Many people know of Mountain Day as that annual rite observed at Smith and Mount Holyoke, an impromptu day-long break from classes that is announced every fall. But few people are aware that Amherst College once observed Mountain Day too, and in fact well before it got started at either of the women’s colleges.
It was a vote of the faculty in 1874 that formally established a floating holiday known as Mountain Day. It was proposed as a way for students to have a healthful retreat from the academic grind. Getting outdoors to enjoy nature was the order of the day, typically by riding out in a horse-drawn carriage with a group of one’s classmates, not only to take in the natural autumnal beauty of the Connecticut Valley, but also to engage in a challenging hike to the top of a local mountain. The faculty seemed to understand that Mountain Day would be the last opportunity for students to enjoy fresh air and vigorous outdoor exercise before the New England winter descended upon them all.
Actually, though, a tradition of mountain excursions existed at Amherst well before 1874. On the 4th of July, 1845, President Edward Hitchcock (himself an inveterate rambler throughout New England in search of geological specimens and curious footprints) led the senior and junior classes to blaze a trail up to the summit of Mt. Holyoke. (Along the way, the ladies of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary were on hand to prepare a meal.) In the following year, a similar excursion was undertaken by the Class of 1846 to name the peak now known as Mt. Norwottuck — the highest peak in the Holyoke Range — and celebrate the act with toasts and speeches on the summit.
In its first decade as an official college custom, Mountain Day fell in the first half of October; for at least some of these years, the seniors were allowed to choose the day. In the 1884-85 annual Catalogue, “Mountain-day” first appeared in the college calendar as a “day not fixed” in October. That changed in 1899, when according to the Catalogue it was designated as the first Thursday of the month.
An article in the October 31, 1874 issue of The Amherst Student reported on the first officially designated Mountain Day. The writer describes a trek up to the summit of Mt. Toby and concludes with these words: “Soon the rest of us took up the road to Amherst, arriving there in early evening, and after eating a hearty supper we went to sleep, dreaming of heaven, and bliss, and angels, and all other good things, including our college Faculty.”
In the 20th century, the original purpose of Mountain Day gradually fell into disuse. It last appeared in the official college calendar in 1930. In January 1933, the faculty voted to eliminate it from the calendar and add it to the Thanksgiving holiday so that it could become one continuous four-day holiday, Thursday-to-Sunday.