SOUTH HADLEY The Valley's vacation attractions of century ago are the subject of a new exhibit at the Firehouse Museum.
The stories of the mountain houses that once topped Mount Tom in Holyoke, Mount Holyoke in Hadley and Mount Nonotuck in Easthampton are told through the souvenirs, photos and other artifacts from the collection of Mark Larrow of South Hadley.
Another collector and Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke also lent items, but 90 percent of the items are Larrow's, who became interested in the mountain houses through his father who was president of the South Hadley Historical Society.
This is the first time that Larrow has put his collection in a public display.
Only one of the area's summit houses still exists the oldest one, Prospect House atop Mount Holyoke in Skinner State Park in Hadley but the bulk of the collection represents Mount Tom in Holyoke.
Larrow explained that the Mount Tom summit house was a "destination point" created by the Holyoke Street Rail Road. That company owned and developed both the Mount Tom house and Mountain Park as an affordable and close recreation area for Holyoke's many factory workers.
Trolley cars would carry inner city residents first to Mountain Park at the base of the peak and then up to the summit on an inclined railroad.
The Mount Tom house was first constructed in 1897 and provided visitors with an excellent view of the valley as well as a place for dining and dancing. It was such a notable attraction that President William McKinley visited it in 1897.
The building burned down twice, said Larrow. It was re-built in 1900 and again in 1929, but the third building, which Larrow described as an unattractive corrugated metal structure, failed to attract visitors and was torn down for scrap in 1939.
A description of the Mount Tom house in promotional material read: "The Summit House is a large, solidly built structure, 76 feet wide by 104 feet long, four stories high. Wide piazzas surround two stories and the upper story is a large observation room (49 x 80 feet), surrounded windows of polished plate glass. This observation room is furnished with numerous telescopes for the free use of visitors. Maps of the United States Topographical Survey show this country with all the details of water, relief, and culture, on a scale of about one mile to the inch, from Boston Bay, to the Hudson River, and from Long Island Sound northerly into Vermont and New Hampshire.
"In the lower story is a spacious dining room where excellent meals are served at all times. Visitors will be sure of good service and an excellent cuisine. There is also a lunch counter, and a beautiful rustic pavilion for those who bring their own lunches, but the house is not arranged for the accommodations of guests over night. A long-distance telephone connects with the outside world."
Today the location of the Mount Tom House can easily be spotted on Interstate 91 by the cluster of antennae on the edge of the summit.
The Eyrie House on Mount Nonotuck is the least remembered of the three summit houses, Larrow said. It was built in 1861 and burned down in 1901. A photo shows the house featured decks and walkways around it that heightened the feeling of the elevation.
The stone foundation of the Eyrie House can be visited today. Larrow said they are easily accessed from a road in the Mount Tom State Reservation on the Holyoke-Easthampton border.
The first of the houses, the Prospect House at Mount Holyoke, has a history going back to 1821 when the first entrepreneur saw the public's interest in visiting a mountain peak.
Over the next century, several different businesses were established at Mount Holyoke, including a hotel and a covered tram that could lift passengers up the side of the mountain rather than walking or riding up on the road.
Larrow has many photos of the Prospect House postcards and stereo views from its glory days. He has two undated train posters that he believes are from the 1920s advertising day-trips from Boston to Mount Holyoke and its summit house for the grand sum of $2.50. One trip even included a chicken dinner at the hotel.
One artifact from Larrow's collection hints at the opulence of the Prospect House in its heyday a large swatch of wallpaper that had been removed from the property. The design incorporates characters from Dickens.
The end came for the Prospect House after the devastating hurricane of 1938 that literally cracked the building in two pieces. In 1940, Joseph Skinner, who owned the property, gave it to the Commonwealth for its use as a state park.
One photo Larrow displayed from the early 1960s shows the collapsed covered tram, which state officials burnt in 1965.
Although Larrow said that he had stopped collecting items from the three summit houses, he had to admit that designing and installing the exhibit "got me going again."
The exhibit is open now through Sept. 24. The museum is open on Sundays from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. May through September with addtional hours of 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Wednesdays in July and August.