November 15, 2010

Berkshire Cycling: Washington – Becket Loop 1 (part 2)

Once into the State Forest, the woods show a tremendous amount of ugly evidence of logging, and it doesn’t look  like the kind of sustainable logging urged by organizations like the Massachusetts Woodlands Cooperative and schools like Heartwood. Trees are, or should be, or could be, a sustainable resource and they are certainly a resource people have always made use of. But even forests bragging of big trees, or trees we think of as big, are nothing like the size they would be mature: we cut our trees faster than they can grow up. This creates a different habitat, with a different understory, and supports different birds, animals, and insects. Trees rarely get old before they are cut.    


The history of this state forest is bound up with the history of the Berkshire cottages. The Washington Town History, available at the town hall, does a terrific job of telling the story and is worth the price of the book. But to sum up: Starting in about 1895, a mysterious buyer commissioned Senator Thomas Post to purchase businesses, farms and land. He did. Despite much speculation, for two years his identity was unknown. By 1897 he had purchased 42 farms, comprising 14,000 acres, an area of about 5 x 7.5 miles, which was about 1/3 of the town’s total area. William C. Whitney, President Cleveland’s Secretary of the Navy, was the new owner. His goal was to make a summer hunting retreat and game preserve, and to build that retreat in a hurry because he wanted it ready for the honeymoon of his son and new daughter-in-law Gertrude Vanderbilt.  Many local people worked there building, besides the large lodge and stables, 24 houses, 30 barns, roads and outbuildings. It is noteworthy that he also built bicycle paths; bikes were very popular then. He imported buffalo, elk and other animals, and fenced them in along with the resident moose, black bear, foxes and more. Whitney was the biggest landowner in Massachusetts. But William Whitney died in 1904, shortly after his wife, and his heirs chose not to maintain the large property.  Less than 10 years after acquiring it, maintenance funds were cut off by the Whitney estate in 1906, and in 1915 the Commonwealth began acquiring the property for a state park. It is now the largest in the state, comprising 16,500 acres located mostly in Washington, but also in Becket, Lee, and Lenox.

The State Forest now offers great hiking: the Appalachian Trail runs through it, from north to south, I pass it here and there on my rides. There is a trail around Washington Marsh where it is easy to find signs of the healthy moose population. And the Berkshire Natural Resources Council has built a beautiful trail called Basin Pond in Lee, close to Route 20. The trail is worth walking just to look at its construction, the placement of rocks and bridges is beautiful.  You can find a map of hiking trails on the state forest's web site.


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