Commonly chosen routes for getting north are the cemented highays, U.S. 7 on the west...known as the Ethan Allen Highway, and for all its length it has associations with the Green Mountain Boys and the early history of Vermont. The gateway is at Pownal...and after a lung-filling and eye-filling view from the Pownal road you are soon in Bennington...Charles Edward Crane
Last week I found myself one warm, sunny morning driving across the southern border of Vermont, thinking about how my nineteen year old son would soon be walking across the same state line with a sixty pound pack on his back. I had just dropped him off at the start of the Long Trail in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he was setting off for a three week, 270 mile trek along the ridge of the Green Mountains all the way to Canada. The Long Trail is the oldest long-distance hiking path in the U.S., and was the inspiration for the more-famous Appalachian Trail.
Like so many Vermont (and American, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted) enterprises, the Long Trail was conceived, built and maintained by visionary volunteers. The original dreamer was James P. Taylor, who one morning in 1910 while waiting for the mist to clear from the top of Stratton Mountain had the rather crazy idea of a path that could run through the Greens from the top to the bottom of Vermont.
The state's peaks had been largely unappreciated and unused for recreation until Taylor decided to help "make the Vermont mountains play a larger part in the life of the people." His dream took its first step towards reality at a small gathering of outdoor enthusiasts in Burlington, the first of a hundred years of meetings (and subsequent trail clearings) by the Green Mountain Club.
So while my son began his adventure ten miles behind and a thousand feet above me, I drove into the Pownal valley, and as usual when coming back to Vermont felt myself slip a bit back in time.
When I used to drive from Washington to Lake Champlain for summer vacations, I usually crossed into Vermont on Route 7, and I remembered the area for the creepy greyhound race track that was visible from the road. It's been vacant for over ten years now, though plans for some interesting commercial development (including a farmer's market) are in the works.
Now you can see vestiges of the tourism industry of our grandparent's time. I always covet these little guesthouses that are still settled along rivers all over the state, and want to take one up to our back acres, a retreat for mini-vacations at home.
Pownal has a long and complicated history, settled first by native Americans eons ago, then claimed by the Dutch in the late 1600's and finally passing later that century into English hands. By the Revolutionary War, settlers began arriving to the town (named for the head of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) from the more crowded Southern parts of New England. Their claims set the stage for a brewing war with wealthy New Yorkers who thought they'd been granted the same Vermont acres by England, a simmer that was to come to a full boil during the Revolutionary War when towns like Pownal split between Tories and Green Mountain Boys. Guess who won!
An itinerant minister was less than impressed with free and independent Pownal when he came over the mountain for a visit in 1789: “Pawnal ye first town, poor land – very unpleasant – very uneven – miserable set of inhabitants – no religion..." That was HIS opinion, anyway; the Pownalers would have probably answered him disdainfully with a pithy retort about private beliefs and personal responsibility.
By the 1900's Pownal did have churches, plus ten schools, textile mills (a Lewis Hine image of “Anemic Little Spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill" helped inspire the first child labor law), and a Berkshires to Bennington electric railroad. The mills are gone forever, but maybe the train will be back.
Until then, to visit the town of Pownal take a short detour from Route 7 to Route 346, which will also allow you to see North Pownal (look sharp or you'll end up in New York) and best of all, drive the back roads to Bennington.
More about Pownal