A Trip Back In Time: Touring Vermont’s Historic Route 7A

10 Jun

Change comes slowly here. Many of Vermont’s roads were built a couple of centuries ago when oxen pulled wagons. Merely covered by asphalt these narrow serpentine roads still undulate across the landscape through the moist shade of forests interspersed with fields bordered by stonewalls. It’s motorcycle-riding paradise.

In 1749 Bennington became the first town charted in what was a frontier wilderness known as “The Grants.” Located just a few miles north of Massachusetts and on the border with New York a majority of riders coming to Vermont pass through this crossroad.

Hemings museum_9873          On West Main Street—Route 9—I pull into the Hemmings Motor Oasis Sunoco. This is more than just a gas station: next door, in the basement of a converted factory building, is the Hemming Motor News museum that’s jammed packed with vintage and antique vehicles.

The Bennington Battle Monument is the tallest building in the state.

The Bennington Battle Monument is the tallest building in the state.

Old Bennington holds some of Vermont’s earliest history. Old First Church (c. 1805) is considered to be one of the finest Federal-style churches in New England and in the Old Burying Ground headstone markers date back to the Battle of Bennington. Yet, it is the 306-foot high monument of gray dolomite that commands attention. The Battle of Bennington, the turning point of the Revolutionary War, actually took place in nearby Hoosic, NY but this marks the site of the critical storage of militia supplies that British intended to capture. Today I simply loop around the monolith and head for North Bennington, crossing the elegant, red-painted, Silk Covered Bridge over the Walloomsac River.

Modern Rt. 7 is cut into the western slope of the Green Mountains, but the original highway, now designated as Historic Route 7A, follows the narrow Valley of Vermont. At one point in the distant geological past, a cataclysmic event sheared off the lofty top of the southern Green Mountains and moved them slightly to the west, creating the Taconic Mountains and this narrow passageway north.

The old iron kettle dates back to late 18th century and is located at milepost 5.

The old iron kettle dates back to late 18th century and is located at milepost 5.

History in this region resonates even at relatively insignificant landmarks. I pull over to splash cool spring water on my head from the old iron kettle. I have no idea when the massive kettle was first put into place for watering horses and oxen as they pulled their loads up the hill, but I’d like to believe that it dates back to the 1790s when this was a center for iron production.

This bucolic valley has inspired artists, writers, and visitors for more than a century. Robert Frost, Norman Rockwell, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and Pearl S. Buck called it home, and John Irving still does. The Ira Allen House (c.1779) was the home of Ethan and Ira Allen, two of Vermont’s founding fathers, and where Ethan finished writing the (then) heretical Reason: The Only Oracle of Man. Designated a state historical site, staying at this B&B is like stepping back in time.Ira Allen House_9907

From the summit of Mt. Equinox looking over Little Equinox and the Taconic Range.

From the summit of Mt. Equinox looking over Little Equinox and the Taconic Range.

Route 7A is scenic, but doesn’t offer a challenge. Almost hidden among a cluster of tourist attractions is the toll house entrance to the Skyline Drive. This sinuous road has the most radically banked hairpin turns of any paved road east of the Rockies. At the new observation building on the summit of Mount Equinox I meet up with members of the Triumph touring club and we gaze across mountains that fade from green to indistinct blue on the far horizons.

Hildene gardens_9781

Hildene

Approaching Manchester Center, I make a right turn onto the long driveway that leads to Hildene. This 1904 Georgian-style mansion was built by Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, and remained in the family until 1975. Completely furnished with the family’s possessions and some surviving documents written in the President’s hand, it is now held in trust and open to the public. However, I’m not stopping for more history, but simply to buy some of the incredible chèvre cheese produced on this estate.

Equinox Resort.

Equinox Resort.

Hildene marks southern end of what I call “Mansion Mile” and the Equinox Resort the northern. The hotel with its stately columns and the yellow-brick county courthouse define the center of this small village. Established in 1769 as The Marsh Tavern, the resort now comprises several structures, including the original Orvis homestead (c. 1832), the 1811 House, and the Charles Orvis Inn (c. 1812). Too expand your education attend the Orvis Fly Fishing School, the British School of Falconry, or the Land Rover Experience Driving School.

The highway continues into Manchester Center. The big attractions are the factory outlets by Armani, Polo Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, Reebok, Ann Taylor, and, of course, the Orvis flagship store and corporate headquarters. Route 7A intersects Route 30 in the center of the village and, coupled with turning traffic, this village earned the nickname “Malfunction Junction.” However, to avoid this traffic congestion I bear left by the Equinox onto West Road to reach Route 30.   The beautiful Mettawee Valley cuts between Mount Equinox and Dorset Mountain. Vermont’s first marble quarry was established in 1785, and the “fence” of marble blocks and a historic site marker make it easy to spot.

The Norcross quarry was the first marble quarry in the U.S.

The Norcross quarry was the first marble quarry in the U.S.

The smell of burgers cooking causes me to make a U-turn. The Dorset Union Store (c. 1816) is an appropriate lunch stop any day of the week, but Thursday is “Slider’s Day” where small cheeseburgers—made from local, grass-fed beef–and hot dogs cooked on the outside grill are only a dollar.

Dorset Union Store.

Dorset Union Store.

The Dorset Inn is one of the oldest in the country.

The Dorset Inn is one of the oldest in the country.

Two miles beyond Dorset I turn west onto Rt. 315 and then north from Rupert on Rt. 153. The Taconics are almost a secret in the motorcycle-touring community. Great twisting local roads with elevation changes, tiny settlements and farms, and almost no traffic makes this one of my favorite places in the state to ride. West Pawlet is situated on the New York border and is the beginning of the “slate belt.” Slate is used for roof and floor tiles and comes in colors of red, purple, green, and gray. Most of the slate used in the U.S. comes from small quarries situated on the western edge of the Taconics and several can be seen from the highway.

Rt. 153 in Rupert

Rt. 153 in Rupert

In North Pawlet, I turn and ride south on Rt. 30 for four miles before turning north on Rt. 133 and climbing back into the mountains. Leisurely twisting pavement takes me past farms, rural residences, and through cool forest shade to Middletown Springs. Bearing right on Rt. 140 to Tinmouth, then south on Tinmouth Road, I loop back to Route 7 in Danby through countryside that seems almost too perfect to be true.

Barn in W. Pawlet.

Barn in W. Pawlet.

Danby marks the narrowest part of the Valley of Vermont. It’s also where man has tunneled deep into Dorset Mountain creating caverns 20-acres in extent to reach some of the world’s finest marble. In the village this stone has been used to construct buildings, sidewalks, foundations, and even fence posts, but also for memorials, sculpture, and monumental architecture around the world.

Route 7 is a wide, relatively straight highway, but the beauty of the countryside continues to enthrall me while riding south.

The Wilson House.

The Wilson House.

I cross he railroad tracks into East Dorset and stop at the Wilson House. Bill Wilson was born behind the bar in his grandfather’s hotel, but conversely would gain fame as the co-founder of Alcoholic Anonymous. It still operates as an inn and the gravesite of Bill and his wife is less than a mile away.

A right turn off the main highway puts me onto the last five miles of Historic Route 7A. Less expensive, classic motels from the post-WWII era still thrive on this stretch of road just north of Manchester Center..

Manchester Center -- a.k.a. Malfunction Junction.

Manchester Center — a.k.a. Malfunction Junction.

Gliding into downtown and maneuvering around the recently constructed, and still controversial, roundabouts completes my Taconic loop. Riding east on combined Routes 30 and 11 my destination lies on the other side of these mountains: the most popular motorcycle-touring road in Vermont, Route 100.

 

This was previously published in Rider magazine.  All rights reserved (c) Ken Aiken.

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