In Western Mass., the Only Potholes You Won’t Hate

Snowflakes have finally transitioned to raindrops, lawns are becoming thicker and greener, and thermometers are steadily on the uptick.

The spring season is now very much here. In our little corner of the country, though, the focus is elsewhere: divots in the road have transitioned to potholes, potholes are becoming deeper potholes, and potholes, it seems, are generally on the uptick. I cringe for everyone’s axles just thinking about it. But there is one place in Massachusetts where potholes are a welcome sight, strange as that may sound. For those willing to trek to the foothills of the Berkshires, risking their vehicles’ suspensions and wheel rims on pothole-riddled roads, they are in for an idyllic treat.

Roughly two hours west of Boston is the unassuming town of Shelburne Falls, nestled upon the eastern bank of the Deerfield River. This community is a bucolic destination for New England tourists wanting to break from typical destinations down along the coast or high up in the mountains. Here they’re treated to a healthy dose of New England hilltown atmosphere along with views of what are called glacial potholes, etched by Mother Nature out of the rocky riverbed.

Glacial potholes are exactly that: potholes of varying size and scope carved into metamorphic rock by the drawn-out processes of glaciation. They are not only beautiful to observe–especially against the backdrop of Shelburne Falls’ foliated gneiss bedrock, a foliated formation yielding beautiful colors and textures–but they tell the ancient story of a region that once sat underwater if not directly within the bounds of a delta that fed into the prehistoric Lake Hitchcock. It is thought Lake Hitchcock stretched from Central Connecticut to Northern Vermont dozens of thousands of years ago.

When large pools of water were formed due to glacial recession, a whirlpool effect swept up small rocks and pebbles causing them to slowly drill their way into the rock. The debris eventually burrowed some 50-plus potholes, some even big enough for a full-grown person to stand up in.

Shelburne Falls dam
Deerfield Station No. 3 dam/ Image via author

For better or for worse, river potholes like these are as common as those cut out of many a-stretch of road. They can be found scattered across the country. But the fact that they are common occurrences does not take away from their charm, and if anything else it reinforces the awesome and enduring power of nature both in our own backyards and across the world.

Standing 35-feet above the potholes and restricting the southbound river is a dam. Part of a network of hydroelectric stations setup along 65 miles of the river, Deerfield Station No. 3 as it is called, is capable of generating six megawatts of power. A free parking lot on the east bank, behind the second oldest bowling alley in North America, provides visitors with a place to leave their vehicles and take in a view of the potholes and the falls. Here the river bends to the east, allowing for a charming panorama of the falls.

The lot can also be used as a launching pad for exploring the rest of the town. Shelburne Falls is completely walkable.

Bridge Street, the main thoroughfare of Shelburne Falls, is like a live-action Norman Rockwell diorama. (Rockwell and his family moved to Stockbridge, MA in the early 1950s, about an hour southwest of Shelburne Falls, where a museum in his honor also resides.) Many of the buildings are made of brick or stone, some of old-time clapboards, which echo the industrial past that put the entire region on the map. Lining the street on both sides are restaurants catering to the needs of vegans, carnivores, and varying tastes in between; quaint shops, galleries, and boutiques; and a couple of dusty used bookstores.

In addition to Station No. 3 are two historical structures that span the Deerfield River. The Iron Bridge carries Bridge Street from Shelburne Falls over to neighboring Buckland. It was built of riveted wrought iron, hence its name, in 1890.

Just a stone’s throw up river is the Bridge of Flowers. This five-span, 400-foot concrete arched trolley bridge was built in 1908 as a means of connecting Shelburne Falls with nearby manufacturing towns. Eventually the trolley service failed and the unused bridge became a sore subject for locals. In the late 1920s a plan was concocted, money and materials were raised, and the bridge was recycled into its current state, a horticulturist’s dream. Long before New York City wowed people with its High Line, Shelburne Falls was blazing the trail for adapting old infrastructure into public green space.

Shelburne Falls is a bountiful destination for locals and visitors alike. And strange as it may sound at first, the potholes are absolutely worth visiting. Understanding fully that New Englanders have as deep hate-hate relationship with potholes in general, it is worth it for everyone to take time to venture out to see these ones, crafted in nature, literally over a span of ages.

Just be sure to keep an eye on the bumpy road ahead so you and your car can arrive in one piece.

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