Inside/Outside: Another look at Quabbin Reservoir’s 80th anniversary

  • The Quabbin Reservoir as seen from the overlook in New Salem off of Route 202. FILE PHOTO

  • Originally a Methodist Episcopal church, it was built in 1837 right on the edge of the Quabbin Reservoir. This picture shows work being done to the steeple. The building is now the Prescott Museum and is part of SRVHS located on the museum grounds in New Salem. Swift River Valley Historical Society provides a lot of information on the "lost" towns of the reservoir — Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott. COURTESY PHOTO

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 7/5/2018 7:39:02 AM

The 80th anniversary of the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir was featured in a story and lovely photographs on Page A1 in this newspaper last month, with a focus on the wildlife and the use of the land and water as a “natural resource.” My column today marks the anniversary with a different perspective.

This unique place, with its thousands of acres of watershed land and millions of gallons of water, is, in fact, both a natural resource and a manmade resource. It would not exist without the Massachusetts Legislature’s passage of the Swift River Act in 1927, the achievements (both practical and scientific) of human engineers and forced removal of thousands of valley residents.

This anniversary date relates to the official disincorporation of four towns – Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott – in 1938. Some people in our area have roots in those towns.

I and thousands of others would likely know little about the history of the Quabbin if not for the scholarly efforts – based on both research and emotional connection to people – of Athol native J.R. Greene. In my 2003 book, “North of Quabbin Revisited,” I wrote:  “J.R. Greene’s “The Creation of Quabbin Reservoir” does a compelling and sensitive job of telling about the quest for water, the process of emptying the ‘lost’ towns, the engineering, the politics, and a little chicanery.”

I asked J.R. to share some thoughts about this anniversary, and here is part of what he sent me via email:

“Thomas Wolfe’s expression, ‘You can’t go home again,’ certainly applied to the relocation of many hundreds of residents from the old Swift River Valley. Even those who were fairly compensated for their property by the Water Commission (a minority) were not given any assistance in finding new employment or with relocation costs. Many of the valley survivors I interviewed in the 1970s and 1980s were very resentful about this, even if they didn’t mind leaving the valley in their youth for more exciting places and opportunities.

“The emotional cost of the project to valley residents cannot be quantified. I have accompanied former residents on several bus and hiking trips into the reservoir watershed, and saw many of them burst into tears upon seeing their old homestead as a cellar hole nearly obscured by brush and trees. This forced relocation is the unsung ‘crime’ of the reservoir story, even of the benefits if clean drinking water for over two million people is considered the justification for it.”

For area residents to appreciate the Quabbin, I have three recommendations. First, take a hike. There are many hiking opportunities, mostly on abandoned old roads, ranging from easy to difficult. Do a Google search online, or find various books and maps at Trail Head in Orange, Haley’s in Athol, New Salem General Store and Petersham County Store.

Second, visit the Quabbin Visitor Center at the Winsor Dam in Belchertown. It features interesting displays, as well as easy access to the Enfield Lookout tower with its gorgeous reservoir view.

Third, visit the Swift River Historical Society in New Salem, devoted to the history of the “lost” towns, assembled and staffed by dedicated volunteers. While in that area, take a few minutes to visit the New Salem Overlook behind the fire station and the Keystone Bridge inside Gate 30 (off Route 122).

The reservoir gave our nine-town region (formerly called the Mount Grace Region) a new name, “North Quabbin,” first used in the 1970s, and J.R.’s email included these comments about the impact of the reservoir on this region:

“The loss of the railroad connection to Springfield (at least a few decades before it may have been shut down) hurt the local economy by making some items (like coal and oil) more expensive and increasing costs to ship goods in and out of town. This was due to the lack of competition for the Boston & Maine Railroad in Athol after the dismantling of the railroad to Springfield in 1935.

“Athol historian William G. Lord stated that he felt Athol lost about 10 percent of its retail business from the loss of the valley towns to the reservoir. New Salem Academy lost a major source of students with the demise of the valley towns. The Daniel Shays Highway (Route 202) was a decent replacement for the old state Route 21 through the valley, but it made the trip from Athol to Springfield longer and over many steep grades.”

Water engineers worried about low reservoir levels about 35 year ago had their eyes on water from the Millers River (an aqueduct from Athol to the Quabbin) and from the Connecticut River (an aqueduct from Northfield via Erving and Wendell to the Quabbin). But local opponents who cried out “Fix your leaky pipes!” put a stop to their expansionist vision.

So-called progress has led to tragic upheavals nowadays in places such as China, where dams, highways and massive housing projects are built. The Three Gorges Dam, for example, holds new records for number of people displaced (more than 1.2 million), number of cities and towns flooded (13 cities, 140 towns, 1,350 villages), and length of reservoir (more than 600 kilometers). The worst aspects of communism and capitalism define contemporary China, plaguing the project with corruption, spiraling costs, environmental impacts, human rights violations and resettlement difficulties.

Let’s celebrate the Quabbin history by enjoying the natural resources, but never forgetting the human story.

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