By Jeff Podos
Western Massachusetts offers an abundance of charms, prominent among them its meandering, scenic back roads. For the newcomer, navigating our local roads can present quite the challenge. This is not just because our roads are arrayed haphazardly (no city grids here!), but also because of two main quirks in how roads are named and marked. First, while side roads are often marked clearly, main thoroughfares typically remain sign-free for long stretches. Is this a cost-cutting measure by the Department of Transportation? Are drivers just supposed to know where they are? Second, some streets are named not for where you find them, but rather for where they go. For instance, there is a road that traverses the adjacent towns of Pelham and Amherst. In Pelham it is called "Amherst Road", yet at the border of Amherst its name changes abruptly to "Pelham Road". Of course this rule doesn't apply to all roads, you're just supposed to know which ones. Anyhow, the sum effect of these two road signage quirks is that you might spend more time on our local roads than you would otherwise -- and that is not necessarily a bad thing (unless your fuel tank is near empty).
Illustration of two signage quirks common to Western Massachusetts. This Pelham-based sign sits at the juncture of Amherst Road and the Daniel Shay's highway (Rt. 202), although the sign gleefully withholds this second bit of information. If you follow Amherst Road you will eventually arrive in Amherst, where the road abruptly and conveniently changes its name to "Pelham Road". Being lost in the Pioneer Valley offers drivers enhanced opportunities to sample local farm stands.
My blog post today concerns a specific road-sign quirk that my colleagues and I noted years ago during our travels between UMass Amherst and the Quabbin Reservoir (where we conduct research on birds). To get to the Quabbin from campus, we drive north past Cushman Brook and Haskins Meadow into Leverett, where we pick up Shutesbury Road east and then climb the winding road up the hill (referred to as the “S-curves” by locals). We then pass Shutesbury center and descend to Rt. 202, at the western edge of the Quabbin. On Rt. 202 we head north for about 3 miles into New Salem and then finally to another, different Shutesbury Rd, which we follow east to Gate 21 of the Quabbin. The drive is especially compelling in the low fog of pre-dawn hours. Throughout the spring there is lots to see and enjoy including flocks of turkey and farm stands selling fresh eggs and fresh flowers. There is also not a single traffic light along the way with which to be annoyed. The notable feature of the route for present purposes relates to the northbound stretch on Rt. 202. This stretch of Rt. 202 intersects with seven side roads, four to the left and three to the right. Here's the kicker -- they all have the same name! Cooleyville Road. Over and over again, it's Cooleyville Road.
All 5 current street signs along the 3 mile stretch of Rt. 202 between the two Shutesbury Roads. 2 additional unmarked intersections (not shown) are also called Cooleyville Rd; signs at these intersections appear to have been recently removed, perhaps to confuse matters further or else as another cost-cutting ploy.
What gives? Did the people who named these streets suffer debilitating writer’s block? Was Cooley a historical figure of paramount importance? In the old village of Cooleyville, was "Cooleyville Rd" synonymous with "a road in Cooleyville"? More practically, where would you go if you agreed to meet somebody at the corner of Rt. 202 and Cooleyville Road?
An alternative possible explanation comes quickly to mind. Rt. 202 runs along the highest elevations of the Quabbin reservoir’s western edge, connecting Belchertown in the south to Athol in the north. The Quabbin was created in the 1930's when the Swift River was dammed, and Rt. 202 probably post-dates the Quabbin, laid down only after the counters of the Quabbin were defined.
View of the Quabbin looking down and east from Rt. 202, just north of Main St in Pelham.
One might surmise that Cooleyville Rd is an older road, originally in place pre-Quabbin, following roughly the same route Rt. 202 would come to occupy yet less in a hurry to get from Point A to Point B. The newer and more direct road thus perhaps came to slice the older road into multiple segments, with each segment retaining the ancestral name. A quick overview of a road atlas supports this explanation.
The topic laid dormant in my mind until a few weeks ago, when I finally decided to explore the length of Cooleyville Road by bike, to take photos and to gain an on-the-ground perspective. I cycled north from Amherst through Leverett, Shutesbury, and into New Salem, and entered Cooleyville Road to the west, at its most northern intersection with Rt. 202. Cooleyville Road does indeed have the compelling hallmarks of an old road, curving along natural contours and dotted with historic homes and old fields. Along its unpaved course the road crosses small streams and wooded patches, and is flanked by stone walls. The ascents and descents can be steep and therefore not easy travel for a road bike, although a mountain bike would do fine. As expected the road loops back and crosses 202 to the east (these are the unmarked crossings), where it encounters a winery at the juncture of Hunt Rd, and then swings back again west of Rt. 202.
Traveling a bit further I happened upon an intersection that I was not expecting, not having actually studied a map closely before my ride. The street sign told me that to stay on Cooleyville Road I'd need to go left, back east again towards Rt. 202. I wasn't sure where I'd end up if I took the unmarked path. So I followed the sign back across Rt. 202 until it ended, abruptly, at Gate 17 of the Quabbin. Now I was confused, because I thought that Cooleyville Road was supposed to end not at a Quabbin gate, but rather along Shutesbury Road near Shutesbury Center. I only made sense of this after I got home and looked at a road atlas. It turned out that the intersection where I had gone left was actually the intersection of Cooleyville Road and… Cooleyville Road.
Intersection of Cooleyville Road (marked, to the left) with, what else, Cooleyville Road (unmarked, to the right).
The second, unmarked portion of Cooleyville Road turns out to connect with the southern Shutesbury Road, although at that specific location Shutesbury Road is actually called Prescott Road, indicating for those in-the-know (see quirk 2 above) that that road leads to Prescott, a town that no actually longer exists since it was flooded out by the Quabbin, although the area in the Quabbin where we work is called the Prescott Peninsula. Got it? Really? Either way, one thing I think I can say with certainty (see, I'm still hedging my bets) is that Cooleyville Road originates in Shutesbury center, right in front of town hall.
Cooleyville Road’s juncture with Shutesbury (Prescott) Road, and its humble southern origin at Shutesbury center.
I hope to get back soon and cycle the leg of Cooleyville Road that originates on Shutesbury Road near Shutesbury center, and thus complete my pilgrimage. I wonder in particular whether the anticipated descent and subsequent ascent on unpaved Cooleyville Road is less severe than on the paved route. Yet whatever I find, I'm pretty sure the story won't end there. In particular, several observations on a mapping website give me pause. First, I note that a short stretch of Cooleyville Road near the winery actually changes it's name briefly to, what else, Shutesbury Road. Do the letter carriers know about this? And I see there's another Cooleyville Road ~4 miles to the north in Wendell. Did the two Cooleyville Roads have a prior connection, now defunct? Is this evidence of some sort of long-forgotten family squabble? Ultimately, the narrative threads that connect these roads' names and stories are likely as winding and meandering as the roads themselves, and as steeped in local history.
Jeff Podos is a Professor of Biology at UMass Amherst, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He invites feedback on this blog post, especially from those with information about Cooleyville Road and its history.