If you’ve seen the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, you might remember the scene at the end of the movie where the valley is flooded, and a torrent of water comes rushing in to save the day in a flurry of water and banjos and Dapper Dan hair tonic.
I vaguely knew of Massachusetts’ own intentional inundation of some towns thanks to my alma mater; at Hampshire College, the three on-campus housing villages were named after towns that were lost to the Quabbin Reservoir. I lived in Prescott House, though I had friends living in Greenwich and Enfield. The fourth town, Dana, didn’t get a housing village named after it, making its disincorporation and erasure that much more tragic.
(By the way, I learned that “Greenwich” is pronounced “Green-witch”, unlike the town in Connecticut.)
These four small towns were erased and the residents relocated to quench Boston’s ever-growing thirst. In this time of never-ending public meetings, Environmental Impact Statements, and process, the notion that four whole towns were removed from the map is actually inconceivable – you can barely remove a tree these days without a protest and/or series of public forums.
So I thought I would devote this post to remembering these four towns, and why the Quabbin Reservoir was built right on top of them.
A Very Brief History
The quick run-down is that the population of Boston was exploding during the industrial revolution up through the 1920s, when the state legislature finally decided to create the Quabbin.
All during the 1930s, workers cleared trees, deconstructed homes and churches, moved cemeteries, and dismantled factories. The whole area, some 25,000 acres, had to be totally cleared before it could be flooded with over 400,000,000,000 gallons of water. They spent weeks burning brush, which I imagine was great for the local air quality.
Another good bit of work was constructing the aqueduct which piped the water to Boston. It took years of boring through bedrock to pipe the water to all those parched Bostonians.
I imagined that, just like in O Brother, there was a wall of water rushing through the river valley once the Swift River was dammed. But it actually took 7 years for the valley to slowly fill up, covering up the remaining roadways, well heads, and building foundations. Today, you can walk along the dam in Belchertown, and it’s also a great place for a picnic. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed in the reservoir for swimming or other water sports.
For anyone interested in more information, there’s a nice documentary by WGBY about the demolition of these towns here.
The Four Towns Today
Today, the towns are all but gone, with the exception of Dana Town Common. It’s somewhat hard to find the road turnoff to get to there, but it’s a lovely 2-mile walk to the common and pretty eerie to see the leftovers from Dana.
We shot a couple of pictures, though you don’t really get a sense of common from them. Oh well, selfies are just as good, right?
There are some nice displays showing the buildings that were on the common, and you can find the building foundations still there. Dana Town Common is unique among the four towns because it wasn’t flooded; you have to put on SCUBA gear to find the others.
Was It Worth It?
The question that inevitably comes up is whether flooding the Swift River Valley was worth it. This is one of those questions that people debated at the time and will continue debating long after this blog post is published, as persuasively written and definitive as it might be.
The four towns combined had about 2,700 residents, whereas Boston alone (not counting neighboring suburbs) had nearly 800,000. The city had struggled for decades to provide adequate clean drinking water to this booming metropolis. As the political and economic engine of the state and the region, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the state was able to push through this massive public works project – especially during the Great Depression when large public works projects were being pushed.
But still, people today from the area are bitter. My former boss from New Salem once said to me, “I get why the Quabbin Reservoir was important. I still don’t think it was the right thing to do.”
In the end, residents in the area were compensated $108/acre for their land, or about $1,600/acre today. According to one article:
“For the rest of his life after we left, my father said he could never go home,” said Linda Smith, 73, who was a toddler when her family left Greenwich and her father closed his auto repair business in Dana.
People struggled both emotionally and financially after they were forced out. It was the Great Depression, and even $108 couldn’t take a person very far in those conditions.
So was it worth it? For Boston, certainly – it has enough water to last it into the low-growth distant future. For the Swift River Valley residents? Not so much. I’ll let historians and economists keep the debate going while Bostonians slake their thirst with some of the best drinking water in the world.