Quabbin sacrificed country towns to supply a thirsty Boston

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/03/11/quabbin-sacrificed-country-towns-to-supply-a-thirsty-boston/

WARE – Desolate grass roads lined with trees lace the landscape around the Quabbin Reservoir, the source of most of Boston’s water, the site of a ghost town and one of the longest earthen dams in the U.S.

What is now the largest inland body of water in Massachusetts, the Quabbin is also artificial, created by flooding an area that once held four small towns, Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott in the Swift River Valley. It amounted to a massive state-authorized land-taking to serve Boston’s growing needs.

Traces can still be seen in the surrounding woods of those old communities – a cellar hole here, stonewalls, and a cemetery with more than 7,000 graves that were dug up and relocated near what became the shore of the Quabbin, which means “a lot of water” in the Nipmuc Indian language. The approximately 80,000-acre reservation and reservoir remain a legacy of the overwhelming political power Boston could wield over neighbors near and far.

“Certainly it was a major impact on families here, some who have lived here for generations,” said Clifton R. Read, watershed management supervisor at the Department of Conservation and Recreation, or DCR.

But there was comparatively little public outcry over the plan from residents who became aware of it in the 1920s, according to local historian J.R. Greene.

“It was a different time and era,” said Greene, the author of “The Creation of the Quabbin Reservoir” and several other books on the subject. “People weren’t as into protesting as much. It was more of a sad resignation type of thing.”

Creating the Quabbin was a response to Greater Boston’s growing population – and thirst – that began to be noticed in the 19th century. By 1875, demand from Boston was on the verge of exceeding the capacity of local supplies from Lake Cochituate near Natick. After searches for larger sources, lawmakers in Boston passed the 1927 Swift River Act, which cleared the way for the Quabbin plan. Work began as the Great Depression descended on the nation in 1930 and ended in 1939.

While much of the region affected had been used for farming or left as woodland, industries in Dana and Enfield included wood products and textiles. Dana and Greenwich were also home to summer communities and children’s camps.

An aerial few of the Swift River Valley taken in the 1930's. It looks north to the former town of Greenwich. (Photo courtesy of the Conservation and Recreation Archives)
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By the time the proposal for the reservoir came along in the early 1920s most of the valley’s industry had withered, Greene said, so there was little opposition from businesses in the towns. Former residents have told him younger townsfolk weren’t very much disturbed by the prospect of being uprooted.

“It was a boring small place and you could get a crappy job in a local factory or something,” Greene said, recalling what he had been told by former residents. “There wasn’t that much work.”

Many residents relocated to towns within 10 or 15 miles from their homes, including larger communities with factories and thriving retail districts.

But for those whose families had lived in the valley for generations, resettling could be quite a shock. They no longer could bring their grandchildren back to see where they had lived.

Residents were offered money from the state to pay for their property, but not for the loss of business or trade. Greene said the 2,500 or so people who lived in the valley were mostly resigned to the idea that they could scarcely resist the will of the more than 1 million people in Greater Boston, though many fought for fair compensation for what amounted to a very large case of land-taking by eminent domain. According to the Friends of the Quabbin, the state spent about $9.8 million to acquire the valley real estate needed for the project.

In the end, some houses were moved elsewhere. One was transported all the way to New York’s Staten Island, Greene said. The rest were either torn down, burned or bulldozed.

Engineers marked a high water line during the construction, and all the trees below it were cut down and removed to prevent any wood from rotting in the reservoir water and avoid resulting discoloration in the water supply. The reservoir’s shoreline stretches about 118 miles and its surface covers 39 square miles.

As structures in the towns were demolished, some residents found jobs doing the work.

“It’s kind of a bitter sweet thing for some people who were being paid to dismantle their homes,” Read said. Others may have labored on the years long construction of the half-mile long Winsor Dam in Belchertown, one of the biggest earthen dams in the nation, which forms the base of the reservoir. Once the dam was completed in 1939, it took until 1946 for the Quabbin to fill to its 412 billion-gallon capacity.

For residents of the Swift River Valley and the Quabbin region today, the tension created with Boston over the reservoir project still resonates with some bitterness and resentment.

A plan to create an enclave for timber rattlesnakes on a Quabbin island is seen by some as the latest example of the state, led from Boston, having its way. Preserving the venomous snakes is a high conservation priority for the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The agency has proposed establishing a population on Mount Zion, the biggest island in the reservoir and off-limits to the public.

Local opponents to the plan fear it may deter tourism by visitors who are afraid of running into one of the snakes while out enjoying the park. Timber rattlesnakes can swim, and there is a causeway that connects the island to the mainland. State officials say the snakes are reclusive and pose little danger to people, if left undisturbed.

The tens of thousands of acres of woodland that protects the Quabbin watershed offers many parks and recreational opportunities for visitors, including a trail that brings hikers to the center of what was once Dana. Some streets and other aspects of the former town can still be seen, leading some to call it a New England ghost town.

While the area falls far short of being a true wilderness, the state’s Read said, it has provided an environment for the reestablishment of bald eagles. In addition to state rangers, Greene said local residents do their part to kep an eye on the reservation.

“We try to be like watchdogs out here,” he said.