Friday, May 28, 2010

Revisiting the NATURAL BRIDGE State Park

 This post originally appeared in our September 2009  blog, but is well worth a repeat looksee. Memorial Day Weekend is upon us, so all of the MA parks are re-opening, including this magnificent place...
I am still in the area and will definitely be having a picnic here on Monday. : ) Happy Summer everyone!  Kathy

From Sept 15, 2009 (Berkshire Ramblings):

OK, so I truly understand that today's title does not sound REMOTELY like an interesting destination. In fact honestly, when I first read that there was an “attraction” in the area called The Natural Bridge, I sighed, my eyes glazed, my mouth drooped, and I had visions of driving over a dull and boring bridge of wood logs or rocks. Whoopee. NOT.

As I was getting into the Wondercar to go see this “bridge”, I thought of my friend Mike’s favorite saying when he had to attend a dull office meeting…
“There goes an hour of my life that I’ll never get back!”
I would later be proven very wrong!!!
The Natural Bridge State Park is situated on 48 acres of land, located right off Route 8 on McCauley Road in our sister town of North Adams. You have to really look hard for the little sign pointing to turn left. Once in the entrance, you take the dirt road that goes up to the right. Drive slow.
There’s a pretty brook and small waterfalls to admire on your way up the hill, and it soon becomes a paved road…

Curving up the hill, I drove by a huge tree-topped ledge of marvelous white and black rock, looking like the movie set from 10,000 Years BC or maybe Land of the Lost…an ideal setting for a pesky T-Rex to make an appearance. NOTE: This is NOT "The Bridge"!The road ends at the Visitors Center, where you pay $2 to the nice man to park. The Visitors Center is chock full of interesting tidbits. There are bathrooms (way clean) and park activity calendars and pamphlets, along with lots of wall posters, photos and articles about the park.
The Natural Bridge Park is a participant in the cute PARK PASSPORT Program for kids. It has all the MA parks with pages in it for kids to get ink-stamped at entry, and includes a guide of animal tracks, cool photos, and a great listing of the parks (even for adults to enjoy). Kids get the gummed kind of stamps as well when they visit each park and try to fill up their “passport” by experiencing features of each park they travel to.

There are park rangers and interpreters who will readily explain anything you need to know about the park history, or all the science and geology stuff you’d ever want to know.
You have to walk around from this point to see the park.

Aww geez…time to put on the designer hiking shoes (sigh).
Being the Berkshire Rambler has its perks…Park Interpreter (and chief cook-n-bottle washer) John, volunteered to give me, the big celebrity, a personal tour of the park!
John is a retired schoolteacher and has been at the Natural Bridge State Park since 1988.
We began our walk by a welcoming tall white pine tree. “The King’s Tree”, as it was known in colonial times, because white pine trees do not grow in England. This type of special wood was used to build ships for His Majesty’s fleet. There is a Cottonwood Tree alongside it that they make Popsicle Sticks from (for Her Majesty's ice cream treats). ;-)
We walked by well-manicured grounds on a nice wide, cleared path, to a viewing area of the giant horseshoe shaped white and black marble ledge that I had seen from the street.
This marble ledge used to extend all the way to the edge of the road, but since the early 1800’s, men have been chiseling, jackhammering and dynamite blasting it, causing it to be shaped like a horseshoe.
But I am getting ahead of myself.

Time for the BIG History lesson kids…
A long, long, long time ago, (550 million years), oceans covered the Berkshire area. There were lots of seashells on the ocean floor. The decomposition of these shells over time caused powdered calcium carbonate to form and then eventually harden into limestone, which is what marble is made of.

The advances and retreats of the glacier ice sheets made the earth’s crust buckle and heave, causing the constant catastrophic collision of the limestone, and creating mountain ranges. (Still with me?) It takes extreme heat and pressure to make marble from limestone and the Ice Age forces managed to do this wonderous thing.
In North Adams, this process created the Taconic Mountain Range that rose up over 140,000 feet. 350 million years of erosion has revealed the lower marble layer (once 5 miles under the ground) that is now showing topside. The mountain stands at only 1,100 feet high today.
When the glaciers melted, there was a great surge of water that ran through the mountains, carving and weaving paths through the rock floors. This became the river that flows under the Natural Bridge.
This stone and sediment-filled water crashing against the bedrock made "potholes" and twisted caves in the mountain and formed what is now known as The Natural Bridge.
Even today, small rocks and stones (called “cobbles”) race in the water flow and bounce off the bedrock walls, carving about an inch or so each year into the marble walls and floor.
About 2 million years ago, the ice age sent glaciers down again, like bulldozers, creating the geological phenomenon called Striation. We see a nice example of this in the Honeymoon Point Rock. This is called “Honeymoon Point” because folks would stand here to sign into a book if they were visiting on their honeymoon.In the 1740s, this part of Massachusetts was a military camp called FORT MASSACHUSETTS.
A Lieutenant named Seth Hudson went exploring and found this Natural Bridge area and the river that ran below it. He named the river after himself. The Hudson Brook (also called Hudson Falls). He was also one of the founders of Pownal, VT, btw.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, local men chiseled the stone to use for hearthstones, walkways, cemetery gravestones, mantles and made decorative items with it. It was all rather helter-skelter until a man named Mr. Sherman started a marble quarry business and built a huge 3-story high mill building on the land in 1810. This was the first official marble production mill. The marble quarry brought wealth and jobs to the area. Many North Adams houses were built just for the mill workers and their families.

There were two main kinds of marble production.
One was to hammer out larger pieces to be used in construction and cemetery monuments. The quarry produced the 28 foot tall pillars that stand in the state house in Philadelphia, PA , and has produced a slab as big as 62 feet long!

The other type of marble production was to grind the marble to a powder.
There are many uses for crushed marble. It is mostly calcium carbonate, which is a stomach acid neutralizer and a mineral supplement. Next time you pop a tummy upset med, have a look at the ingredients.
Marble powder (calcium carbonate) is also used in wine production, puddings, chocolate (huh?), cereal, cake icing, chewing gum, fruit juices, health foods, ice cream, toothpaste, soap, make up, face powder, paint and putty, among other things.
Marble powder was mixed with chicken feed so eggs would come out having harder shells. This helped reduce cracking. Weren't they clever back then!
Tracks were built to allow for dump cars (Koppel side cars) to run on the tracks directly from the top of the marble mountain work areas straight into the 3rd story door of the mill building, where men would then process the marble with crushers and other machinery.
When blasting the marble peaks with dynamite, men ran for cover behind what is known as the BLASTING ROCK until the dust settled. This large dark rock sheltered them from falling marble and gave reprieve from breathing in all that dust directly. It sits by the side of the road with a picnic table next to it now. I am sure none of the workers had a picnic back then however! You see this blasting rock when you first drive up into the park.
Here is a view from behind the blasting rock, looking at the marble bed they blasted away at.
When the marble dust settled after a blast, men would grab jackhammers and picks and go make 1 foot pieces out of the fallen rock piles.
The life of a quarryman was hard. 12 hour shifts of very hard labor, then home to no electricity, no running hot water, and basic poverty living conditions.

Water power was created later (in 1850), when a large man-made white marble dam was erected on the property to channel the water flow. This is the only white marble dam in North America. It is the real star of this park.
It is 30 feet wide and 30 feet deep and the water cascades through 475 feet of twisting rockbeds through a 60 foot deep chasm.

A 50 foot catch hole at the bottom of the dam is connected to a long, large, cement-covered tin pipe called a Penstock (shown here stretched across pillars for support). This forced water directly into the mill at a high enough speed to generate power, using special equipment. Power was needed to run the pulleys and belts for the crushing machines that make marble powder, and electricity for the building use.
When water was low, such as in summer droughts, they had a diesel engine to kick in as back up power.
There is a neato sign that explains the process.
FUN FACT:In 1889, a huge dynamite blast, using 25 holes that were 12 feet deep, set back about 15 feet from the front, blew up a mass of marble that weighed 25,000 to 35,000 TONS!

The mill changed hands a few times over the years. It was The Hoosac Marble Quarry, and later, the Micro-White Corporation until 1947, when a terrible fire crumbled the mill and destroyed all the equipment. The entire hollow caught fire. It was quite a spectacle.
This is all that remained of the mill. Note the Blasting rock on the left. A small shack now stands in the place that a mighty 3 story mill once stood.
John took me through a wooded path to visit the foundation. Like chess pieces in the forest (John said that!), the eerie foundation blocks remain, nearly hidden amongst the overgrowth and trees. The basic stone outline of some of the building rooms and divisions of the mill are visible.
As I took photos, John explained one of the mill tragedies. It happened in 1945 (2 years before the fire). William Tattro was a mill worker who’s job was to keep the belts and pulleys well oiled. As he leaned over to perform his usual tasks, his loose apron strings got caught in the belts and he was pulled into the machinery, brutally torn apart and painfully killed. Yikes! (NOTE: my camera did not function correctly after photographing this area and my stomach hurt!...attention Ghost Hunter fans!).
There are reminders around of the magnificance of this building. You can still see the elevator shaft walls up against the banks of the road.
The elevator cables rust slowly in a pile. Forgotten marble pieces sit in a moss-covered mass, awaiting crushing. It is silent and still in the "basement", though situated in a pleasant tree-filled forest. John said they try to keep the paths cleared for visitors to be able to walk down and see it. The path to the foundation is about 200 feet from the little shack on the road.
Even in the 1800’s there were graffiti artists, and for this place, you needed a chisel to do it. John had the theory that marble cutters who made gravestones needed a place to practice their lettering, much like schoolchildren practice their penmanship on dotted and lined paper.
See the lines in this rock that someone carefully had to stay within to make their letters?
Some of the names in these rocks are mill foremen, owners and workers. Sadly, erosion and the elements will erase these engravings completely, over time.

After the tragic fire, the mill closed down. Amazing, because it was yielding 200 TONS of marble per DAY and was so popular it did not even need a sales team!
The mill property was bought by Mr. & Mrs. Elder, who built the walkways and fencelines on the property. They decided to run it as a tourist attraction and it opened at North Adam's famous Fall Festival in October of 1950. The Natural Bridge was a "tourist spot" until Mr. Elder's death in 1983. The state bought the land from his widow and made it an official State Park in 1985.
There are several "stops" to make in your exploration of this park. Make sure to go down every stairway and walk every views await you, especially under the bridge itself... want to see THE BRIDGE? As John decended these steps, he said "this is the bridge"... (kind of an anti-climax...waaa-waaaaah) The rock ledge and natural bridge are about 30 feet thick (just like the dam). The glacial "potholes" have a 30 foot waterfall running through them.

Fans of Nathaniel Hawthorne will recognize the natural bridge described in his AMERICAN NOTEBOOKS. He visited the Natural Bridge in the late summer of 1838 while the mill was in operation and was totally awed by it.
We continued our walk to the trail entrance, which is just off the side of the road that leads to the visitor center. There are two ½ mile trails that pass by maple, birch, oak, cottonwood and white pine trees. The trails are rated HEART HEALTHY because they are under a mile. (YAY)
Our tour finished with a visit to the Statue Garden, known as THE GUARDIAN PROJECT. Teenagers made sculptures of what they envisioned a "Guardian" to be.
There are guardians for animal life, trees, water life, and an all knowing/all seeing "eye" that you can look through to see behind it.
Oh...umm, that is a black cat on a wall, btw, not a rabbit, and that is not Jesus, but Hamadryad, a tree guardian. There is also a phoenix, an angel (shown) and a round clocktower looking thing.
The "hiker" looking one is actually a caveman with a tree and a crow behind him representing man's relationship with nature and how it tends to both their needs.

The picnic areas are beautiful, despite the recent ground damage made by skunks hunting slugs that are so prominent after all the rain we had this summer...
This is a really peaceful and beautiful place.
They have regular hikes, even some just for seniors, and "sunrise hikes" during the week. They have children’s activities too. Check online for their weekly calendar.

The park is officially open 9 to 5 daily from Memorial Day until Columbus Day. You are welcome to go there in off seasons when the park is closed, but you have to park at the bottom of the hill and walk up to get to the park. (uuugh).

To time your trip, it will take a minimum of 1/2 hour to walk the 1/4 mile paths through the “stuff”. The walk to the foundation is about a 1/2 of a mile more.
I love the little details I discovered.

Let me share a couple of my other photos with you.

Look all around for beauty close up and on the ground...Early to mid morning and mid afternoon to sunset are the best photo-taking times. High noon casts harsh shadows and if you are using a low end digital camera, the contrast is too extreme and you will get blobs of white instead of color in your photos.
Here's a 550 million year old art original! (Jackson Pollack, eat your heart out!)
I was so enthralled with this park, I have returned twice to take more photos. As an avid photographer, I have never been to a place that offered so many opportunities for “a great shot”.

Picnic tables and grills are available, but no alcohol is allowed (dang).
The park has gorgeous settings for weddings and other events. John said there were two weddings in the past week. Hey, they even allow you to bring your dog (leashed), but they ask that you clean up after your dog. Don't make John or one of the other park rangers scoop the poop!

As with most MA parks, please take away whatever you bring in. Garbage bags are available in the Visitors Center.

Mass MoCA, (those rascals!), installed 10 speakers into the marble ledge walls!
Every evening, at the exact scientific moment of SUNSET, a “song” (extended tones sorta) plays from the ledge. The song is called "MUSIC FOR A QUARRY" and it was composed for the Natural Bridge Park by a Swiss composer named Walter Frahndrich. Not much of a tune to hum, lol, but quite effective for the surroundings.

Here is a recording someone put on YOU TUBE with a short video by Craig with his son taking a walk by the ledge...

Going to this park should not be an afterthought, but a planned destination!

Hope many of you come here too!



~ Craig said...


This is an excellent write-up! I posted this link on the Natural Bridge State Park Facebook page,

The video you linked - featuring the "Music for a Quarry" - is one that I took. The boy wandering about is my son, Aidan. :)

FYI: I wrote a children's book that features Natural Bridge in its setting, and is inspired by this beautiful area. "Gray Locke ~ The Mystery of the Weeping Rocks."

Just a couple corrections with some names featured in your article:

* Hudson's Brook
* Mr. William Tatro

Again, a very well written, educational and entertaining piece. And I'm glad you enjoyed your visit!

~ Craig


Thank you Craig for the comment. I corrected the items you mentioned and thanks for IDing yourself as the videographer. : ) I love the Natural Bridge. I no longer live in the Berkshires, but I reposted this because I want more people to see this place. Thanks again! : )