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Pittsfield to NYC before the Taconic State Parkway

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Remember in Back to the Future when Marty McFly asks his maternal grandfather how to find Doc Brown’s house and he says the street he’s looking for is “a block past Maple” and Marty says “that’s John F. Kennedy Drive,” to which his grandfather, not recognizing the name of the junior senator from Massachusetts, replies “Who the hell is John F. Kennedy?” Looking at old route books can be a lot like that, as major routes become local ones over time and street names change.

If you own an old car, however, it can be worthwhile to do the legwork to unearth these old routes. Route 66 lovers have been doing this kind of thing for a long time, finding every old alignment of the route as it existed from 1927 on. Modern map programs, especially Google Maps with its Street View option, can really make this a lot easier and save time and back tracking.

Recently, in researching a piece regarding a 1910 Oakland, we stumbled upon a 1910 route from nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to Columbus Circle in New York City—long considered the center of the Big Apple. We thought it would be fun to decode the beginning of this particular tour from 108 years ago.

If you were to make this drive today, you most likely would take the Taconic State Parkway, a route that was first proposed in the mid-1920s by Franklin Roosevelt and was not fully completed until 1963. The Taconic is scenic and the northern reaches are slow-moving enough that it wouldn’t be a terrible drive in an antique car, but in 1910 roads still existed to link a multitude of smaller settlements together, and that is the route suggested by Automobile Topics in their June 11, 1910, issue.

Pittsfield: The tour begins at Pittsfield, at the confluence of East, West, North, and South Streets, still the main intersection downtown. Historic buildings abound, including the old headquarters of the Berkshire Life Insurance Company, which was constructed just after the Civil War. The directions through Lenox are somewhat confusing, but the “obelisk” where one is to turn left appears to be the Paterson-Egleston Monument where Main Street turns into Old Stockbridge Road. The route directions were written to take advantage of the “new State macadam” on what is now MA-7A/Kemble Street. It’s no longer possible to take this route in its entirety as 7A now connects to U.S. 7 with a stretch of semi-abandoned pavement pointing the way to where the road originally connected with Old Stockbridge Road, which itself was subsumed into U.S. 7 slightly further south. The next fork has been turned into a 90-degree intersection with W Road. The second fork referenced seems to be Wallace Road, just south of the Massachusetts Turnpike. The “end of the road” is no longer evident, although it’s certainly where U.S. 7 turns right to enter Stockbridge proper.

Stockbridge: Stockbridge is home to the Norman Rockwell Museum and the setting of the Arlo Guthrie song Alice’s Restaurant. What was meant by the monument and the hotel are unclear, but a small park where U.S. 7 turns south seems a good candidate, especially as the park is across from The Red Lion Inn, a Stockbridge institution since 1773. Further south, the railroad station is still there, although the road now goes over the tracks instead of intersecting them. The “four corners” are no longer obvious, but it’s likely they were where Clark Road crosses U.S. 7 today. The next fork is where Monument Valley Road splits off from U.S. 7, just south of the high school. Where MA-183 branches off to the right is yet another Old Stockbridge Road, indicating a more likely route for 1910, though it’s tempting to bypass it as that road re-enters U.S. 7 shortly. Trolley tracks, such effective navigational aids in the ’10s and ’20s, are very hard to detect in the present as they didn’t use the prominent road bed of their heavy rail counterparts and have been virtually erased today, but U.S. 7 continues to follow the same route here that it did in 1910 and you will soon cross the Housatonic River and turn left onto Main Street in Great Barrington, as indicated.

Great Barrington: Whatever hotel was at the south end of town is long gone, though it’s a likely guess that the jeweler McTeigue & McClelland’s relocated early 19th-century house occupies the same spot. Thankfully, the fork in the road is still fairly evident, however, with MA-41 curving off from U.S. 7 right where the route directs you to expect Maple Avenue (and, indeed, this road is still called Maple Avenue). Once again, forks in the road that existed in 1910 have been greatly reduced in prominence, but the first appears to be where MA-71/Egremont Plain Road branches off to the north and the left turn at the “end of the road” is now a sweeping curve where MA-41 joins Creamery Road/Main Street/ Buttonball Lane momentarily as the route enters South Egremont. The “next right” into South Egremont has also been rejiggered into a sweeping curve of MA-41 to the west.

Time and space constraints make it impossible to trace the route further than this right now, but it’s easy enough to do if you have the patience. Ultimately, the trip terminates at Columbus Circle, adjacent to Central Park. The circle has been a Manhattan landmark since 1892 (the traffic circle itself dates to 1857) and has long been considered the geographic center of New York City. We might be tempted to terminate any road trips involving cars from 1910 in the more bucolic Tarrytown area, however.