Quabbin: Land of Many Waters
By Rebecca Binder ’02
I scrawled it on the map the attendant at the Visitor’s Center gave me. “House,” with an arrow pointing to the intersection of two trails that snake through the woods surrounding the Quabbin Reservoir. Standing in front of “house,” though, I realized that I hadn’t described the half of it. “House” must have once been a well-loved home. I pictured children playing in the verdant yard, and parents whiling away a lazy afternoon on the porch, enjoying a majestic view of the Swift River. Now, though, the yard hosts only scrub and unkempt trees. The stately columns that once bordered the porch reach into the open sky. And the Swift River that once provided a stunning vista disappeared decades ago.
Look at any map of Massachusetts, and you’ll see the Quabbin. It’s a huge body of water, cut with a jagged edge into the hills just east of Amherst. Picturesque islands dot the reservoir; all told, the water and the woods surrounding it form Southern New England’s largest swath of open space. Today, the Quabbin hosts 39 square miles of land and a mind-boggling 412 billion gallons of water. The reservoir has a 118-mile shoreline— almost the length of Massachusetts itself. The water travels through a series of tunnels toward 2.4 million people in eastern Massachusetts.
A large chunk of Boston’s water supply, in fact, comes from the Quabbin. Turn on a tap on Beacon Hill, or in Brookline or Cambridge, and chances are the water that streams out originated in the Quabbin. Boston depends on the Quabbin’s water; without the upland reservoir, eastern Massachusetts arguably wouldn’t be able to sustain the dense population it does.
Luckily for eastern Massachusetts, the Quabbin exists. But that wasn’t always the case. The Quabbin is a man-made reservoir, driven to existence in the first part of the 20th century by Boston’s rapid growth, and by a limited and polluted water supply. When the Quabbin was built, critics hailed the reservoir and its system of tunnels as engineering genius.
People also noticed the project for sacrifices made in its furtherance. Four small towns—Enfield, Dana, Prescott and Greenwich (pronounced “Green-witch” by those that called it home)—already occupied the Swift River Valley that today forms the reservoir’s floor. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the four towns were disincorporated, razed and flooded to make way for the water that filled the valley by 1946. Trees cleared; houses bulldozed; residents evicted. The islands that today punctuate the water used to be hills. Dana’s abandoned town common sits silently in the woods above the waterline. When the water’s low, those flying over the Quabbin see the ghostly outlines of abandoned roads and cellar holes on the bed of the reservoir.
The Quabbin’s story flows from Boston’s story, and from the city’s search for fresh water. By the end of the 18th century, the heavily polluted Charles River had spread typhoid throughout the city. Moreover, the Charles simply couldn’t provide enough water to
sustain the growing population, let alone fight the fires that tortured Boston’s wooden buildings. To quench its thirst, the city looked to Jamaica Pond in 1795, and west, to Natick’s Lake Cochituate, in 1848. The 1870s brought the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, bordering Boston College.
In 1908, the state expanded the Wachusett Reservoir by purchasing and flooding low-lying land in Clinton, Boylston, West Boylston and Sterling. In the process, the state evicted hundreds of residents whose homes lay below the anticipated water line. “It does not appear to us to be a very important objection to our plan,” one report reads, “that certain mill sites will be 80 feet below the surface of the basin, nor that the homes of many industrious people dependent upon these mills for their living will also be submerged, because all these can be paid for, and an equivalent will be given.”
Despite all its efforts, Boston’s water supply still couldn’t keep up with the city’s boom. By the late 19th century, more than half a million people called Boston home. The city had added land, filling in the Back Bay and annexing surrounding towns. And new industry had increased water consumption more than anyone could have predicted.
Boston’s boom caused the balance of political power in Massachusetts to shift: as the state’s population concentrated in the east, the small towns in the western half of the state lost their influence in the legislature. The isolated people of the Swift River Valley, though, probably didn’t pay much attention to Boston’s population explosion. After all, city life seemed so far removed from life in the valley.
Water streams through the spillway in winter 2006.
Settlers arrived in the Swift River Valley around 1735. After battling the Nimpuc tribe of Native Americans that already lived there, they set up farms and incorporated small towns. As America moved from agriculture to industry, so did the valley. The river that flowed through the valley powered factories and mills. In the 19th century, the four Swift River towns were at their peak of promise. But the isolated area didn’t experience the growth that marked larger, more accessible cities.
The same industry that helped the Swift River Valley thrive eventually caused its decline. By 1841, railroads connected Albany and Boston. Because the valley had a north-south orientation, the lines tracked above and below it, instead of through it. The tracks, historian J.R. Greene points out, were close enough to tempt the younger residents of the four towns to travel and seek their fortunes elsewhere, but not close enough to help support the industry of the valley itself.
As the railroad spread across the nation, production centered in large, more efficient urban factories. The small, local mills of the Swift River Valley were essentially left behind by progress. Valley industry began its exodus to larger cities. At the same time, new competition from larger, more cost-effective farms in the American West caused a drop in agriculture prices. Some farmers tried to adjust to the changing dynamics; many, though, sold their farms and left the valley.
By the 1920s, the valley was a hardscrabble place. Roads in Prescott and most of Greenwich remained unpaved. Municipal services were almost nonexistent. Greenwich and Prescott had no electricity or telephone service. General stores with no customers closed. Churches with no congregations disbanded. Dilapidated houses, barns and yards peppered the valley.
Enter: Eastern Massachusetts, and its again-dwindling water supply. The Wachusett Reservoir, fortified a decade before, was at its breaking point. Again, Boston turned its thirsty gaze west, this time toward the Swift River Valley.
That the backwater valley’s shrinking population had fallen on hard times didn’t escape the state’s notice. The planners couldn’t ignore the obvious: hills high enough to form the walls of a reservoir surrounded the large valley. Three branches of the Swift River ran into the valley from the north. In the valley, the three branches met and formed one larger river. By damming only this united section of the river and a smaller brook at the valley’s southern edge, the river’s waters would back up into the basin, providing a ready source of water for the thirsty eastern part of the state.
The planners and engineers also didn’t see much reason not to flood the Swift River Valley. Flooding wouldn’t affect any large or vital businesses. It wouldn’t cover any major highways, nor would it mangle any important historical landmarks. And the residents of the valley didn’t wield enough economic or political power to resist.
They tell us they have paid for our land –
They tell us that our homes have been well sold –
But do not the folks in Boston understand
There are some things you cannot buy for gold?
And, city folks, do not our grieving scorn,
Nor view our homes with a disdainful eye.
Remember, it’s the home where we were born,
And is the home where we had hoped to die.
—Greenwich, Mass., April 5, 1932
True, the valley was an easy choice for a reservoir, as far as practicality and cost were concerned. What the planners didn’t seem to calculate, though, were the human effects of drowning the four valley towns. The valley was a provincial place: families lived there for generations. Where eastern Massachusetts saw four luckless, shabby towns, the residents saw a home. “We figured we’d be there for the rest of our lives,” former Greenwich resident Jack Officer told writer Thomas Conuel in 1990. “It broke our hearts to go, because we figured we would live and die in that country.”
In a 1921 letter to the editor of the Athol Transcript, one Prescott resident took aim not only at the state’s plans for the valley, but also at other ominous disturbances he noticed in a world increasingly not his own: “It does not seem possible,” Charles J. Abbott fumed, “that Massachusetts would through its legislature ever . . . entirely destroy a number of old towns and three or four villages containing so many beautiful homes . . . .
“I ask why is the Metropolitan Water Co. so anxious to supply Boston and other cities with water? The answer is easy. There is large money behind it for the investors.
“But if it has to come we must brace and bear it. Life is short, why should we worry? It has been said ‘man wants but little here below, nor wants that little long.’ Might not women be included in that quotation by changing one small word, when we consider the way she dresses herself at the present time? (Look at her scant skirts, décolleté waists, with next to no sleeves, and, also at the very strongly accentuated brevity of some of her fashionable creations, called ‘bathing suits.’ We can’t help seeing she wears but little, nor wears that little very long.)
“But, Mr. Editor, I am digressing, please excuse me. Reservoirs and ladies’ bathing suits are some way apart and always will be as bathing in reservoirs is strictly forbidden, I believe.”
The legislature sealed the valley’s fate in 1927, when it passed the Swift River Act, which directed the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission to build a reservoir in the Swift River Valley. Once the act passed, a sense of impending doom hung over the valley. Property values plummeted, and families left in droves. The commission bought the land in the valley piece by piece. Dana, Prescott, Enfield and Greenwich became ghost towns among a dwindling population and empty, creaky buildings. Slowly, daily life ground to a halt.
Residents, though, felt they had little choice. While the legislature debated the Swift River Act, locals seemed more concerned with the act’s purchase provisions than with stopping the inevitable. “It was 3,000 people arguing with two million people,” Bun Doubleday remembered. “We didn’t stand much chance.” Samuel D. Ritchie, an Enfield resident, challenged his neighbors’ surrender:
Those red men, they fought the victors
When the white man took the river
And drove them far from off their hills,
Now the white man sits and ponders,
Counts his dollars and then wonders
If his neighbor’s shack is bringing more than his.
The commission cleared the valley quickly. The nicest buildings were auctioned to the highest bidder, carefully removed, and placed outside the water’s reach. Most of the valley residents, though, after selling their land to the commission, simply packed up their belongings and left the valley. Their abandoned homes and buildings sometimes stood empty for years before the commission bulldozed the structures into their foundations, and then burned them. The dead left the valley with the living. The commission relocated 6,500 graves from the valley to Ware’s Quabbin Park Cemetery.
Today, Quabbin Park Cemetery sits off Route 9, a short drive from one of the entrances leading into Quabbin Park. As I walk through the Quabbin Park Cemetery, I get the sense that the commission appreciated the emotions behind relocating the dead. It’s obvious that the commission tried to respect the cemetery’s residents. Plaques paying homage to the four lost towns guard the entrance to the cemetery. Even in winter, the grounds are manicured and pretty. But still, something feels off: much like the Quabbin itself, the cemetery is an orderly, well managed place, but with an undercurrent of disruption and sadness.
It gets dark early in the Quabbin in January. As I tromp back through the lengthening shadows to my car, day-old snow crunching under my woefully inadequate sneakers, I can’t help but walk quickly. Local legend, after all, insists that Asa Snow still frequents the grounds around what was once his home.
Asa Snow was terrified of being buried alive. To soothe his fear, he meticulously planned his own burial from his Dana farmhouse. He had a casket made with a large window built into the head. Snow asked the town’s undertaker to visit him once a day for seven days after his death, to look in the window of his coffin and ensure that he had, in fact, passed.
Snow died in November of 1872. For years after, mischief-seekers broke into Snow’s tomb to peek at his body through the coffin’s window. Most locals, though, avoided the area: every November, villagers told each other, Snow’s ghost appeared near his tomb, traveled the well worn roads to his wife’s tomb, and then returned to rest. Today, Snow rests in the Quabbin Park Cemetery. Commission workers bulldozed his home. But some say that Snow’s ghost still makes its yearly pilgrimage each November. Now, though, anger fuels Snow’s travels: he seethes that his home and grave, and those of his neighbors, were destroyed to make way for water for what he had always referred to as “the easterners.”
Prescott, the poorest town, folded first. It gave up control to six commission agents in 1928. By 1931, the commission had bought most of the valley’s land and buildings. “The young people can stand it,” 77-year-old Benjamin Rowan told a reporter in April 1938. “Us old fellows are going to find it tough. We don’t make new acquaintances, we have got to move away, and outside our own kin we will be forced to live the rest of our lives among strangers.” All four towns ceased to exist at 12:01 a.m. on April 28, 1938, when the commission took over the valley through eminent domain.
On April 27, 1938, the night the commission disincorporated the four towns, the Enfield firemen held a ball to mark the occasion. They decorated Enfield’s town hall—one of the only buildings standing in the valley by that time—in patriotic bunting trimmed in black. Residents, the press and onlookers packed the building. A reporter from The Springfield Union described the scene: “Under circumstances as dramatic as any in fiction or in a movie epic, the town of Enfield passed out of existence at the final stroke of the midnight hour. A hush fell over the Town Hall, jammed far beyond its ordinary capacity, as the first note of the clock sounded . . . . The orchestra, which had been playing for the firemen’s ball throughout the evening, faintly sounded the strain of Auld Lang Syne . . . . Muffled sounds of sobbing were heard, hardened men were not ashamed to take out their handkerchiefs.”
History notwithstanding, today’s Quabbin teems with life. The woods around the reservoir host eagles, coyote and a large deer population—along with “house” and other remnants of Enfield, Prescott, Dana and Greenwich. During my visit to the Quabbin, in the depths of winter, I came across a group of five deer casually nosing through the snow looking for food.
The woods also form a critical watershed for the reservoir water in the Quabbin. Trees, roots and streams that blanket the forest floor filter water as it makes its way toward the lake. The watershed works so effectively, in fact, that the Environmental Protection Agency has not yet required the state to install man-made water filtration equipment.
Professor Jan Dizard, though, might offer a friendly amendment to that last sentence. He’s best known on the Amherst campus as a sociologist (the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of American Culture, to be exact). But Dizard’s interest in outdoor pursuits led to his 1994 book, Going Wild: Hunting, Animal Rights, and the Contested Meaning of Nature, which uses the Quabbin as a case study to examine the way in which humans paradoxically “play God” and micromanage what they label as wilderness. “The Quabbin,” Dizard explained, “is a man-made and man-manipulated environment, although it has all the features we attribute to nature.”
The deer I ran across in the Quabbin, it turns out, have been a thorn in the side of the reservoir’s management: in the late 1980s, the Quabbin’s deer population exploded—hunters, and people in general, had been banned from the delicate watershed, and wolves and mountain lions had been driven out. What may have in other circumstances been a welcome, Bambi-esque addition to the forest here created a problem: “We’ve removed all the major predators, and there’s nothing to control the deer population,” Dizard pointed out. “In fact, we’ve engineered a place that’s filled with food for them—and the minute a shoot popped its head up, a deer would chomp down on it.” In the Quabbin, the booming deer population, and its incessant appetite, caused the regeneration of trees and plants in the watershed to grind to a near halt. The aging and brittle watershed became more susceptible to erosion and damage—bad news for the water it surrounded.
Quabbin staff tried everything they could to control the deer population. In 1989, after other methods failed to yield results, officials reached an uncomfortable conclusion: they would have to thin the herd by opening the reservation to a deer hunt. The plan drew swift reaction—hunters were elated; animal rights advocates were distraught; and Dizard noticed. “Just by chance, reading the local paper over breakfast, there was a notice of a meeting in Belchertown addressing the deer hunt in the Quabbin.” Dizard enjoys hunting and fishing, and decided to attend the meeting to satisfy his curiosity. “As I listened to the panel of people, some pro and some con—wildlife biologists, animal activists and so on—I realized they were addressing the kinds of things I’d been wondering about myself for years: what’s the role of nature? How should we manage nature? Should we manage it at all?” The passion that proponents and opponents displayed during the contentious Belchertown meeting drew Dizard in. He began in-depth research and interviews on the unnatural nature of the Quabbin, the root of an academic interest that he’s pursued until this day.
In the end, the proposed hunt became a reality. In 1991, 900 of Massachusetts’ deer hunters prowled parts of the Quabbin for the first time since the reservoir filled with water. In general, Dizard told me, the hunts have worked: regeneration increased, and the watershed responds well to the lessened deer population. “It’s something officials would rather not do—it’s another job. They hope that eventually the hunts won’t be necessary,” Dizard said. “But right now, if they stop, the deer will just bounce back again.”
“It’s sadly the case,” he continued, “that we’ve had such a serious impact for such a long time on nature, that except for a few remote places where there’s little human traffic, leaving things alone just isn’t possible. Places clearly won’t return to some pre-human condition if we leave them alone. In fact, the longer we’re around, doing what we do, the less likely a return to some imagined past is.”
Going Wild addresses issues that resonate past the bounds of the Quabbin itself. Since its publication, people researching and dealing with similar issues in other settings—suburban South Carolina and Oakland, Calif., for example—have sought Dizard out. “It’s the same dynamic, the same arguments,” Dizard said. “It’s the paradigmatic case of the conflict between human and animal interests, with some humans taking the animals’ side, or what they assume to be the animals’ side.”
The controversy over the Quabbin deer hunt broadly points to more permanent, universal themes in how humans interact with nature today. Humans no longer exist at the mercy of nature; they no longer foster a strong, direct dependence on the land. “It’s easy to see nature as benign, even when it occasionally throws a hurricane at us, or a crippling blizzard,” Dizard reasoned. “We tend to set those things aside and think instead about how beautiful it is.”
“And as soon as you begin that essentializing,” he concluded, “the management and machinery and chainsaws and guns begin to look hideous.” Going Wild illustrates those two conflicting viewpoints: “One, that nature’s a tricky thing and you have to be vigilant to get the results you want; the other, that nature takes care of itself, and will work things out for the best.”
Throughout his research, Dizard noticed the reverence with which visitors approach the Quabbin. “I was really impressed just how lovingly people talked about the Quabbin, and how special a place they thought it was. Some people come to watch wildlife, some come just to see it. Descendants of residents come with their children and visit the cemetery, much the way your parents might take you back to where you grew up as a kid.”
I wasn’t the only person in the Quabbin the day I visited. Near the entrance, I stopped to see the reservoir’s spillway. I got out of my car, hung over a fence and watched the water roar by below me. I’ve always found rushing water hypnotic, and I quickly adopted an almost trance-like stare. After a few minutes, an unexpected noise jolted me back to the present. I looked up, and followed the laughter to a pair of teenagers hanging over the same fence a few hundred feet away. The girl punched the boy playfully, and the boy grinned in the way that only a truly smitten teenage boy can.
Later, as I was driving up toward “house,” I passed an elderly man and woman walking on the side of the road. They could have been a husband and wife, modern-day denizens of Belchertown out for an afternoon stroll. They could have been travelers pulling off the Mass Pike to stretch their legs and look for deer. Or they could have been a brother and sister remembering the day their mother called them in from the yard and told them they’d have to leave their home behind.
I’ll never know what compelled two teenagers to hang out next to a spillway. I’ll also never know whether the elderly man and woman were walking forward or backwards in time. The Quabbin gives different things to different people. It gives the harried college student a sunny, meditative spring afternoon to herself just before the crush of finals. It gives nature lovers and history buffs an almost endless source of material. And the Quabbin gives Boston its water.
It’s harder to pinpoint what the Quabbin took away. The story of the Quabbin’s creation highlights the difference between a house and a home, a street and a neighborhood, a town and a community. The fight for the Quabbin’s purity stems from legitimate scientific reasoning, but something else drives it, too: the fierce respect locals have for the reservoir, and their determination to maintain it as a resonant, almost sacred place. Charles J. Abbott, the Prescott man who railed at the state’s plans for his hometown, must have considered the flooding of the Swift River Valley a tragedy. Asa Snow, it appears, thought likewise. But, as Abbott wrote, if it has to come we must brace and bear it. Now, the greater tragedy would be to watch the watershed erode, watch the Quabbin lose its beauty, and watch it all be for naught. Mary Cushman Hardy, an Enfield resident, wrote an elegy to Quabbin. In it, she chose hope for the future over grief for the past, and penned her vision for the bounty of her sacrifice.
I am not dying, new life is mine;
Great Honor has come to me,
For high and low shall drink of my wine
In the vintage of memory.
The sun shall fling his crimson robe
Across my waters clear,
And the amber of the soft moonlight
Shall guide the timid deer.
And when on bended knee I raise
My cool and jeweled cup,
If the waters lower ’neath its brim
The gods shall fill it up.
But say not death has come to me,
Beauty, not dust, you’ll find;
For I stand among my towering hills,
Cup-bearer to all mankind.
The author recently graduated from Boston University Law School.
Photos: Samuel Masinter '04