Striking out westward from Mt. Everett, I dropped over the lip of the bowl of the Taconic Plateau and into the Town of Mt. Washington. With the third smallest population of any locality in Massachusetts, Mt. Washington is in some respects more like an island than any other town in the Berkshires. Like islanders, stubbornly outside the currents of onshore living, the residents of Mt. Washington are proudly independent and protective of the unique qualify of life their mountain community affords.
There is no local economy, no municipal infrastructure apart from the highway department garage and the one room Town Hall. People living in Mt. Washington largely make their living away from the mountain, except for a few contractors who service neighboring properties. The Town is therefore heavily dependent on its residential tax base. The municipal budget is modest in comparison to nearby communities, usually less than $500,000. Still, any year with large capital costs, such as repairing one of the two, all weather roads that connect the mountain to surrounding communities, can easily exceed the total annual budget. Some residents fear that the Town, which already receives many municipal services from its neighbors, may eventually be non-viable and be absorbed by neighboring Egremont.
Walking through this wooded landscape, it is hard to conceive of a time when the crisp, mountain air was routinely thick with smoke and the forests mere sproutlands cleared for charcoal. Yet scattered throughout the woods today, one often encounters the level remains of an old charcoal mound, its blackened heart just inches below the surface duff. The oldest of these have mature trees growing on them, and they form oval terraces across the mountain slopes. Only the most inaccessible groves escaped the ax, deep in the ravines or on the steepest flanks of the mountains, and these woodlands contain Mt. Washington's remnants of old growth forest, fully a third of the total recorded for all of Massachusetts.
The charcoal fueled the colonial iron industry which centered on this region. The Berkshire and Litchfield Hills possessed the three key ingredients needed for iron production in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In addition to forests for charcoal to fuel the furnaces, there was iron for the smelters and plenty of lime to separate the slag from the ore. The remains of these stone furnaces are strewn across this region, and many towns have their "Lime Kiln Rd." Connecticut troops were detailed to protect the blast furnace on Mt. Riga during the Revolution.
When iron production shifted to the coal fields of Pennsylvania, the furnaces of this region gradually shut down and the forests started to recover. It is still a relatively young forest -although ancient in places - and since there is little commercial forestry on the Plateau there has been little high-grading in modern times.
I picked up the Alander Mountain Trail at the Department of Conservation and Recreation Park headquarters and refilled my canteens in Ashley Hill Brook. It would be the last water I found for the rest of my journey, for the hillsides were parched in September and the intermittent streams ran dry. Since then, we have endured weeks of rain, with totals in excess of 15 inches and pronounced flooding in the river valleys. But August and September were sere and waterless, and I had many miles to go on the Taconic Crest Trail before concluding my hike. We'll take that trail together in the next and final installment of this serial account of my sojourn through the Taconic Plateau.