Monday, March 20, 2017

The Quabbin Reservoir and its Lost Towns

From Ghost Towns 'Neath Quabbin Reservoir

The vast majority of land that makes up the city of Boston is man-made, and while those that live in and around New England’s largest city may take note of the way that Bostonians have altered their immediate environment to suit their needs, they may not be aware of environments farther west that were also drastically changed for their benefit.

The Quabbin Reservoir, which is located almost exactly in the middle of the state of Massachusetts in what was known as the Swift River Valley, was built in order to supply the city of Boston with water. The city had been growing at an exponential rate during the 1800s and the smaller water systems, aqueducts, and reservoirs in place had failed to keep up with the demand for water. In 1895, the Massachusetts Board of Health recommended the Swift River Valley as one of two potential sites for the construction of a reservoir, but nothing came of the recommendation initially. Residents of the towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott, all located within the valley, appeared to dismiss the possibility that such a project would affect them. One news correspondent from North Dana wrote in 1909: “It is safe to say that the day is far distant when it [the reservoir] will be done. North Dana people don’t need to move before snow flies, at any rate.” (The Creation of Quabbin Reservoir: The Death of the Swift River Valley, 18).

The State Board of Health's 1895 report that first recommended
the Swift River Valley as the site of a new reservoir, filed with
the General Court as House Bill 500

By 1922, the Swift River Valley was officially selected as the next extension of the complex water system channeling into Boston. The first stage of the project involved building a tunnel now known as the Quabbin Aqueduct, which connected the Ware River and Swift River with the Wachusett Reservoir. The diversion of these waters angered the state of Connecticut, who claimed rights to those waters since they ultimately joined the Connecticut River. The contention between the two states could not be settled and ultimately went to the Supreme Court, where the federal justices dismissed Connecticut’s bill of complaint in 1931.

The construction of the Windsor Dam and the Goodnough Dike began after the Supreme Court decision, but the people in the four Swift Valley towns were able to take their time leaving their homes. Some historic buildings, such as the Field House originally in Enfield and the Coldbrook Springs Baptist Church, were moved to other towns to escape destruction. By March 28, 1938, the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission, formally took over all land in the Swift River Valley by eminent domain. Still, many townspeople continued to live and work in the valley until 1939.

The 1938 Farewell Ball from The Day Four Quabbin Towns Died

On April 27, 1938, the Enfield Fire Department hosted a ball, “the very, very last social affair” in the town. They expected only about 300 people like their previous annual balls, but more than 1,000 people squeezed into the ballroom, with another 2,000 outside. The raucous affair was punctuated with emotion, however, when the orchestra paused at midnight to play “Auld Lang Syne” in tribute to the passing Swift Valley towns:

'A reporter for the Springfield Union described the scene best: ‘A hush fell over the Town Hall, jammed far beyond ordinary capacity, as the first note of the clock sounded; a nervous tension… had been felt by both present and former residents, and casual onlookers… muffled sounds of sobbing were heard, hardened men were not ashamed to take out their handkerchiefs, and even children, attending the ball with their parents, broke into tears.'" (The Day Four Quabbin Towns Died, 47).

Flooding commenced in the Swift River Valley on August 14, 1939. Despite stories of whole buildings standing below the current water and former residents being carried out in boats as water rose on their front steps, there is no evidence that either of these things are true. Today, the Quabbin Reservoir is 18 miles long and holds 412 billion gallons of water ( The name of the reservoir comes from the name of a Nipmuc sachem, or chief, by the name of Nani-Quaben, whose name meant “place of many waters” or “well-watered place.” It appears that the name continues to be appropriate today.

Further Reading:

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff