30 August 2012

Quabbin Musings Part 1: The Saga

As promised I'm posting some photos of my recent day trip up to the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts (in case you couldn't tell my vacation funds are pretty low to the ground if this is the most exciting I can offer, but nonetheless it makes for a good story). A little background on the Quabbin however is in order first. Bear with me, I think some perspective might help you appreciate my pilgrimage that much more.As the city of Boston grew throughout the 19th century, its water demands also grew. A city that had once been supplied by small ponds and streams began to look further and further afield for their water supply. The building of the Wachusett Reservoir starting in 1897 partially allied the issues but within a decade of its completion it was clear this was only a stop gap delaying the inevitable, if Boston and the surrounding communities were to continue to grow at the rate they were then an enormous water supply had to be found, and quickly. Even when the Wachusett Reservoir was being built, engineers had examined the Swift River Valley, a quaint out-of-the-way farming enclave as a possibility. The Swift River that flowed through it had the volume necessary for damning, and the deep valley cut by glaciers sat like a bowl ready to be filled. The temporary fix of the Wachusett Reservoir  saved the valley for a time, however in the 1920's that all changed.

Now even today this part of Massachusetts, not far from Amherst where the University of Massachusetts is located, is sleepy and out of the way, its 15 miles from the nearest highway, and still mostly farming country. My mother claims that there used to be a huge factory that manufactured Kotex in Palmer, which is the closest highway exit off the Mass Pike (I-90 W), however I couldn't substantiate that, however it seems to random to be fabricated. Okay, a bit off topic there, regardless by the early 20's serious consideration was given to immediately beginning construction in the Swift River Valley for the mother of all reservoirs. There was only one problem, or rather four. Within the Swift River Valley were four small towns (some claim five) Enfield, Greenwich, Prescott, and Dana (North Dana, actually a village of Dana is sometimes considered the 5th) with a combined population of 2,500. So in a classic example of good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity and tenacity, they moved them, all of them, the 2,500 living and the over 7,000 dead.

An act of disincorporation was passed in 1927 with land being purchased at fair price under eminent domain and over the next eleven years the valley slowly emptied out. Some left early reestablishing themselves in nearby towns just outside the boarders of the watershed, others stayed until the very end attending the now famous ball held the last night before the towns officially ceased to exist in April of 1938. These four communities, now collectively known as the Lost Towns so longer exist in any form. Once people had vacated one of two things happen houses were sold and moved (many to Vermont) or totally demolished, their cellar holes filled in with concrete.  Some were left standing so that those building the reservoir had places to live. Given that most of the construction occurred at the height of the Depression many farmers were rented out for a few years by the Metropolitan Water Commission to poor itinerant farmers (one of the women who works at the Swift River Valley Historical Society's parents rented a farm for four years while the Quabbin was being built).

In the end however everything went, including the trees which were clear cut then the undergrowth burned. All of this was done to discourage algae growth in the water and keep the water supply cleaner. It worked, today the Quabbin has some of the purest water anywhere, holding the highest natural clarity rating possible for fresh water supplies. This also dispels the nasty rumors that there "is something down there" because you only have to look at aerial photos taken before the reservoir began to fill to see that. 242 miles of highways were abandoned, 36 of them had to be rebuilt in order to not stop the flow of traffic.

As I said, even the dead were moved, 34 cemeteries being meticulously excavated and moved either to a new burial place of the families choosing or to the newly created Quabbin Park Cemetery, still run by the state and reserved for the families of those from the Lost Towns and the descendants of those who built the Quabbin or protect it today as members of the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The only remains not removed were those of Native Americans, however as the area had been inhabited since the early 1700's by white settlers its unlikely many remains remained.

Today the Quabbin provides water to 2.5 million people in eastern Massachusetts (ironically very few who live near the Quabbin benefit from it, only 4 of the 50 or so towns and fire districts that receive water from the Quabbin are west of it) notably in the greater Boston area. The reservoir has a capacity of 412 billion gallons, the top inch alone holding 750 million gallons, and the Swift River at minimum capacity adds 20 million gallons per day. The Quabbin cover 25,000 acres, has 118 miles of shoreline touching 12 towns, and its watershed encompasses 120,000 acres. It is 18 miles long, 151 feet deep at its deepest, and has an average depth of 45 feet over all. The land acquisition cost the government 9.6 million, and relocation coasts another 1.39 million, the construction of the Goodnough Dike and the Winsor Dam (what contains the Quabbin and Swift River) totaled 8 million. In all the project came to a total of 53 million dollars, (and this could only happen during the Depression) 11 million under budget. In total 26 lives were lost during construction, mainly the workers hired to deforest, mostly poor immigrant laborers brought out from the city (an action which caused much dissent with the locals who felt work should have been offered to them first).

Quabbin Park is a state park surrounding the reservoir that is open for hiking, picnicking, boating (you must rent boats there to cut down on invasive species clinging to your propellers) and all sorts of natural pursuits. The wildlife is enormously diverse and the land had been hugely reforested (8.2 million seedlings were planted when the Quabbin was built to help prevent erosion) in fact the woods are thicker now than before the settlement of America. There are definitely coyote, deer, and fox, but also rumors abound about bear and possibly even cougar and wolf. There is a huge project to encourage nesting eagles within Quabbin park and the University of Massachusetts had an Astronomy Observatory there. Its not Disney, but its a fascinating place even without the nature. Its history is visceral and still lies just below the surface despite the fact that almost seventy yeas have passed since the towns were disincorporated. The story of the Lost Towns captures the imagination, and four towns that would be too small to note on any map have grown larger than life in the face of their sad fate in the annals of history. Like I said, its a good story if nothing else,  and it might make you thin the next time you put on the tap, just what goes into procuring your water.

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