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From Issue #51 September 11, 2014

Washed Away

Beneath the water lie memories of vibrant villages.

By Tate Williams Twitter icon 

Entrance to a crypt in an Enfield, Massachusetts, cemetery about 40 feet underwater, taken by Ed Klekowski during a dive featured in the documentary Under the Quabbin.

Sally Norcross stands outside what was once her childhood home, in the heart of Dana, Massachusetts. She and her family left town 76 years ago, but she has clear memories of throwing crabapples into the yard of her grouchy neighbor Mr. Vaughn. Across Main Street is where she used to sit in school and watch out the window as the men dug up all the graves in the cemetery.

The bodies and headstones were relocated and the town of Dana abandoned. Her family’s house is an empty stone cellar overgrown with brush, like the remains of all the other buildings that made up the town. Dana is one of four towns that once lay in the Swift River Valley. All four of them are gone. Dana is unique in that its town common is the only one of the four that’s still above water and accessible.

If you walk past where Norcross’s house used to be, past where her grandfather lived, through a field and then some trees, you hit water. And that water leads to even more water: the Quabbin Reservoir, 412 billion gallons of water when full, nestled into 118 miles of shoreline in the heart of the state. Roughly four miles southwest of here, a 12-foot-tall tunnel shoots out of the reservoir, carrying some of the country’s cleanest drinking water to 2.5 million people, including most of greater Boston. Completed in 1939, the Quabbin Reservoir is an incredibly slick feat of early 20th century engineering.

Norcross (formerly Cooley), 83, is here visiting Dana for the first time in more than 40 years, and she’s happy to be back. She moved to Ithaca, New York, years ago, but wanted to make it back for the Dana reunion picnic taking place where the town common once stood, not far from the footprint of her former home. Other former residents and their families have gathered and are exchanging stories, part of a devoted effort in the region to keep the history of the towns alive.

“The houses were going down and everybody was moving out,” Norcross says. “It was going to be a dead town, that’s all we knew.”

View from Winsor Dam, one of two structures forming the 412 billion gallon Quabbin Reservoir

The map of the dead

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, and it is the centerpiece of a park in the middle of protected watershed measuring about 81,000 acres owned by a combination of private trusts and the state. 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 a huge (and traumatic) project, building the nearby Wachusett Reservoir, at the time the largest drinking water reservoir in the world.1 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.”2

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.3

In 1926 and 1927, two acts were passed by the Massachussetts 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.4 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.5

Posed portrait of unidentified family in Greenwich

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.”

As Sally Norcross recalls, workers indeed dug up and relocated graves. 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, fled to nearby towns to start a new living at the height of the Depression.

Local historian J.R. Greene has written 14 atlases and books about the Quabbin Reservoir, and in one, he 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. 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.6

Earl Cooley poses during the annual Dana Reunion, on the site of what was once the town common.

Afterlife

Stanley Boyko is standing in front of a small gathering of people in what used to be the Quabbin Administration Building, but is now the Quabbin Visitor Center and the office of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation for the region. Once a month, a group of survivors of the four towns meets, along with descendants and other interested visitors, to exchange memories, pass around photos, and identify the buildings and people in them.

Today is a particularly special Tuesday, as Boyko is here. He started attending the events only recently, and at 93, he has a staggering recall of living in Enfield as a teen. “It took me a long time to come back,” Boyko says. “I still dream about it every now and then.”

He’s all business, listing off the names of families he knew, the layout of town, lot by lot, family by family, like a human Google Street View. He recalls swimming in the lake with friends, his father’s potato moonshine. Enfield town center is not far from this spot, about 90 feet underwater. “Enfield was home. It’s here. It’s right here,” he says, pointing to his chest.

The Tuesday Teas have been happening since 1984, but not as frequently in recent years. At this point, the oldest survivors were in their early teens when they left. Robert Wilder, who lived just outside of Enfield, offers me a brownie, and points out a photo of the house where he was born.

His grandmother, his siblings, and he left their farm in 1938, and he remembers when they first saw the nearby mill town of Ware, full of cars, stores, fine clothes. “We realized we were poor, and it changed everything.” He went on to serve in the Marine Corps and would become an aerospace engineer.

Friends of Quabbin is a volunteer group that started the Tuesday Tea events. Along with the Swift River Valley Historical Society, which runs a museum north of the reservoir, they organize several well-attended events throughout the year. There’s even an annual picnic in which the state takes families out on a boat to visit their hometowns.

The community has undertaken exhaustive means to preserve the memory of what the towns were like, cataloguing and scanning thousands of photos, recording and digitizing 150 interviews with former residents, and piecing together every detail they can from folks like Boyko and Wilder.

Considering they don’t exist, they may be the most historically preserved small towns in New England. If you know where to look, Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott are all over the place. And the state, once responsible for their destruction, has come to play a role in their preservation.

“To be able to impress upon people why Quabbin was needed to begin with, why this area was selected, and also what the social costs were as well is really important,” says Clif Read, supervisor of interpretive services with the DCR, who oversees the reservoir visitor center. He says the state made “a solemn oath that was pledged at that time: that we would protect and carefully manage the resource.” Given the social cost of taking residents’ towns and history, the state obliged itself to work with the families to keep telling their story.

While the DCR has what Read describes as a “good working relationship” with families of the towns, old wounds are not entirely healed. Resentment remains, and while it’s a welcoming group, it’s clear that the sentiment that the city has little concern for the rest of the state runs deep.

Reservoir noir

The story of the Quabbin Reservoir is a persistent, even haunting one. There have been several nonfiction books and novels written on the topic.7 And there are many local legends about what’s down there. (They are not true.) It’s unsettling.

The issues behind the Quabbin also still feel relevant. These sorts of dam projects don’t happen anymore, in the United States at least. There was a proposal in the 1980s to divert water from other nearby rivers to Boston, but public outcry led the state to pursue an aggressive conservation plan instead. Still, severe Western drought has regularly made headlines this summer, and climate change forecasts threaten frightening resource shortages ahead that will no doubt force hard choices and power struggles.

On the flip side, there’s something warmly compelling about the history of the towns, locked in time and broken off sharply from modernization. For people in the area, especially former valley residents, it’s a path to the past, albeit a sad one for many of them.

Back at the Dana Reunion, around 60 people are gathered at what used to be the town common, many of them in some way related to the Cooley family (there were 10 siblings), gathered in folding chairs, laughing and sharing snacks. Clif Read from the state is here, making small talk. It’s a warm day, but not unbearable.

Earl Cooley is here, Sally Norcross’s older brother, sort of a patriarch of the Dana survivors. “Every chance I get I come down on Dana Common,” says Cooley, who is 89. It’s about two miles from the highway, gated off to cars normally, but he can stop by the visitor center and grab a key any time, as can other former town residents and family. “I enjoy it, but I feel — I wish that I could be here all the time.”

You can picture the layout of the square thanks to posted signs installed by Cooley’s granddaughter, but there’s very little left besides stone cellar and foundation walls, and it looks like ruins. It’s quiet, aside from insects and birds. I go hunting for a large old safe with another attendee, into some waist-high brush. The vegetation is so thick that we can only spot a corner of it.

After the reunion I swing by the Swift River Valley Historical Society museum, but they closed early today. There’s a church on the premises that was relocated here from the valley, and everyone is inside. The doors are closed and there’s music playing. It’s the 756th Dana Vesper Service, another regular event held in honor of the lost towns.

I decide not to overstay my welcome, and drive the 80 miles back home to Boston, where every single day, no matter what, I can turn on my faucet and some of the cleanest drinking water in the country will pour out.

Winsor Dam and Earl Cooley photos by the author. Crypt photo courtesy of Ed Klekowski. Greenwich family picture courtesy of Burt V. Brooks Photograph Collection, Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries; a gift of Friends of Quabbin through Gene Theroux, Paul Godfrey, and Les Campbell.


  1. The construction of the Wachusett is talked about less often, but it too displaced hundreds of residents. 

  2. Conuel’s book informed the history here, as did Quabbin: A History and Explorer’s Guide; the documentary Under Quabbin, by Ed and Libby Klekowski; and a number of the authoritative books by local historian J.R. Greene

  3. The most extreme case of a dam displacing residents, by a mind-boggling margin, is the massive Three Gorges Dam in China, which displaced 1.4 million people. 

  4. If the reservoir gets low, it has a trick: it can divert water from the Ware River, where the two cross paths on the way to Boston. This reverses the flow of the tunnel, sending Ware River water into the Quabbin, where it’s purified through circulation. 

  5. In 1986, Joseph Wm. Russell wrote the book Vestiges of the Lost Valley, which tracked down and catalogued 40 structures that had been saved, as well as a number of church bells that made it out. 

  6. Frank Winsor, chief engineer of the Quabbin project, died of a heart attack in 1939 and never saw the completed reservoir. Winsor Dam bears his name. 

  7. The term “reservoir noir” is credited to mystery writer Peter Robinson, referring to crime novels involving flooded towns. My favorite fictional reference is a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book issue in which the turtles take on a tentacled monster at the bottom of the Quabbin. H.P. Lovecraft himself wrote a story in 1927, The Colour Out of Space, set in a town about to be flooded to serve as Boston’s drinking water reservoir. 

Tate Williams is a freelance writer based in Boston covering science, culture and the environment. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Curbed, the East Bay Express, the East Valley Tribune in Phoenix, and American Forests magazine. He's the science editor at Inside Philanthropy, where he blogs regularly.

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