The Quabbin lesson of doing big things (mostly) together

In a time of division over even incremental steps, the project to deliver water to Greater Boston stands out even more

Destruction, Community, and Survival in the Drowned Towns of the Quabbin
By Elisabeth C. Rosenberg
232 pages, Pegasus Books

TODAY IT MIGHT be hard to imagine something that would stir more controversy than a massive dam project, which would displace several towns and thousands of people, and literally inundate the local environment (not to mention if one of the displaced people was you). Think how hard it is now to get Congress to fund even basic new infrastructure, or to get people to wear masks to slow the spread of disease. On the other hand, dams could help meet water and energy needs, at a time when climate change increases these concerns. Think about how China just completed the largest hydroelectric project ever built, the Three Gorges Dam, albeit certainly not without real controversy too.  

This makes it all the more interesting to look back to see how such projects happened in times when environmental issues seemed less acute (though John Muir famously opposed in vain the Hetch Hetchy Valley reservoir for San Francisco in 1913), but technology was less powerful, while sacrifice, willing or not, for the greater good (e.g., electrification projects, World War II) seemed more routine. 

Enter Before the Flood, by Elisabeth C. Rosenberg, a concise and interesting history of the construction of the Quabbin Reservoir. Rosenberg focuses especially on the people involved and their evolving relationships throughout the process.  

The Quabbin Reservoir is the large, elongated lake seen on maps running north-south about 10 miles east of Amherst. It was built mainly from 1927 to 1941 to supply more drinking water to a growing Boston, about 65 miles away, via a large aqueduct deep underground that sends the water many miles east to join older reservoirs closer to the city. 

Massachusetts emptied and wiped from the map four towns — Enfield, Greenwich, Prescott, and Dana — and flooded the area they once occupied to create the Quabbin Reservoir, which today serves as the main water source for Greater Boston. (From “Understanding the Quabbin,” Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation)

The Quabbin flooded the Swift River Valley, completely swamping four small towns and expelling several thousand residents. The state used eminent domain powers to buy out the holdings of all property owners. Not surprisingly, many of those residents and the region’s state representative objected, but they were no match for the interests and power of the much larger capital city. The Quabbin is now a forested reserve and popular tourist destination.  

The Quabbin history is still remembered in local monuments, museums, historical societies, and photo archives. Hampshire College in Amherst, where I teach ecology, named three of its student residences after the three main towns in Hampshire County that were flooded by the Quabbin: Prescott, Enfield, and Greenwich (actually pronounced “green-witch” by the town residents); the fourth main town that was flooded over, Dana, was in Worcester County. The college makes use of the Quabbin now for field trips and projects, and its history as a reservoir is, of course, critical in understanding its ecology.  

The book starts with some early history of the region, including its geology as a river valley, and that the native Nipmuc lived and fished in the Swift River from at least 1000 B.C.E. “Quabbin” was their name for the region and one of their chiefs, and means “a well-watered place” – a definition that would take on very different meaning in the early and mid 20th century.

It was for a time among the most prosperous parts of the state and proud of its role in early US history and independence (e.g., the planning site of Shay’s Rebellion), with both traditional Calvinist and progressive Universalist tendencies. It declined some over time as people moved to cities and west to more fertile lands. It was also overshadowed by the larger Connecticut River Valley next door, with the major river, college towns, cities, and, eventually, the region’s main north-south highway, I-91.   

Meanwhile, Boston had ever greater demands for water, and started eying the Swift River in 1895 with water testing and then planning. Compared to some other watersheds it was the best combination of large, clean, and high water (for gravity movement). It also had a sparse population, becoming even more depressed by the rumors of the possible project (Rosenberg notes that horror writer H.P. Lovecraft wrote about it at the time, too), and people leaving or ceasing to invest, even before its fate was officially decided by legislation in 1927.   

A 1926 map of the proposed Quabbin Reservoir, which was to be formed by flooding four towns and building new dams on the Swift River. (Massachusetts Archives)

A surprising theme from the beginning and throughout Before the Flood is how engineers and workers who came to plan and then carry out the project were at first unwelcome outsiders but over time, perhaps especially since took so long to complete, became active and accepted members of the community. Rosenberg considers how the Quabbin might also be seen as a model – or not – for future projects that may arise now as a result of climate change.  

Rosenberg follows the construction in short chapters by time periods. The reservoir was, of course, a huge project, especially at the time. The main weakness of the book might be that, though it describes some tangible features in careful detail (e.g., the Quabbin holds 415 billion gallons of water, it’s 150 feet deep; how the dam was formed; the depth of the tunnels and problems with the caissons; etc.), it has no maps or diagrams that would help even more concisely to understand what was involved. It mentions thousands of photos taken for surveying and planning and to calculate compensation, yet only a few photos of the ever more barren landscape are included. But these can presumably be found elsewhere and the focus here, again, is on the people themselves flowing into the valley to build the reservoir and out of it as it is cleared. Included at the end are appendices with quotes by many of the former residents, biographical notes of many of the people mentioned, and endnote references, albeit no index. 

We see how the valley was actually still fairly prosperous and relatively well educated just before the flood, with small farms and businesses, and social clubs. The communities were divided into relatively better off and accepted groups and religions versus those more marginalized. Sadness deepened as the rumor and then the reality of the situation sank in. The engineers came first to survey the land around 1927 and became a part of the community by renting housing, working there every day, joining churches and clubs, and even marrying into the community. Some are even buried in the nearby replacement cemetery. Then workers came to clear the land of all equipment, buildings, and vegetation, literally down to the subsoil, to build the dam and the tunnels, and to reforest the adjacent lands to assure clean water coming in.   

There is actually quite a bit of documentation of the Quabbin’s creation, as journalists covered it throughout, and there are other writings like diaries from the time. The book brings the story alive with many details and quotes from many of the participants about how they lived, what they ate and the clothes they bought, who was most revered (e.g., a beloved doctor who took barter as pay) as well as disdained, how it felt to see the valley slowly sold and carted away and denuded, and where people went. We see new groups (e.g., an engineers’ club) and class hierarchies (e.g., planners versus engineers versus workers) form for the time, as well as details of the lives of some key individual planners and community members.  

This all was mostly during the Depression, which served to make the project much more acceptable, as it was a steady source of jobs and kept the area relatively well-off compared to others without such a massive publicly-backed project. It included a lot of unskilled workers, evidently as a sort of works project, too, though they often did poor work or little at all. There was also some corruption by government officials who could broker job concessions. But there is a sense that the state treated people, and paid, fairly well, so that there seemed to be more melancholy than anger by the end. People saw their pasts erased, but could also move to new possibilities elsewhere.  

The construction was finished and the valley started filling with water and sending it to Boston and some other towns along the way during World War II, which largely distracted attention from the project. There was security against possible sabotage, some military maneuvers like practice bombing runs in the then vacant lands, and a few final ceremonies when the reservoir was finally full in 1946.  

Rosenberg continues with events that transpired after the project was done, including how the valley was commemorated in archives and periodic events after, and how security concerns were heightened and some areas were cordoned off after 9/11. She wonders if it all would have happened today with the current economics and greater environmental concerns about dams in general, and whether the area might have fared like other nearby towns now without the dam. On the whole, the sense is that it was an imperfect but appropriate as well as impressive undertaking.  

I do see how the Quabbin could be argued as appropriate for its time, especially given the many old reservoirs all around us that we take for granted now, including the Quabbin, and how such projects could even be plausible to consider today, given the concerns about climate change.  But I’d say this given the provisos that the Quabbin seemed to compensate the displaced people well, and they were not a very exploited and/or minority people, as well as that it provided truly needed jobs.  However, I’d also note that the negative impact of dams is more strongly recognized now, lands are more developed, overall water demands have slowed, and more alternative water and energy approaches exist to consider, as long as people are willing to pay for them, even if more costly, and for that I’d invoke sources of funding like taxing the wealthy and tapping the military budget. 

Rosenberg’s final thoughts in the text are about how the relationships that were formed made this project different from so many others like it, for instance, the Hoover Dam or the TVA. She writes that it was “unique in how its creators interacted with the local population…Perhaps, despite its relative size, Quabbin was an intimate project…destroyed and destroyer lived amongst one another as one community for over a decade.”  

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She notes that while the suffering of the displaced residents has been documented: “Forgotten is the fact that the engineers who made the valley their home also grieved when they left. Their individual sacrifices have been left out of the historical record but their imprint is in every drop of water,” and as she also notes, in the forest and wildlife there now, and “the reverence and curiosity of those who come to experience them.” Forgotten sacrifices, except of course, here in the efforts of this tidy and insightful book. 

Brian Schultz is an associate professor of ecology and entomology at Hampshire College in Amherst.