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A Tale of Two Towers

Holyoke's Scott Tower tells a timely story.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008
Photos by Mark Roessler; Historic images courtesy the Holyoke Public Library History Room
Holyoke's Scott Tower stands at the top of Anniversary Hill, Holyoke's largest and least-known park.

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Holyoke's largest and most impressive park has all but disappeared.

It's still there, but you need to know where to look for it. If you've spent any significant part of your life in the Valley, chances are you've driven through the park dozens—if not thousands—of times: Interstate 91 bisects a corner of it. Still, that doesn't make it any easier to know it's there, much less find a way in.

The park's entrance is unmarked, and the small road, located near an entry ramp for the highway, is easy to miss. At the end of a wooded drive lined with empty picnic tables, the road opens into a parking lot and a field. There are vestiges of a public pool that was once here. All traces of an elaborate wooden playground that stood here only a year or so ago have been erased in favor of the grassy space known as Community Field—a mere fraction of the park that's gone missing. The rest of the phantom park is beyond the four lanes of traffic humming along the hill above the field.

At one corner of the parking lot, barred by a thick steel beam, a small access road runs under the highway. Again, there's no sign or notice indicating why anyone might want to venture up the road, past the chain-link fences, garbage and graffiti. There is nothing to indicate that there's a public park just beyond the highway, with a network of paths and roadways leading up to a hilltop crowned by a 54-foot stone tower with a spectacular vista: Scott Tower.

More apparent than the tower made of rocks from a local stream bed, a spire of white metal stands close to the highway, pointing at the sky. The AT&T cell phone tower was installed only a few years ago, with the promise that the funds Holyoke earned from leasing the space to the communications corporation would go to returning the park from obscurity.

But despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue generated by the second tower on the site, a promising future for Scott Tower continues to fade.

Shortly after my brother-in-law moved into an apartment in Holyoke, he took me on a drive around his new neighborhood, and that's when we first spotted the tower, poking through the trees in the distance.

I've got a thing for Victorian architecture (some may call it an obsession), and for a long while I've been nurturing a healthy fixation on houses with second- or third-story porches. Hidden beneath the eaves or perched magnificently above a front entrance, these aeries seemed designed to satisfy a primordial urge to stand aloft, with a breeze in the face and a commanding view. Though I've not stood on one myself, I think I understand why such perches were desirable to 19th-century homeowners and why architects once figured them into their designs.

Tooling around Holyoke, my brother-in-law pointed out some of the most majestic upper-story porches I'd ever seen, and it was only by looking up and shielding our eyes from the sun that we spotted the conical roof of Scott Tower in the distance.

*

At home, I launched Google Earth. The free multimedia software presents a globe of the earth, covered in recent satellite photography and offering a nearly comprehensive view of the planet. The cloud of satellites that swarm just beyond our atmosphere, their lenses pointed downwards, have been providing images for governments and businesses that need them for years. Google Earth makes that imagery available (much of it paid for by your tax dollars) in a way that's easy and exciting to use. Even more comprehensive than a Victorian porch, this software lets you see into all your neighbors' back yards, and when you grow tired of visiting spaces you know and seeing them from miles above the Earth's surface, there's the rest of the world to explore.

I was able to see that, on the hill above the Lynch Middle School, there was a tall object that cast a long shadow. Whatever it was seemed to correspond to what I'd seen from the car. A few roads wound up through the woods to the object, but there was no information in the software or on any of the road maps I looked at about what the forest was named or what the object was. The software did show clearly, however, that the access road beneath the highway was the main entrance to the area.

One fall day a few years ago, my wife and I took our infant son to the Community Field park, played on the jungle gym for a while, and then took him in his stroller underneath the highway and into the mystery park.

*

According to Holyoke city documents, in 1923, "The outstanding feature of the year's attainment for Holyoke's public parks was the purchase of Craft's Hill, north of the city, to make a central park for Holyoke, together with the gift of the large tract of land on top of the hill by Colonel Walter Scott. &That means that the crest of the splendid hill north of the city all the way from the Easthampton Road to Cherry Street is saved for the use of the people for all the future." The documents continue, "The matter of securing Craft's Hill for a city park has been under discussion for twenty years. Its purchase was completed as a memorial of Holyoke's fiftieth year of municipal life. Hence the name of the park—Anniversary Hill Park."

Incorporated in 1850, Holyoke officially became a city in 1873. The new Anniversary Hill Park was dedicated with an enormous pageant depicting Holyoke history involving an estimated 3,500 people. An audience of 100,000 watched. Though the land was preserved, not much landscaping was done, but by all accounts the 135-acre park was a success, filled by picnickers in the summer and sledders in the winter. Its popularity was so great that 15 years later, during the Great Depression, it was given a tremendous facelift.

As a part of the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) effort to fight unemployment while upgrading the nation's public spaces and infrastructure, a $336,000 project was initiated to transform the hill into a world-class "municipal park and recreation area which will be unexcelled in Western Massachusetts," the Holyoke Daily Transcript and Telegram promised in January 1940. "With paths especially constructed for baby carriages, the architects dream of mothers and nursemaids wheeling their charges thru shaded glens. It will be complete, even to the babbling brook, benches and pine groves." For three years, a crew of a hundred local workers built roads, paths, bridges and the tower at the top of the hill. The newspapers of the time freely compared the future park with New York's Central Park, even suggesting that it would surpass it in quality.

Later, in 1940, the Park and Recreation Commission voted to change the name of Anniversary Hill to Scott Field, and they also named the tower the Walter Scott Memorial Tower. Though it took two more years to complete, the tower was already attracting thousands of local and out-of-state visitors. The report from the commission stated that a planned observation deck and ski slope had been abandoned due to the lack of manpower, but should it be revisited, there was a balance of over $200,000 left to complete it. In the meantime, 32 fireplaces and 22 picnic tables had been built, and the parks department had furnished firewood for the day-trippers.

In 1981, 40 years later, in the newspaper The Oracle, Holyoke resident David Mayer remembered working on the WPA crew up at Scott Tower. At the time, he was 18. "My father was called to go to work on the WPA but he was incapacitated," Scott told the paper. "I had been working cleaning up after the hurricane of '38, so I went in his place. I felt proud I could help my family during hard times and it was honest work." He described the engineer in charge, Paul Merkel, as "a short, mustachioed man with highcut boots all the way to his knees, a black leather jacket and battered soft hat. He told us he learned his profession in Germany. This man knew his business, as one can tell by looking at the construction of the tower, even today."

He described the work experience: "A normal day was mostly chopping down trees, clearing paths of snow and lumber and sometimes assisting the stonemasons who built the small stone bridge that still stands. When lunchtime came it was common for some of us to consume five sandwiches per man. Especially the young bulls, as they called us. After working outdoor in this type of weather for eight hours you developed a ravenous appetite."

He remembered coworkers such as the foreman, Joseph Williston, and timekeeper, Morey Borlen, and he made friends such as Chester Hoskey ("a Polish boy& [who] was built like a hydrant and just as sturdy") and Frank Sullivan ("who later went on to fight professionally under the name of Frankie Allen"). In addition to the German engineer and the Polish boy, there were French, Irish, Italians and Swedes working on the crew. "These men worked shoulder to shoulder helping one another," he said. "The wages were small but the bond of friendship was priceless. This was as it should be now."

When the tower was completed, a paper of the time described it as "a super look-out from which those of us who love our Holyoke can gaze with pride upon our city and understand the great beauty of her setting. The whole world is rimmed about with mountains, and here and there patches of the great river upon which we live gleam thru the trees, and around bends and curves of its own making."

*

My first visit to Scott Tower with my wife and boy left an impression.

Though the highway hummed nearby, we couldn't see it, and after a while the sound faded into the background. We followed the empty road strewn with fallen leaves and marveled at the towering trees and peaceful solitude—an oasis of forest less than a quarter mile from an urban center. We didn't see anyone, and we had no real idea where we were walking, or that the path we were on was, in fact, designed for the baby stroller we were pushing.

The road went on and on, climbing the hill, and then the aforementioned bridge appeared in the ravine that the road followed. The brook it spanned was dry, and the masonry had been battered and spray-painted, but it had undeniable charm. It was the first indication we had that the place might have been intended for people's pleasure. Later we found a glen full of dilapidated picnic tables, confirming our suspicions.

Confounding them, though, was the cell phone tower down the slope from the tables. Unlike the meandering paths or shady picnic glens, the cell phone tower seemed crudely thrust into the forest without any thought for those who might see it. Tall chain-linked fences lined by barbed wire warded off visitors and kept us walking. Eventually we stumbled on the park's namesake tower itself. The tall, phallic structure appeared as we turned a bend, framed by the saplings that had grown around it.

Though certainly tall, the tower doesn't overwhelm the area surrounding it. It is raised on a walled dais, and its entrance is surrounded by pillars made from river stones. The pillars support a wide balcony 10 feet above the ground, and the 68 steps in the tower itself corkscrew around until they reach the small lookout post with a sweeping, 360-degree view of the lower Valley, from Mt. Tom all the way to Hartford.

Because of the baby in the stroller, my wife and I had to take turns climbing the tower, and for the same reason, we had to head back to the car sooner than either of us would have liked. Ever since, I've been planning my return for a chance to enjoy this park and its hidden vantage point at my leisure.

*

On December 11, 1941, not long after work on the park had been completed, Holyoke's volunteer air raid observation post was moved from the gatehouse of the Ashley Reservoir to the top of Scott Tower. At 450 feet above sea level, its excellent view of the surrounding countryside made it a perfect lookout for potential air attacks, and city officials collaborated with the army and American Legion on establishing a camp at the tower. Three telephone poles brought electricity and a telephone to the small outpost built at the tower's base.

After World War II and through the 1950s, the park thrived. With the Mt. Tom reservation and the Mountain Park amusement park nearby, the people of Holyoke had a wide variety of outdoor recreation options minutes away. The beginning of the end for this plethora of public pastimes came in the early 1960s.

A newspaper clipping from May 15, 1962 reported that the city's Park and Recreation Commissioners went on record "opposing state highway department plans for elimination of a bridge at Community Field for proposed Interstate 91."

The bridge had originally been planned as a way of preserving access to the park and tower, but as the road system began to be built, the bridge was eventually deemed too expensive. The revised plan was for an access road, but the commissioners feared (correctly, it seems) that it would not be built until after the interstate, and access to the tower would be cut off. In the end, of course, the State DPW and the Federal Bureau of Public Roads had their way, and soon after the highway was built, the park and tower fell into decline.

In the early 1970s, President Nixon initiated an effort to preserve existing urban parks and build new ones. The $200 million program, known as The Legacy of Parks, provided municipalities with matching grants for park projects, and Holyoke applied. By 1976, scaffolding had been raised around the tower, repairs had been made, and the graffiti was painstakingly removed. But the preservation efforts didn't stick.

Throughout the 1980s, rather than welcoming families to recreate, the lonely road heading under the highway and up into the woods attracted people who had garbage they wanted to dump free of charge (and illegally) and car thieves.

Stolen cars were driven up into the forest and stripped for parts. When a local citizens' group began cleanup efforts in late 1993, after hauling 75 tires, assorted fenders, and an engine block from the woods, one member said, "I think we could have built a car." Old refrigerators, stoves and washing machines also went into the two dumpsters brought to the site.

In 1994, a story in the Springfield Union News declared the park restored to its former glory, but in March, 2000 the same paper reported another dumping incident in the park. This time, though, there was no mystery about who the perpetrators were. A Board of Health citation accused then-Holyoke Parks director Phillip A. Chesky of running an illegal solid waste dump in the park. A large pile of tree trunks was deposited near the tower, elsewhere there was a pile of broken park benches, and in another pile were an air conditioner, couches and other furniture. After an argument with Mayor Sullivan, Chesky and his staff made several trips to the site and removed the piles, but the reporter noted a lot of debris still remaining at the site. (Chesky is no longer parks director.)

The interest in the tower and the park continued in 2000, and a new group was formed to investigate improving the park and saving it. In September, shortly before she was voted out of office, State Rep. Evelyn Chesky (the parks director's mother) approved $200,000 in state matching funds for saving the park, and later in the year, AT&T proposed building a cell phone tower on the site.

*

I returned to Scott Tower in October to take pictures for this story, bringing my brother-in-law along for the ride. As I set up my tripod at the unmarked gate in Community Field, out of the woods beyond the highway a teenager appeared, a pair of huge bramble-snipping clippers over his shoulder. As I took pictures, the red-head teen eyed us suspiciously, and slowly edged closer.

"What you doing?" he asked.

"Taking pictures for a newspaper story," I explained. "I'm writing about Scott Tower."

"This isn't the tower," he said, as if catching me in a lie. "You're a long way from the tower. It's at the top of the hill."

My brother-in-law interjected. Pointing to the clippers, he asked, "You clearing the trail?"

"Yup," he said.

"Got a dirt bike?"

"No, an ATV," he said, and headed back into the woods.

A bit later, as I set up my camera to take a picture of the bridge spanning the dry brook, the teen roared up beside us. Shutting off the engine, he proclaimed, "I've lived here all my life. I know everything there is to know about this place. Name's Robert Gubala."

Robert, who was 17, proceeded to tell us about the wild parties he'd witnessed up at the tower, and how, even when the gate to the tower stairs had been locked, partiers would simply drive their trucks up to the base of the tower, build a ladder and climb up to the balcony. Throwing things off the tower seemed to be a favorite activity of the revelers, and our new guide said he'd seen kegs, televisions and hundreds of beer bottles hurled from the top of the tower. He was none too impressed with this behavior, as he was really tired of cleaning up all the broken glass. He wasn't sure he was going to do it anymore.

I asked him if he ever thought the park would be fixed up and restored to its former glory. The notion surprised him, but he was quick to reply, "No way. It would cost way too much. I drive around this place all year, and I hardly see anyone up here. No one cares. Why would they spend the money?"

As my brother-in-law and I traveled further up the hill, Robert buzzed, unseen, through the forest around us, occasionally checking in on our progress and seeing whether we had any questions. As the morning wore on, we began to hear other vehicles tearing through the park, and eventually we saw three boys on dirt bikes. They eyed us warily but didn't come closer.

After hanging out at the tower's peak for a good long while, we asked Robert if we'd seen everything the park had to offer, and he said there was another bridge off the main road that he liked. We followed him to it, and as I took pictures of the handsome span, he explained that when he was a boy, the brook these bridges crossed could be quite a torrent, and he liked to play in it. Since the housing development on Scott Hollow Drive was built, though, the brook didn't run any more, he said.

Through the brambles we heard the motorbikes tearing around, and we asked Robert if he ever hung out with them. "No," he said firmly, and he assured us they wouldn't find us there by the bridge. The other teens kept to the main road, and they didn't appreciate the park like he did.

On our way out, Robert showed us more stonework and remnants of the old park, and as we headed back to our car, he asked if he'd been of service to us, and whether he'd be in the story. I assured him he would. He zipped off with a wave, and in his wake, the three other motorcycles appeared in the path and watched us until we were out of sight.

*

The committee that had been formed in 2000 to determine the future of Scott Tower initially rejected AT&T's offer to build a cell phone tower on the site. Even though the communications company was offering an annual lease fee of $30,000 plus half the rental fee they'd charge other phone carriers, the committee feared the second tower would dwarf and detract from the first one. They recommended Mayor Sullivan turn AT&T down.

He did not.

The second tower was built, and now, heading north on Interstate 91, it's a private tower that's visible sticking up from the forest canopy, just as you pass the veterans' home. When the second tower was built, the Scott Tower/Community Field Revolving Fund was established so that the proceeds from AT&T's fees would go toward maintaining the two public spaces. In 2005, $86,000 was allocated for use in the following year, and in 2006, $130,000 was allocated.

Except for the new gate preventing cars from accessing the Scott Tower park and the removal of the playground in Community Field, it's unclear how or whether this nearly quarter million dollars has been spent. (Terry Sheppard, Holyoke's current director of Parks and Recreation, said there are no current plans for Scott Tower, but some of the AT&T funds have recently gone toward hiring architects, Gale Associates, to re-think Community Field.) Though there isn't as much trash as there might once have been in the park, it's hard to go far without seeing garbage. Except for what Robert's done, neglect seems to have taken a firm hold. Even the compound around the cell phone tower has long since been destroyed by vandals, and access to the high-tech components is free and easy.

While misallocated finances may be part of the challenge facing the resurrection of the park, a deeper, attitudinal shift seems to be the chief stumbling block to returning the park to public use. As Scott Tower fell into decay during America's wealthiest era, a deep erosion of what we believe is possible and what should be done for the public good also occurred.

Not long after the cell phone tower was erected, terrorists attacked and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City, and in response, without statutory authorization or court approval, President Bush authorized a wide range of surveillance measures aimed at the American public. One such measure was requesting communication companies to permit the government to monitor private cell phone conversations. Many companies complied with this request, including AT&T. This illegal abuse was uncovered in 2005 by the New York Times, but it continues today.

The first tower on the hill was built during one of the most difficult financial crises the country has ever faced, the Great Depression, with no other interest than bringing people together and serving the public good. The paths and bridges were built to offer sanctuary from the rigors of daily life. The sweeping vistas the tower provided were intended to unite. The new cell phone tower, though, was built with private interests in mind, and its corporate owners were clearly more concerned with their business objectives than the interests of those they served. The second tower, rather than uniting the public, spies on them.

Preventing Scott Tower's final fade into obscurity will, like the rest of our damaged country, require more than piles of cash. More importantly, we will need to rediscover the value in community and in undertaking ambitious projects for the common good.

An online panoramic tour of Scott Tower is available here.

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