work post haste to replace the profitable asset with an even bigger and better version. On May 15, 1901, the new Mt. Tom Summit House (above), complete with golden dome, 300-person capacity hall, and 3,920 square-foot, glass-enclosed upper observation deck, opened for business.

The imposing, seven-story tall structure served as a focal point of the valley and a day trip destination until its own demise by fire in 1929. A small building made of metal was constructed on the spot as a replacement, but, as growing automobile ownership expanded folk's choices, and increased competition for recreation revenue coupled with the onslaught of the Great Depression, the once-keen popularity of the Mt. Tom Summit House failed to rebound. The land became the seed for Mount Tom State Reservation, groomed by the Civilian Conservation Corps beginning in 1933, and still serves today as a piece of public paradise.

In 1938, the last summit house and the Mt. Tom Railroad were dismantled and sold for scrap, an ignominious exit for a vibrant era fast fading to sepia-toned memories.

Mountain Park, having marked its share of ups and downs navigating the past 117 years, has enjoyed a more illustrious and lasting legacy than its satellite in the sky, persevering in various forms and configurations until the end of the 1987 season, when its gates closed for what sadly appeared to be the last time.

Fortunately, the 60 acres that had been the heart of Mountain Park through the decades remained in private hands and were purchased in 2006 by local visionary and entrepreneur, Eric Suher, who entertains dreams of restoring the park of locals' memories. Generations apart, William Loomis and Eric Suher complete a century circle of commercial creativity and inspiration, promoting the hard acres of Mt. Tom, inventing and re-inventing the happy world of Mountain Park. Well-attended concerts organized by Mr. Suher in 2009 and 2010 breathed life into the dormant and dismantled park, public support for Mr. Suher's endeavors on display in the enthusiastic turn-out for the shows.

View of Easthampton from Mt. Tom, Holyoke, Mass., c1908
On his 1899 visit, President McKinley declared the view from Mt. Tom "the most beautiful mountain out look in the whole world." Perhaps had he enjoyed the opportunity on his trip to visit more of the several summits standing sentinel above the Pioneer Valley, witnessing perfection in constant laid out below, he would have expanded his generous summation to reflect what locals truly know: Western Massachusetts is the most beautiful place in the world.

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

Explore more...

One ride from Mountain Park that can still be ridden is the 1929-built merry-go-round, relocated and still spinning at a buck a ride beneath a wonderful recreation of its original pavilion at Holyoke's Heritage State Park. For more information, visit the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round website at:

Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke maintains an excellent website, Chariots of Change, chronicling the history of the Holyoke Street Railway Company, including interesting links to a large collection of digitized reference material:

The website, Mt. Holyoke Historical Timelines, presented by Robb Strycharz, is an excellent resource that captures the symbiotic relationship between Mt. Holyoke, Mt. Tom, and Mt Nonotuck throughout their commercial development:

In 1912, the Holyoke Street Railway Company - under the management of Louis D. Pellissier - published Views on and about Mt. Tom and of Mt. Tom railroad, an illustrated promotional tool for the resort. Louis Pellissier and William Loomis worked together for years molding the mountain acreage into a profitable business. Pellissier purchased Mountain Park in 1929 and operated it until 1952. Here's a link to the publication, digitized at the Internet Archive:

Here's a nice website with information and images, including the original Mt. Tom Summit House:

Jay Ducharme, author of the book, Mountain Park (Arcadia Publishers), is the local authority on the park's history. Here's a link to his website:

Plan your visit to Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke with directions, printable trail map and more, courtesy of the Mass. Dept. of Conservation and Recreation:

Check out the EWM channel on YouTube for a collection of vintage clips and videos of Holyoke history in motion:

Learn more about William Street, proprietor of the Eyrie House atop the summit of Mt. Nonotuck, with EWM post, The Eyrie House: William Street's Home in the Clouds:

Take a photo-hike around Mt. Tom's Lake Bray with EWM post, A Misty Morning on the Bray Loop Trail:

EWM post The Federal Theatre Project Visits Mt. Park Casino features posters from the depression-era WPA Federal Theatre Project advertising shows at Mountain Park Casino:

Photo source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection:

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Dick Savage said...

I don't see the summit house in the first photo, labeled "Mountain Park & Mt. Tom Summit House, Holyoke, Mass., between 1900-1910," and I do know what it looks like. That photo appears to be of building at the base of the mountain, i.e. at Mountain Park.

Dick Savage said...

I'd like to know exactly the route of the old railway to the Summit House. Was it along the same route as the modern access road for the radio towers (which seems likely)? It would be interesting, if any remains, to see the original rail bed. the spot where trains passed each other, etc. I'd like to reconstruct the old Mountain Park, the buildings and layout, if partly only in my mind's eye.

Frank Brownlow said...

The old right-of-way to Mountain park begins off route #5 behind #601, and goes for about a mile before it runs into route 91--tho' it's overgrown now before it gets there. What happens beyond 91, I don't know.

Anonymous said...

Well, three photographs are obviously mislabeled, the ones with the following captions:

#1. Approaching Mt. Tom Railroad's upper station, between 1900-1906

#2. The Elizur Holyoke crests the final rise of the Mt. Tom Railroad, between 1900-1906

#3. Pulling into upper station on the Mt. Tom Railroad, between 1900-1906

In all cases, for anyone who has performed a lttle study on this railway, the safety third rail is left of centerline of the two main rails from the bottom of the hill to the top. Consequently, all these photos mentioned above show the Elizur Holyoke leaving or arriving at the Lower Station, ,not the Upper. The other giveaway is no sign of the cable attachment in #2, it being at the other end of the car which is always the uphill side, so the motorman is preparing to arrive at the Lower Station. In #3, it is departing the Lower Station. because the motorman is not present, being at the other end of the car, obviously, along with the cable attachment, going uphill.

Never heard of self-leveling seats either, because they didn't - far too complicated. Like many funiculars, the seats were quite rounded to help the passengers get comfortable. Also both trolleycars had a permanent backwards tilt on the seats facing uphill, the rear-facing seats the opposite for obvious comfort reasons because while on grade, they level towards the horizontal, er, automatically.

The railway seems to be a unique design, and proper descriptions and photographs are hard to come by if not impossible, particularly of the extra fake wheels that acted as cams on short raised rail portions to ensure that facing uphill, the Rowland Thomas always took the right-hand turnout, the Elizur Holyoke the left, whether ascending or descending. The cars themselves were not completely symmetrical - the cable was displaced as shown by the sheaves, and the camwheels were on the inside of the turnout for both cars, or facing uphill, the Rowland Thomas had the camwheels on the left, the Elizur Holyoke on the right (to make it keep left). There is just one faded photo showing these extra camwheels, at:

A pity I seem unable to find any written technical description whatsoever by a competent observer of the period, and even when the line was wound up in 1938, nobody seemed to care. They just scrapped everything.

Bill Malcolm
Mechanical Engineer