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The Quabbin Water and wilderness came at a price.

Byline: Frank Magiera

Of all the inland bodies of water in Massachusetts, nothing quite compares to the wild grandeur of the Quabbin Reservoir.

Besides being the world's largest man-made water supply, it is also a spectacular lake and diverse recreational area. Virtually smack dab in the middle of the commonwealth, "the Quabbin," as it is generally known, is a mecca for hikers, bikers, fishers, historians, nature lovers and people who just want to admire the scenery.

The best views of the reservoir - short of flying over the place in an airplane - can be had from the observation tower just beyond the Winsor Dam, where the precious bounty from the Swift River and its tributaries departs its bucolic setting for the 100-mile, subterranean journey to the plumbing of Boston and its suburbs. Even from the very top, however, you can see but a small fraction of the 415 billion gallons of pristine blue water, leveled over 39 square miles, embraced by 80,000 acres of wilderness teeming with all sorts of wildlife from lowly squirrels to magnificent bald eagles.

No elegant homes, summer cottages or beaches scar its 175-mile shoreline, which is almost entirely undisturbed by signs of human presence - an irony not lost on those aware of its history. There are mere vestiges of the four inundated towns - the Prescott Peninsula bisects the reservoir like the leg of a ballerina en pointe and the drumlins of Dana, Greenwich and Enfield poke out from the depths as islands.

The view from the tower is the Quabbin in all its splendor. You get a very different perspective on the opposite side of the reservoir. Here, in an antique farmhouse just off Route 202 in New Salem, you can rummage among the bittersweet remnants of what lies just under the surface - literally - of the Quabbin's natural beauty. This is the Whitaker-Clary House, the headquarters of the Swift River Valley Historical Society. Its rooms are filled with the memorabilia of all that was sacrificed to progress in an era in which progress was sacred. Preserved are the clothes, the tools, the books, the furniture and the photographs of the people who lived in the Swift River Valley before it became a reservoir. And that's exactly what they call it - the Swift River Valley- not the Quabbin.

Like the artifacts inside, the farmhouse, built in 1816, is itself a survivor of the valley's truncated history. It stands where it has always stood, at 40 Elm St., spared at the last moment by a change in plans that was to have included North New Salem in the Quabbin watershed.

Just beside it stands the Prescott Methodist-Episcopal Church, built in 1837, one of a handful of buildings moved from the doomed communities. (It was actually moved twice, first to Orange and then to its present location in 1987.) Unlike the Whitaker-Clary House, it has been modernized with running water, bathrooms, central heat and electricity. Its basement is the repository of many of the surviving historical records of the Swift River Valley, including an extensive genealogy.

But you don't always have to go to the books to obtain a firsthand view of life before the waters rose. On Sunday and Wednesday afternoons, when the Whitaker-Clary House is open for tours, you can often find a few former valley residents, like Everett Downing, hanging around and willing to share their memories. Downing, now gray, bearded and frail, was a teenager when the world, as he knew it, was obliterated and then submerged to satisfy the thirst of a far-off city that he had only heard of.

"He's very bitter," said Elizabeth Peirce, the president of the Swift River Valley Historical Society and the author of two books about the valley. "He was born in Enfield and grew up there and his family was forced to leave."

Ms. Peirce was not a resident of the valley, but her late husband, Cliston Peirce, was the sixth generation of his family to live in Atkinson Hollow, a village of Prescott, which in 1928 became the first of the valley towns to disincorporate. While the names of the four lost towns are well known, many valley residents identified with the myriad villages within those towns - rural neighborhoods that imparted a peculiar character to their communities. Atkinson Hollow, for instance, was named after a Revolutionary War soldier who settled in the valley. Bobbinville evolved around a factory that produced bobbins for the textile industry. Doubleday Village was home to seven families named Doubleday. Cooleyville was named for the local blacksmith and Puppyville was said to be the home of many, many dogs.

Ms. Peirce's father-in-law, Harrison Peirce, ran a general store and was a Prescott selectman who voted against surrendering the town to the state.

"He was very reluctant to leave," Ms. Peirce said. "He wasn't going to go to his grave with that on his conscience - that he said, yes, go ahead and take the town." The family actually had the distinction of living in two inundated towns. From Prescott they moved to Greenwich (and don't call it Gren-itch. It's pronounced just as it's spelled, Green-witch), eventually settling in Orange.

Officially, it all began in 1922, when the reservoir project was first proposed in the state Legislature. But valley residents saw the handwriting on the wall as early as 1890, when construction of the Wachusett Reservoir in West Boylston began.

"People started talking about taking the valley in the 1800s," said Helen Towne, who was 11 when her family abandoned their 30-acre farm in Enfield and moved to Belchertown, where she still lives. "Boston was running out of water and they kept going west and further west and finally they were just desperate and came into our area."

It seemed like the perfect place to build a reservoir. Steep hills to the west, north and east contained three branches of the Swift River with the potential for concentrating huge volumes of water within a relatively small area. While it may have been the bottom of the local watershed, the valley was still 135 feet higher in elevation than the Wachusett Reservoir and 530 feet above the center of Boston, which meant that water could flow eastward by the force of gravity alone. That the valley was largely agricultural and sparsely populated, with little political influence in the distant state capital, didn't hurt. The Industrial Revolution had already forced many valley residents to abandon their farms and seek more prosperous lives in the cities.

"Everybody was seeing the handwriting on the wall," Ms. Peirce said. "There was plenty of opposition, but it was difficult for people to oppose things in those days. They really didn't have much of a choice. They were told that if they didn't accept the amount of money the state was offering they were going to take it by eminent domain anyway."

Not everyone went quietly. Lawsuits were filed by valley residents as well as the state of Connecticut, which was concerned about the volume of water that the reservoir would divert from its waterways. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court eventually ruled that the needs of Boston outweighed the rights of the valley residents. To assuage the concerns of its southerly neighbor, Quabbin planners agreed to release 20 million gallons a day to flow into Connecticut.

The state began taking property in 1927. By 1938 all four towns had disincorporated and the valley had been cleared out. During the previous four years, 6.5 million cubic yards of fill had been dumped to build The Winsor Dam and the Goodnough Dike, which would impound the water. Every tree in the forests had been cut down. Every building in the valley had been demolished, dismantled or moved.

More than 2,500 people had been displaced from 463 houses. But even more people - more than 3,000 - found jobs clearing the land for the reservoir. (Twenty-six would lose their lives during the construction.)

The farmers in the valley had harbored their crops and livestock in 399 barns. Others had worked for their livelihood in 14 mill structures including sawmills, textile mills, gristmills and factories that produced boxes, bricks, cheese, hats, shoes and carriages. Still others had labored in charcoal kilns, a gold mine and a soapstone quarry.

They had traded in 38 stores, worshipped in six churches, studied in 13 schools and had been buried in 11 cemeteries. There was even a golf course for more affluent residents. Almost every trace of life in the Swift River Valley had been removed.

Almost. On the fringes of the reservoir you can still encounter old foundations that had been part of the Swift River valley community. And during hot, dry summers, when the water level drops, you can make out the shadowy traces of lost buildings, as well as the roads and stone fences that crisscrossed the valley.

The water began rising in 1939, but it took the next seven years before the reservoir was filled to capacity. But even as it was rising, some water began flowing through the 11-by-12-foot aqueduct buried deep under the towns of Hardwick , Barre, Oakham, Rutland, Holden and West Boylston, a distance of nearly 25 miles, into the Wachusett Reservoir. The actual depth of the aqueduct varies from 122 feet to 675 feet.

From Wachusett, another system of aqueducts brings the water to Boston and its environs. A smaller aqueduct, 36 inches in diameter, brings Quabbin water to three Western Massachusetts communities: Wilbraham, Chicopee and half of South Hadley.

The total cost of the Quabbin project was $53 million, but for many residents who were displaced, no amount of money could have compensated them.

"The people who were forced to move out were only paid for their house and the land it was on," said Andrew Madison, an interpreter at the Quabbin Visitor Center at Winsor Dam. "They weren't paid anything for moving expenses. They didn't get any help to find a new place to live. They weren't given anything for loss of trade or loss of business. So it really hurt them and some people are still sore about that to this day."

Ms. Peirce agrees that the history of the Quabbin is laced with bittersweet.

"It was bitter for those people who had to move and sweet for those people that got the water."


PHOTOG: Photography by Tom Rettig

CUTLINE: (1) Spring. (2) Summer. (3) Fall. (4) Winter. (5) Top photo, a cellar hole from the old Dana Town Hall; (6) at left, a dilapidated bird house in the former town of Dana (now in Petersham); (7) above, a white-tailed deer. (8) Clockwise from top, a man relaxes on a picnic table at a lookout in New Salem; (9) a foundation wall still stands just off old Dana Common; (10) a colonial house in New Salem is reminiscent of homes moved to make way for Quabbin. (11) Clockwise from top, visitors toss stones into the water at Gate 5 in Belchertown; (12) a fly fisherman fishes on the Swift River as it empties from the Quabbin; (13) an eagles' nest; (14) a loon on the reservoir. (15 AND 16) Below, roads and house foundations can be seen when the reservoir water levels are low. (17) Former residents of Dana gather for a photograph on the old Dana Center green. The groups holds a reunion every summer. (18) The school building in Dana was located on the town's center green. (18) Below, Douglas Cooley of Easthampton stands where his house once stood in Dana Center.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Oct 29, 2008
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