Valleys, views, farms, and streetscapes — a great river runs through it all

Touring route celebrates the heritage of the Connecticut

Farmland in the Connecticut River floodplain, as seen from Mount Sugarloaf. Farmland in the Connecticut River floodplain, as seen from Mount Sugarloaf. (Bill Regan for The Boston Globe)
By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / October 17, 2010

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Few have captured the beauty of the Connecticut River better than a 19th-century president of Yale University, who praised “the frequency and elegance of its meanders . . . here a smooth and winding beach, there covered with rich verdure, now fringed with bushes, now covered with lofty trees, and now formed the intruding hill, the rude bluff and the shaggy mountain, are objects which no traveler can thoroughly describe and no reader can adequately imagine.’’

The writer, Timothy Dwight, might be happy to know that the region’s longest river is now celebrated in a driving route that links rural villages and early industrial towns, basalt mountains and alluvial fields.

The federal Scenic Byways program has stitched the north-south roads along the Connecticut River in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts into a continuous touring route, the Connecticut River Scenic Byway. The Massachusetts segment begins about two hours west of Boston and — depending on stops to shop, eat, and explore — can be driven in a day or a weekend. Foliage season brings bonus scenery. The tour outlined here begins on Route 2 in Gill, omitting the byway’s first official stop, the town of Northfield.

French King Bridge and Gorge, Route 2 west, Erving and Gill The view from the car window turns heads, so on the far (west) end of the bridge, pull into the parking area. Then venture out onto the sidewalk of this three-span, continuous spandrel bridge, which straddles the towns of Erving, to the east, and Gill, to the west. Below, blue-black water flows between gray ledges. When it was built, in 1932, the bridge won the Most Beautiful Steel Bridge Award from the American Institute of Steel Construction. But the views it offers, from any angle, trump that.

Barton Cove, Route 2 west, Gill This placid basin, formed by a hydro dam, is a popular spot for watching bald eagles. Public access to the water closes on Labor Day, but make a mental note to return next season to the campground or the rental shop for canoes and kayaks.

Turners Falls: Route 2 west, left at light onto Avenue A Bridge Unfortunately, bridge repairs leave only one lane open. Fortunately, that lane is the one entering from Route 2, and the exit route is less congested. At the end of the bridge, watch on the immediate right for the Great Falls Discovery Center, where exhibits tell the stories of the river’s natural and human history. In front of the Discovery Center, a canal, part of a hydroelectric complex, channels a racing current. Parallel to the water, the Canalside Rail Trail runs for 3.8 miles to East Deerfield. In downtown Turners Falls, brick mill buildings and apartment blocks, some recently repurposed as art studios, galleries, and restaurants, line the streets.

Montague Center: Avenue A to First Street (name changes to Broadview Heights to Unity Street to Turners Falls Road) The orderly grid of Turners Falls opens into farmland. In about 5 miles, watch for the Montague Bookmill on the right. In addition to the bookstore cafe, this 1842 gristmill on the Sawmill River houses Montague’s sole public amenities: The Night Kitchen (fine dining, evenings only), and a few shops. Shortly after the Bookmill, a common surrounded by fine 19th-century civic buildings marks Montague Center Historic District.

Sunderland Center: Main Street to Route 47/ Old Leverett Road The drive, also about 5 miles, takes in the agricultural landscape of farmers who prospered in the fertile Connecticut floodplain. The Greek Revival Town Hall (1868), on the right before the junction of Route 116, now houses a fine-dining restaurant, the Blue Heron. On Route 116, the BridgeSide Grille serves affordable family fare.

Sugarloaf State Reservation, South Deerfield: Right onto Route 116, cross bridge over the Connecticut, right at light onto Sugarloaf Street, immediate right into parking lot

This state park on a rugged chunk of arkose sandstone offers picnicking and hiking, but its biggest draw is the splendid summit overlook of the Connecticut River Valley. An auto road goes to the south summit (elevation 652 feet) viewing platform, which appeared in Mel Gibson’s 2010 film “Edge of Darkness.’’ In morning, mist lifts slowly, and the Connecticut slides below like molten pewter. The straight-furrowed fields lining the floodplain to the south show why the valley has been so fruitful: No plow-busting granite interrupts this deep alluvial soil. From south and west, respectively, the Holyoke Range and the Berkshires ripple under the clouds.

Historic Deerfield: Right out of parking lot, right onto Route 116, right at light onto Routes 5/10 north, left at Memorial Street

After passing through a business zone (gas, convenience stores, Yankee Candle’s flagship store) the 5-mile drive takes in fresh-cut cornfields and pumpkin fields littered with brilliant orbs. On Memorial Street in Historic Deerfield village, the clock seems to whirl backward into a streetscape of 18th- and 19th-century houses and barns, overarched by towering oaks and maples. A roadside marker summarizes the story of the town’s early days: “Settled by men from Dedham 1671. Attacked by Indians, burnt, and abandoned 1675.’’ Well, the English came back, and the story repeated itself in 1704, but this time the English survivors stayed on. The famous “Indian door’’ from the 1704 raid features a hatchet-chopped hole and can be viewed, with other fascinating exhibits, at Memorial Hall Museum.

Sunderland and Hadley Farm Stands: from Memorial Street, right onto Routes 5/10 south, left onto Route 116 south, cross river into Sunderland Center, right at light onto Route 47 south. The streetscape of Route 47 was built by 19th-century “long-lot’’ farmers who built their houses a dignified distance from the road on narrow tracts stretching back to the river, where they planted onions, corn, and tobacco. After a stretch of white farmhouses and old street trees, the sky expands over a striking panorama of flat fields and stark, windowless barns. The shade-grown tobacco of the Connecticut Valley, used for cigar wrappers, must be picked by hand and raised beneath a vast canopy of gauze netting, supported by a grid of posts. At this time of year the nets are rolled up and tied to the posts, evoking the lonely landscape of the western plains.

Farmstands appear about 2 miles down Route 47. Smiarowski Farm Stand offers an eye-catching assortment of mums, gourds, squash, and pumpkins. Setting up for a busy day, Karen Smiarowski paused to explain that her husband, Charles, is a third-generation farmer in the valley. “He has a degree in criminology, and I’m a registered nurse, but when it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood,’’ she said. Polish farmers, arriving in the surge of immigration from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century, filled an agricultural labor shortage and eventually bought up the farms of their Yankee employers.

A gray Italianate village hall (1864) marks the beginning of North Hadley. Soon afterward, the North Hadley Sugar Shack farm stand sells cider donuts as well as fall harvest veggies. In the tobacco barn behind the farm stand, hanging sheaves are visible through vertical vents.

In Hadley Center the Greek Revival Town Hall (1841) and Federal-style church (1806) stand out amid the commercial sprawl at the intersection of Route 9. (If it’s mealtime, try the Esselon Café, at the corner of the common at Route 9.)

The Hadley Common runs for a mile on West Street (right onto Russell Street/Route 9, right onto West Street). The longest intact common in New England, it dates from 1659 and preserves the layout of the palisaded settlement built to fend off Native American raiders during King Philip’s War. Near the common’s north end, the North Lane Conservation Area provides access to a short river walk on a Depression-era levee.

Skinner State Park, South Hadley: South on West Street, straight across Route 9, left onto Bay Road/Route 47, left into park entrance. In South Hadley the terrain rises into uplands, and suddenly the road is heading straight toward the Holyoke Range, a basalt lava ridge that runs east-west. An auto road in the park leads to the summit of Mount Holyoke (elevation 942 feet), the western terminus of the range. The Summit House, a historic hotel and viewing structure, is closed indefinitely, but rocky trails on the summit lead to valley views, including the famous Oxbow riverbend. Hikers might prefer to roam Holyoke Range State Park, on Route 116 in Amherst.

South Hadley Center: right out of park onto Route 47 south Mount Holyoke College lends a grace note to this small town. Visit the College Art Museum (free and open to the public), which received Albert Bierstadt’s Hetch Hetchy Canyon painting as a founding gift in 1876. A cluster of shops near the town common and the Woodbridge Street National Historic District are the other main attractions.

Here the byway ends, but the journey does not have to. Roads fan out in all directions — Route 116 north leads to Amherst, where it joins Route 9 west to Northampton, then on to Williamsburg and the hilltowns.

Jane Roy Brown can be reached at