Washington Town Hall is located at 8 Summit Hill Road, Washington MA 01223.
Photo: William Milliken House, circa 1765, located at 1640 Washington Mountain Road, Lower Historic District, Washington. The District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Photographed by wikipedia username: Magicpiano own work, 2015, [cc-3.0], accessed September, 2022.
The tiny town of Washington [†] was first chartered by European settlers in 1757. Its earliest development was as a small cluster on the plateau near the summit of Washington Mountain, along an early Springfield - Albany stage route. Washington was originally called Watsontown, after founder Robert Watson of Sheffield, a wily character who with his lawyer David Ingersoll apparently convinced some men in Hartford that they had purchased a specific piece of land from the Stockbridge Indians. A group of proprietors took over the land in 1757 and then found that Mr. Watson had no claim to the parcel; he was subsequently jailed and forced to declare bankruptcy. The proprietors hurriedly changed the name of the property to Greenock (to eliminate any reminder of Watson and in recognition of the vast acres of green encountered by the proprietors), paid the Indians, and obtained a deed from them. The first proprietors' meeting was held in June 1760 at David Bull's Inn in Hartford. The proprietors' 25-acre lots were drawn February 18th, 1768, by a committee of three men. Ten men were among the original proprietors, and the number of proprietors had swelled to only fifteen by circa 1778. The settling lots were set October 27, 1773, and the town was incorporated as Washington on April 12, 1777.
A petition was filed with the Massachusetts General Court in January 1762 and it was granted a month later with the conditions that: "their be reserved for the first settled minister one sixty-third part of said townships for the use of the ministry, and the like quantity for the use and support of a school, that within five years from this time that their be sixty settlers residing in said townships, who shall have a dwelling house of the following dimensions, viz 24 feet long, 18 feet wide and seven foot stud and have one acre land well cleared and fenced and brought to English grass or plowed. Also to settle a protestant minister of the gospel in said Township within the aforesaid time." While a school was not built until circa 1783, a meetinghouse was an early achievement. The first burial in the adjacent cemetery occurred in 1776. (Of these first evidences of European settlement, only the cemetery remains today.)
At the first division of Washington's heavily forested lands, in 1763, each of the first ten settlers received 25 acres. At the same time, a committee was established to find a suitable site for a sawmill (probably located downstream from Muddy Pond in the northeastern corner of Washington; its exact location is unknown) to provide timbers for the new houses. A second division of land in 1783 gave each of the original proprietors an additional 25 acres.
A site for a meetinghouse was set June 15, 1768, after a year of considerable debate, at "the Northeast end of Lot #22 on the plan belonging to Isaac Sheldon, in what is now the super District." The first meetinghouse was to be thirty six feet by thirty feet. Even by November 27, 1770, the house does not appear to have been finished for it was voted "that Daniel Foot be paid for building the meeting house as fast as any shall become due to him." The appearance of this original meetinghouse is unknown, for it was struck by lightning in 1791 and rebuilt one year later (see below).
After further dissension and the unconsummated appointment of a Springfield minister, Aaron Bliss, a call was extended to the Rev. William Gay Ballantine in April 1774. Reverend Ballantine, twenty-three years old and recently graduated from Harvard, was asked to "settle" as minister, and "four dollars on each right for settlement" was levied: "one-fourth to be paid in money and three-fourths to be paid in work and materials toward building a house." His salary was to be "45 pounds a year for the first five years and then rise three pounds a year until it rise to 60 pounds, to continue at that during his ministry to the township of Hartwood" (yet another name for Washington). The inhabitants were also to furnish him with 40 cords of wood yearly. Reverend Ballantine served until 1820.
A fourth component of the village center was added in 1783 when the town voted to build a pound near the meetinghouse 30 feet square. Elijah Crane, whose house remains nearby, was chosen as poundkeeper. The standing ruins of the pound's stone walls still remain. In that same March meeting, the proprietors voted to "raise a sum of forty pounds to maintain a grammar school in this town." A committee of five persons voted to raise a sum of eighty pounds to construct a schoolhouse in each of four designated school districts. None of these early schools are extant, and their exact locations are unknown.
Ten acres of land around the meetinghouse was set aside as a parade ground and common land at the time of its construction. Two companies of Washington minutemen met and drilled there prior to 1776. During the Revolutionary War, Washington provided the commonwealth with both men and supplies. In all, seventy-three Washington men participated in the war, including Moses Ashley Jr., a native of Westfield, Massachusetts, who came to Washington with his family in 1772, at age 24, and left the town in 1775 for what would be a distinguished military career. Ashley served as first lieutenant at the Battle of Bunker Hill, captain during the Saratoga Campaign, the winter at Valley Forge, and then at the Battles of Monmouth and Rhode Island, and then served as a major with the main army stationed along the Hudson River. After being honorably discharged in 1783, Ashley settled in Stockbridge, where he became a major landholder as well as a brigadier general in the state militia (he also owned many acres in Washington, which he gradually sold off). The Ashley family's home in Washington is not extant.
From its core of meetinghouse, cemetery, and town common (the area is nominated to the National Register as the Upper Historic District), Washington grew linearly along the Old Country Road, now Washington Mountain or Pittsfield Road. Among the first ten proprietors were William Milliken and Elijah Crane, whose homes remain on Washington Mountain Road. Milliken's farm was located on the eastern slope of Washington Mountain south of the meetinghouse node, near the Becket line. It was built circa 1765 and, as Milliken's Corner, formed the core of what came to be known as the Lower District, a secondary node of settlement further down the slope of the mountain than the original town center (nominated to the National Register as the Lower Historic District). Elijah Crane, who in 1783 became the first keeper of the town pound, built a house just south of the meetinghouse circa 1785. Much enlarged circa 1840, the house remains as one of the earliest structures in the Upper Historic District.
In 1792, the meetinghouse was severely damaged by lightning. A year later, the proprietors voted to build a new meetinghouse, with dimensions of 50 feet by 44 feet. While the damaged meetinghouse continued to be used, a committee of three outsiders, Nathaniel Kingsby of Becket, Ely Root of Pittsfield, and Ebenezer Pierce of Partridge field, was chosen to select a site for the new >meetinghouse. The same location was chosen. Work proceeded slowly, and town records show much discussion asking why the building was not finished according to contract. A deed for the land was not approved for the meetinghouse, and yard adjacent, until 1804. By 1806, the new meetinghouse was complete.
The population of Washington grew slowly during the 18th century. In 1775, the town had only 750 residents, and about 975 by 1800. In the last decades of the 18th century, the town was impoverished, primarily agricultural in its economy, with much of the land that had been cleared used for grazing. Corn, oats, and potatoes were also grown. In 1789, Hartford minister Nathan Perkins visited the town and described it as "a poor town and a disgrace to the exalted name which it bears cold land bad for grain good for grass."
In 1795, a map of Washington showed a developing but still primitive system of unimproved roads and indicated the presence of a gristmill to the west, near October Mountain, and«a sawmill at Muddy Pond, in the eastern section of town. Washington retains the houses of several late 18th century residents, including Elkanah Richmond (ca. 1788-1803, Hiram Savory (ca. 1783-1802, Dillingham Clark (1799), and Zenas Clark (ca. 1782-1797, M,HC #20). Savory, Dillingham Clark, and Richmond built near the Milliken Farm on the lower slopes of Washington Mountain. Zenas Clark's house, built on the Becket-Middlefield Road on land that had belonged to Moses Ashley, was far removed from the village center and was actually closer to Becket. All these residents were farmers whose land in the case of Savory, as large as 100 acres supported modest homes and barely adequate farms.
By 1818 a "good" route could be followed through Chester to North Becket and hence over Washington Mountain to Pittsfield. It was the beginnings of the Pontoosic Turnpike, a toll road that opened in 1809 but was not improved until 1826. Jasper Morgan built a farmhouse/tavern on the Washington Mountain plateau, close by the town common, circa 1810-1811. For about a dozen years, his tavern served as a resting place and spot to change horses for travelers making the difficult trek from Springfield to Pittsfield across the top of Washington Mountain. In 1822, the Morgan family moved to Connecticut and the tavern's operations ceased. In the first decades of the 19th century, the Upper District held only the tavern, meetinghouse, town pound, and common, establishing its status as Washington's institutional center, while the Lower District was exclusively residential.
Despite the presence of the turnpike, growth in the mountain top village center was slow. As early as 1810, Washington residents were leaving the town for the more fertile land and the less rigorous climate that they had heard could be found in the Western Reserve Ohio. Together with a number of Becket residents, many Washington farmers entered into agreements to obtain land in the Western Reserve, and abandoned or sold their Washington farms. The town's population had grown slightly from 750 in 1776 to 942 in 1810, but then diminished steadily as a considerable number of the principal farmers exchanged their improved Washington farms for new land in Ohio.
On February 15, 1826, a charter was granted for the Pontoosic Turnpike Corporation to improve the road from Chester to Pittsfield along Washington Mountain. This turnpike continued in use as a toll road until 1842. The price for construction was $56.00 per rod. Today it is known as Washington Mountain or Pittsfield Road and is the roadway down the spine of the mountain that has always linked the Upper and Lower Historic Districts.
In the valley to the east of Washington Mountain, a new node of settlement began to grow in the early 19th century. Fed by a brook, the valley was a location more appropriate for the establishment of small industries, and indeed had already been the site of an early sawmill, as mentioned above. By circa 1820, this second village contained a brickyard, potash factory, blacksmith shop, cording and wooden cloth mill, sawmill, general store, tavern, and, after 1810, a Methodist Church. In approximately 1815, the Venetian Slat Curtain Factory opened in the valley. None of these structures survive today.
The construction of a second improved road, known as the County Road, was begun through the valley on the eastern side of the mountain in 1830. It was a massive road-building project. Its construction ensured the increasing isolation and decline of the mountaintop village, for it provided a far easier route through Washington. Even today, the route directly over the spine of Washington Mountain remains a physically difficult one. Although nominally the town's center (the Town Hall would be built here in 1848), the mountaintop village was no longer favored by the few remaining Washington residents, who chose instead to live scattered across the lower slopes.
In 1838, construction of the Western Railroad, to run from Boston to Albany, began through Berkshire County. Washington represented the highest point of the line, and the building process through the town again, east of both the upper and lower villages was long and difficult. With an elevation of 1,450 feet as its highest point, the rail line sloped sharply to both north and south at a rate of 80 feet per mile. The route required the removal of vast quantities of rock along the way, creating a half -mile cut 55 feet deep. The Phillip Eames House, on aptly named Stone House Road in the eastern section of Washington, was built in 1843 of quarried irregular coursed granite said to have been block-cut from Summit Rock, the point through which the line was blasted between 1838 and 1840. The summit cut required the removal of over 100,000 cubic yards of rock, all of which was cut by pick, shovel, nine-pound hammer, and black blasting powder. Daniel Carmichael and Co. had the contract for the rock cutting and the crew was composed mostly of Irish stonecutters who eventually helped construct the Phillip Eames house in 1843. The rail line was completed by 1841. With the development of the Western railway, the center of commerce shifted east from the mountain to the summit cut, which became known as Washington Depot, or Washington Station.
The construction process and subsequent early years of the railroad's operation brought a short-lived increase in Washington's population, which reached its peak of 1,068 by 1855. Washington played a central role in the rail line at first: almost every train had to be helped up the mountain's steep grade, and the engines were often switched for the rest of the journey. There was a huge turntable at the summit to make sure that outgoing and incoming trains never had to leave the station backwards. The rail company built a small railroad village near the Washington station, located along Upper Valley Road in the eastern part of Washington, with housing for railroad workers and their families. At its peak, the newborn village included eight houses, a village store. and post office, a depot, and an engineers' house. An 1858 map of Berkshire County shows that Washington also had eleven sawmills located along the town's brooks. In approximately 1870, however, the rail company gave its employees the option of living in the larger town of Chester. The removal of the crews and their families brought a swift decline to the town; the engine house, depot, and turntable were torn down immediately, and by 1880, the workers' housing had been abandoned. Most has since been torn down. One house survives; located on Valley Road, it was built circa 1843-1845. It has been sheathed in asphalt and altered with the addition of a porch, and no longer retains integrity. By 1875, the town's population had fallen sharply to about 450, and it continued to drop into the 20th century.
By 1865, agriculture had been joined by the lumber industry as the major component of the town's economy. Washington had 102 farms, which covered 22,724 acres of the town. Five sawmills employing ten persons were cutting 758,000 board feet of lumber and 80,000 shingles from local timber. Firewood and bark cutting amounted to 6,630 cords and employed 40 persons. Charcoal for Lenox and other iron furnaces amounted to 77,000 bushels a year, and employed twenty coaliers.
Lacking sufficient members, the Upper District's Congregational Church was abandoned by 1859. Most of its members had joined the new Union Church, which had been erected in the valley at Washington Station circa 1846. (Although the church is no longer standing, having been demolished in 1930, the parsonage remains on Washington State Road, now Route 8. It has been covered with synthetic siding and has sustained some alterations.)
In the 1870s, considerable debate in town meeting let to a decision to finance the building of new district schools. The South Center School House, located midway between the upper and lower districts, is an intact one-room schoolhouse that served the town from 1880 to 1922. It was built on the site of one of the town's first schools. The construction of replacement schoolhouses was among the few building projects in the town in the middle decades of the 19th century, as Washington continued to lose population.
visitor to Washington, Clark Bryan, wrote in 1892 of the "decay and desolation abounding where once the landscape, both on the mountain top and down the hillside road, was dotted with well-tilled farms . . . ; where denuded hilltops, barren hillsides and unoccupied farms now about, and where gaping cellar-holes stare at the passer-by with a gaze of silent solemnity at once pathetic and depressing."
In 1895, a series of land purchases changed Washington and briefly brought some activity back to the community. State Senator Thomas Post of Lenox began to purchase farmsteads, eventually accumulating 14,000 acres 5 x 7‑1/2 miles which covered all of the western portion of the town on October Mountain. For two years, Washington residents were perplexed as to Post's motives, until in 1897 it was revealed that the area was to become a game preserve and an estate for William C. Whitney (who had served as Secretary of the Navy for President Cleveland). John R. Root of Lenox was contracted to build a large Shingle-Style hunting lodge in the center of the property. It was called, appropriately, The Antlers. The estate was completed just in time to serve as the honeymoon site for Mr. Whitney's son, Harry Payne Whitney, and his bride, Gertrude Vanderbilt, in 1897. Mr. Whitney imported a herd of buffalo, elk, blacktail deer, and moose to stock his preserve, but by 1903 he had lost interest in the property, following his wife's death. Whitney died a year later. The Whitney family closed the preserve in 1906, and it was offered to the Commonwealth as a state park in 1915. The one-time estate was renamed October Mountain State Forest. The former estate's coach barn and house were destroyed in 1926 and 1929, respectively, by fires started by lightning. The wood-framed water tower was retained for use as a fire tower until 1946, when it was demolished.
The Whitney Estate was one of several large estates built on Washington Mountain in the late 19th century, when the area briefly enjoyed popularity as a wealthy resort for members of adjacent Lenox's summer society. Bucksteep Manor was built by George Crane of New York in 1899 on land that had previously been part of the farm of Rev. William Gay Ballantine. (The estate has been extensively altered and no longer retains integrity.) The Gothic Revival-style St. Andrew's Chapel on Washington Mountain Road was commissioned by George Crane as part of the estate. In 1937, the house and chapel were presented to the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts for use as a youth camp and conference center. The center operated between 1937 and 1969; subsequently, the house was sold and is at present used as Bucksteep Manor Resort, while the chapel, now in possession of the town, is used frequently for ecumenical services.
Washington today is a sparsely populated town, with only 500 residents. In recent years, residents have constructed new houses on the sites of som throughout the town, including a number at the top of Washington Mountain within the original town center. Some of the older properties are being subdivided, and the town has established a two-acre minimum for new buildings. Although Washington supports only one business (a machine shop) and lacks post office, fire and police department, church, and school, the town has grown slightly in the past decade as new residents have arrived to take advantage of the town's rural atmosphere. Most residents work in Pittsfield, eight miles to the northeast. The State Forest is a popular attraction, drawing hikers and campers from across the state.
† Adapted from: Betsy Firedberg, Preservation Planner, MHC, with James Parrish, former Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Planner, and Sarah Poland, Chairperson, Washington Historical Commission, Washington Multiple Resource Area, nomination document, 1986, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.