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JOHN BASCOM AND MOUNT GREYLOCK

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Mount Greylock and much of the Greylock Reservation seen across south Williamstown from the Taconic Mountain range to the west. This photo was taken during the winter of 2005-2006.

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Bascom Lodge on the summit of Mount Greylock, seen from the War Memorial Tower, looking south.

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This plaque put on the front of the lodge in recent years includes a depiction of John Bascom.
 
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Carved into this rock at the parking lot on the summit is a passage from Bascom's written account of Greylock, part of which is quoted in this article.



From On Campus, June 2007

“It would be no small advantage if every college were thus located at the base of a mountain, as good at least as one well-endowed professorship ... Some will remember, no doubt, not only that they went to the college, but that they went to the mountain.” — Henry David Thoreau

By Mark E. Rondeau

Mount Greylock and its surroundings have fascinated Williams students and faculty since the founding of the college in 1793.

The college’s first president, Ebenezer Fitch, accompanied Timothy Dwight IV, president of Yale University, on a hike up Greylock in 1799. Vegetation was so thick on one summit that both men climbed a Balsam Fir to get a better view. Today, the peak just north of Mount Greylock is named Mount Fitch. (It’s worth noting that the peak to the north of Fitch, also part of the Mount Greylock State Reservation, is named Mount Williams.)

Williams students solved the view problem on Greylock’s summit when they erected an observatory there in 1830-31. It was called Griffin’s Tower in honor of then Williams president, Edward Dorr Griffin. In 1841, Williams Professor Albert Hopkins, Class of 1826 – brother of Mark Hopkins, Class of 1824 – spearheaded the construction of a larger observatory tower. This was the structure author Henry David Thoreau spent a night sleeping against during his famous visit to the state’s highest mountain in 1844.

The wooden towers are long gone. The state of Massachusetts erected the 92-foot granite War Memorial Tower atop Greylock in 1933. In the adjacent Bascom Lodge, however, the state memorialized Professor John Bascom, Williams Class of 1849, a great figure in the history of the Mount Greylock State Reservation and in the history of Williams College.

A Versatile Teacher

Bascom (1827-1911) is a fascinating character. He taught rhetoric and English literature here from 1855 to 1874. From 1874 to 1887, he was president of the University of Wisconsin where he had a great impact but made enemies who hastened his departure. He returned to Williams in 1887 and taught sociology and political economy until he retired in 1903. He has the distinction of being the first to teach English literature (during his early years in the classroom) and sociology (during his later period at the college).

Bascom was brilliant, somewhat unpredictable, theologically liberal but morally conservative. He supported prohibition and opposed fraternities but also supported women’s suffrage and the rights of workers. He urged the admission of women to Williams almost 100 years before it happened. At Wisconsin he was mentor to Robert M. LaFollette, who became a leading progressive politician. Bascom wrote books on philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology, ethics, aesthetics, the law, and education.

In his later years, he served as one of the first commissioners of the Greylock reservation, which the state created in 1898 to preserve the mountain and surrounding lands.

“The wants of all classes should be met, as far as possible, by the reservation,” Bascom wrote in a 20-page pamphlet he had published in 1907, “Greylock Reservation.” The purpose of the reservation is “simply to preserve the fine hand-work of Nature, and to give adequate access to it.”

To aid access for all classes to the reservation, he urged the construction of roads from the east and west – from Adams and Williamstown – to supplement the existing roads to Greylock from North Adams and Lanesborough, to the north and south.

These additional roads were never built, and it’s probably a good thing they weren’t for both environmental and aesthetic reasons.

Another idea made much more sense. ’The most urgent present want of the reservation is a fitting reception house on the Summit,” Bascom writes. “Comfortable shelter, lunch, and lodging for the night should be provided.”

Having spent the night on the summit in 1856, he knew first-hand that “the evening and morning views are always the finest, and at times much the finest.”

“The object should not be to civilize the mountain, but to bring the overcivilized men of the valley into complete and appreciative contact with it,” he adds. “This aim demands transient hospitality, and this we should be able, in a reasonable way to extend.”

Building the Lodge

Bascom did not live to see the realization of his hope for a lodge on Greylock’s summit. More than two decades after his death, however, the young men of the 107th Company of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps built a lodge of native lumber and stone. Constructed between 1933 and 1937, Bascom Lodge can accommodate 34 overnight guests.

For Bascom, the enjoyment of nature had a spiritual dimension that he was ever-quick to acknowledge. In his autobiography, “Things Learned by Living,” he wrote: “When I went to college, I met for the first time mountain scenery and it has yielded to me the best relaxation and the most skillfully concocted cup of physical and spiritual pleasures that I have anywhere found in life.”

A century after its publication, “Greylock Reservation” – which Williams has in its archives along with other books by Bascom – is still an important source on the mountain’s history, as well a fine early attempt to describe its topography and give a succinct account of its geology, plants, and animals.

While Bascom Lodge sits at the south side of Greylock’s summit, an engraved boulder rests on the east side, which arguably boasts the best views. On it is a passage from Greylock Reservation: “Greylock, rising centerwise in this magnificent group, dominates the County, stands the sentinel of the western portion of the State, and, with the New York mountains, the Connecticut and Vermont mountains before it and on either hand of it for many miles, rules them all with no rival either in beauty of parts, in breadth of outlook, or in height.”

More succinctly, the pamphlet ends with one of the most quoted tributes to the mountain: “Greylock, our daily pleasure, our constant symbol, our ever renewed inspiration, a gift to all who have ... living fellowship with Nature.”

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VII. Road Work Moves Ahead

Roads to Mount Greylock Now Open