Washed away

It was 3,000 people arguing with 2 million people

Entrance to a crypt, 40 feet underwater in the Swift River Valley. Photo by Ed Klekowski.

This week I’m going to reach way back into the archives to share an article I wrote about the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. A huge engineering feat—and a surprisingly common tactic as the nation migrated to cities—four entire towns were evacuated and wiped off the map to flood the valley that became a reservoir serving Greater Boston. 

I thought of it because one of the people I interviewed for it reached out recently about another history project he’s working on, and it reminded me that this was one of my favorite stories I ever reported.

The story of the Quabbin and reservoirs like it are also relevant to climate change. For one, it underscores how precious water supply is. There’s also the brutal social consequences of top-down engineering solutions. I also find it to be a reminder of just how much the world can change, and how during our current societal shift, we can appreciate what our ancestors were able to accomplish, but strive to do better. Anyway, here you go hope you like it.

A lightly edited excerpt from Washed Away, originally published in The Magazine. Read the full story here

If you look at a map of Massachusetts, you can’t miss the Quabbin Reservoir. It’s made up of two long, narrow gashes separated by a peninsula, the centerpiece of a park in the middle of a protected watershed measuring about 81,000 acres. The 140 million gallons of water it supplies daily requires minor treatment and no filtration, because the watershed scrubs it crystal clear. Its aqueduct delivers water to 51 communities, 40 percent of the state’s population.

As far back as 1895, planners saw a unique opportunity in the Swift River Valley; they suspected that with some geographic jujitsu, they could use the natural landscape and gravity to trap and deliver more than enough water for the rapidly growing metropolitan area to the east.

Between 1870 and 1920, Boston’s population nearly tripled, according to census figures. At the turn of the century, the city bought some time with another huge and traumatic project, building the nearby Wachusett Reservoir, at the time the largest drinking water reservoir in the world. But it wasn’t enough.

Aside from growth, there was also a serious public health problem to solve, says Marcis Kempe, who held senior positions in Boston’s water system for 36 years before retiring to run the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum. He describes individual communities drinking from a hodgepodge of unhealthy water systems, some taking crudely filtered water from the Charles River and other sources heavily polluted by industry or sewage.

Around the time the Wachusett Reservoir was built, the Massachusetts Board of Health led a survey of long-term potential solutions and came back with a recommendation — the Swift River Valley farther west was surging with clean rivers and streams, and the geography was such that they could dam two gaps at the bottom of the valley to create an enormous reservoir. It was perfect.

But thousands of people lived in the Swift River Valley, with settlements that went back generations. One town had incorporated in 1754. Of course, these colonists displaced the Nipmuck tribe that was there long before, but that’s a different, longer, and far worse story.

Rumors started circulating among residents as early as the turn of the century that their towns were targeted, and there was resistance. But the deck was heavily stacked against them. Public meetings were held in Boston, too far for most to travel. The towns didn’t have anywhere near the money, political power, or organization to mount any viable defense.

As former resident Warren Doubleday says in Thomas Conuel’s Quabbin: The Accidental Wilderness, “It was three-thousand people arguing with 2 million people. We didn’t stand much of a chance.”

This was a time when the country forced massive flows of water to bend to its will: the Hoover Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Hetch Hetchy in California, and hundreds of others. In fact, while Quabbin is a poignant example, displacing towns or clusters of housing for water projects was a common practice. The Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island flooded five small villages. Then there were Elbowoods, North Dakota; Olive, Neversink, and several other towns in New York; Hailstone, Utah; and Falcon, Texas, as late as the 1950s. All flooded.

In 1926 and 1927, two acts were passed by the Massachusetts legislature that set in motion the creation of the Quabbin. What happened next took more than a decade. Aside from the elaborate construction of the two dams, the tunnel to connect the Quabbin to the Wachusett Reservoir, which feeds Greater Boston, is a 24.6-mile underground aqueduct with a maximum depth of 650 feet, still among the longest in the world. Twenty-six men died during the construction of the reservoir, half while building the tunnel.

Much of that work erased the four towns, plus sections of other towns and smaller villages. In all, 2,500 people would need to be relocated and the towns disincorporated. And to ensure a clean reservoir, they couldn’t just be flooded. All trees and vegetation below the waterline were cleared. Many houses were relocated whole and can be spotted throughout the region, but most were torn down and either sold for wood or burned.

Don McMillan, a resident of nearby Hardwick, was quoted in Michael Tougias’s Quabbin: A History and Explorer’s Guide: “We would sit on the porch of our house, and the western sky was aglow at night from the flames of the burning brush in the valley. It was eerie.”

More than 7,600 graves and headstones from the valley’s 34 cemeteries were moved, many bodies disintegrated except for skulls and larger bones. Most were moved in wood boxes by hearse to Quabbin Park Cemetery, in Ware, where they remain.

Houses and land were purchased cheap by the state under eminent domain. Most families, many of them already struggling at the height of the Depression, fled to nearby towns to start a new living.

Local historian J.R. Greene details the final days of the towns in the valley. At Greenwich’s last town meeting in March 1938, reporters set up a photo op in which selectmen held a pencil eraser over the town on a globe, but at least one was disgusted by the display.

Greene describes April 27, 1938, when the town of Enfield held a Farewell Ball at the town hall. An estimated 1,000 people crammed into the event, and 2,000 more gathered on the outside. At midnight, the band played Auld Lang Syne, and a hush fell over the crowd, followed by “muffled sounds of sobbing,” according to one reporter.

That September, the slow-motion destruction was punctuated by a hurricane, the most powerful in the region’s recent history. Sally Norcross remembers being the last family left in Dana, watching the storm from their house while her older brothers hoped the church steeple would fall down so they could take it as a souvenir. When the hurricane passed, her father and brothers had to carve their way through the fallen trees to make their way out of town.

Less than a year later, flooding began. It took seven years for the reservoir to fill.

Read more about the flooding of the Swift River Valley, including what its former residents are up to now, in the full article here

Autumn Mood, Ladislav Mednyánszky, 1890 via Slovak National Gallery.


If you want to see a few tweets in a row, a thread if you will, about a New York Times article that I thought was stupid, you can right here:


This week’s music recommendation comes from my dad, who in a very fatherly move, said I should be watching the new Ken Burns documentary on country music. I have not watched the documentary but have been enjoying its formidable soundtrack. I particularly like the second disc a period of country music I enjoy that is roughly the 1950s, Hank Williams kind of stuff. Here is a song from it:

Boy lot of stuff going on in the news today right? Well there is one thing I hope you remember amidst all the chaos. Get a flu shot. It takes like two seconds and is free in a lot of places. Drink plenty of water. Remember that you are a strong person.