Drowned Towns: Preserving the Lost Communities of the Swift River Valley

 

The city, however, does not tell its part, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.

 

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities  

 

On April 28, 1938, the Western Massachusetts towns of Dana, Enfield, Prescott, and Greenwich received a notice informing them that they were no longer in existence. “By the terms of Chapter 321, Act 1927,” it began, “you are hereby notified that the corporate existence of the aforesaid towns ceased at 12 o’clock midnight, April 27th.” Town officers were instructed not to carry on any municipal functions after that date, only to do “such acts as are necessary to affect the transfer of properties of the municipalities to the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission.” The letter was signed by R. Nelson Molt, the commission’s secretary.

This was no great surprise to the inhabitants of these towns. Some years before, the state of Massachusetts had decided to flood the area then covered by the four rural municipalities in a grand solution to the increasing need for water in the ever-growing greater Boston area. Residents of the Swift River Valley watched in disbelief as state officials, engineers, then surveyors, and eventually lumberjacks swarmed over their land and began the long process of taking it from them. The construction of the reservoir would be one of the most ambitious civil works projects in history, but it would result in the forced removal of all residents in each of the four communities.

The enormous Quabbin Reservoir (the name was taken from a Nipmuck word roughly meaning “place of many waters”) would supply water to Boston and the many burgeoning suburbs that had, at the time of the District Water Supply Commission’s decision, swelled to proportions that strained the resources of the city.

Historically, Boston had always struggled to bring in enough water to adequately supply its residents. It had first seen the need to reach outside its municipal boundaries for water as early as the late 1700s, when pipes were laid between the city and Jamaica Pond in Roxbury. Disputes some thirty years later led the city to look instead to Long Pond in Natick. Rapid industrial and population growth, however, soon necessitated diverting water from the Sudbury River, and when this proved futile, the subsequent creation of the Wachusett Reservoir on the Nashua River. This in turn would prove sufficient for only thirty years after its construction in 1908. A more sustainable answer to the water problem was desperately needed.

The creation of an enormous reservoir in western Massachusetts seemed to be an ideal—if grandiose—long-term solution: the topography of the Swift River Valley was such that a couple of well-placed dams at the southern end could turn the whole region (an area of roughly 40 square miles) into a gigantic bowl with the capacity to hold 412 billion gallons of water. Aqueducts and an impressive system of tunnels would move the water east to Boston and the suburbs, and all that would have to be cleared out in the process was a few small towns. The plan was, in many respects, a resounding success—the project created much-needed public works jobs during the depths of the Great Depression and today more than 2.5 million people draw their water supply from the Quabbin reservoir—but the success came at a great cost to 2,500 people who would lose their hometowns forever.

Many could only sit back helplessly as their trees were clear-cut, their buildings razed or removed, and their dead relatives exhumed and relocated. Over 7,500 bodies were moved from the cemeteries of the Swift River Valley and reinterred elsewhere. The living lost homes, jobs, and history with little to no provisions made by the state for their aid or benefit.

One woman, forced to leave Greenwich with her family as a young girl, remembers,“wishing that the Boston folks would choke on their first glass of water from the Quabbin.” Another resident, quoted in Evelina Gustafson’s particularly heartbreaking 1940 book on the then-recent disappearance of the towns, said “with tear dimmed eyes…‘I little thought that one day these childhood haunts would be closed to me forever.’”  The only hint of the human consequences of this civil engineering project to appear in the near-500 pages of the Federal Writers Project’s otherwise effusive 1937 publication Massachusetts: A Guide to its People and Places is a note that says, “The route south of New Salem will be changed somewhat when the Quabbin Reservoir occupies the valley.”

The meetings during the planning stages of the project took place in Boston, on the correct prediction that the residents of the doomed communities would not have the means to travel to the city to make their voices heard. This set an unhappy precedent for how the concerns of the valley’s residents would be considered. The people whose lives were so inextricably connected with this land would ultimately have little to no say in the circumstances of its destruction.

Their fate is often overlooked, however: most histories of the Quabbin focus on the event as a triumph of civil engineering, writing off its indisputably tragic aspects as the inevitable side effects of progress. These were decisions made in the years just before the Great Depression, a time of an increasingly modern America, and the notion that the urban machine should thrive at the expense of a few bumpkins currently occupying what had become very desirable land was hardly offensive when viewed through the modernist lens of a society in the process of ecstatic urban growth. However, many (not least the displaced residents themselves), were troubled by the thought of the loss of these communities and sought to preserve the people and places that would be sacrificed for the sake of the big city to the east.

Dana, Enfield, Prescott, and Greenwich would sink below the rising waters of the reservoir. As Boston was reshaping its own landscape, replacing water with landfill to support a growing population, the residents of the Swift River Valley would feel the dark irony of progress as a river they’d known all their lives was transformed into the 38.6 square miles of water that would spread over and erase their land and history.

 

It is a false comfort to say that these towns now lie at the bottom of the reservoir. They are not anywhere. The land that once held them has been reshaped and changed by the waters that swallowed it, the residents are dead or displaced, and the buildings have been destroyed or relocated. Nowhere in the world, for example, is there an Enfield, MA. So in the late 1930s, for the people whose lives had been so closely tied to those towns, the notion that they would disappear without a trace was unacceptable, and a few decided to do something about it.

The Swift River Valley Historical Society occupies an unassuming set of buildings in New Salem, a neighboring town only partly flooded in the creation of the reservoir. In the years since the creation of the reservoir, it has grown from a small collection of photos and trappings to a massive and comprehensive archive chronicling the valley’s history and abrupt disappearance. It now comprises three buildings, the Whitaker-Clary House, containing most of the collection, the Prescott Church Museum (hauled over from Prescott before the flooding) and the Carriage House, which contains an engine of the Dana Fire Department, various pieces of farm equipment, and an assortment of hand tools in addition to countless other odds and ends. It is managed by a devoted assembly of unpaid volunteers, several of whom are among the last surviving residents of the towns.

That the society was founded in 1936 is a testament to the fact that the residents’ desire to assemble and preserve their local history was (unsurprisingly) spurred on by the impending demise of the four towns, by the threat that the very ideas of those communities might be drowned along with their physical settings and disappear forever. The urgency with which the act of preservation had to be approached sets the mission of the Swift River Valley Historical Society apart from other historical societies:  if you were confronted with the imminent destruction of everything you knew, what parts would you take away so that the whole could be remembered?

This was one in a series of burning questions facing the society’s founders. What mode of preservation would be the most effective? And what things were already preserved? Despite the absolute elimination of the towns and the land that they occupied, some reminders of the communities nonetheless remained: not only did most of the displaced residents continue to live in the region for the rest of their lives, leading lives not terribly different from those they might have lived had they been allowed to stay, but you can even follow several roads, including Main Street of New Salem, directly into the waters of the reservoir if you go far enough. Whatever means the society would use to preserve those towns would have to focus on what could not be recaptured, and so the curators looked to the region’s recent past.

The versions of Enfield, Greenwich, Prescott, and Dana that are preserved by the society remain (perhaps for the obvious reasons) frozen in a very specific time. The artifacts collected speak to the character of the towns as they were in the early twentieth-century, complete with heirlooms from previous generations and a subsequent awareness of the towns’ recent past, but the communities depicted by the hats, photographs, and furniture of the SRVHS are plainly ones that know nothing of space shuttles or rock and roll, or barely even of World War II. Here it always is the nineteen-thirties, and always will be.

It is clear, however, from every detail down to the Depression-era one-room schoolhouse replica, that this was intentional, that the SRVHS indeed aimed to capture these towns as they were just before the time of their flooding. The story that it tells is more than just a history of these towns themselves—it is also about the tragic series of events that made them so significant. These communities are being preserved not only because of the simple fact that they aren’t here anymore but so that visitors might get a more complete idea of what it felt like when they were taken away. The society is preserving not only physical objects, which stand in for the towns themselves, but also an emotional reaction to the flooding.

What other way is there to preserve the feeling of a tragedy than by capturing the affected community up to and including that moment in time? The Swift River Valley municipalities had a history that decisively ended beneath the waters of the Quabbin, meaning that the SRVHS had its work cut out for it in its efforts to reconstruct that history.

What defines the identity of a city or a town? It is certainly more than landscape: Rome without seven hills would still be Rome (and indeed the hills are nearly invisible today), just as Boston remained Boston even as it quadrupled its size, expanding horizontally out into its watery environs and sacrificing its own hills to create the fill with which to do so. The built environment and the artifacts it yields are certainly better reflectors of the human influence on a place, but only to an extent: how much can a total stranger be expected to glean about Greenwich from a set of cooking utensils? Could New York be captured by a coat-rack, or even a subway map?

The idea that place can be satisfactorily defined by a discrete set of spaces and tangible objects is problematic, and its limitations are noted by Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities:

 

I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves; but I already know that this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn.

 

It is not the artifacts themselves but their inherent connections to the people of those lost places that make them so attractive to those who are trying to reconstruct the idea of a society. Since so many of the people who knew this land are now gone, the only way in which their lives can be recaptured is through the things that they used and touched. The artifact is a stand-in for the person who cannot be there, and it is up to the visitor to fill in the imaginary space between the concrete object and its relationship to a different time, place, and set of people. A historical museum, then, takes a leap of faith in assuming that its patrons will know to seek out that connection.

Museums like the SRVHS are predicated on this assumption, that the spirit of a community can be kept alive through its paraphernalia. But the idea expressed above by Calvino is not lost on them: as SRVHS president Elizabeth Peirce points out in her introduction to “The Lost Towns of the Quabbin Valley,” the Arcadia Press book authored by the society, artifacts and photographs cannot reconstruct, only approximate:

 

What was sacrificed? Gone are the sawmills, gristmills, and cloth mills. Gone are the factories where boxes, brooms, bricks and buttons, nails, pails, piano legs, carriage wheels, and hats were made. Gone are the mining of soapstone and the making of charcoal. Gone are the orchards with 50 varieties of apples, the berry fields, and the market gardens. Gone are the doctors, dentists, lawyers, statesmen, artists, poets, writers, musicians, photographers, inventors, educators, and yes, patriots. Gone are the good times of the Grange, the neighborhood clubs, singing schools, debating societies, husking bees, quilting parties, and taffy pulls.

 

By and large, these are things that could not have been preserved in any literal sense. A few buildings were moved out of the valley (in addition to those now occupied by the society, there is at least one notable example of a home that was transported to Dorset, VT and reconstructed there), but due to the low income of many valley residents, most homes and public buildings were simply razed to make room for the water. Beyond that, it is impossible to imagine how these things that Peirce lists among the most important elements of the lost towns could possibly be kept for future generations. How do you keep alive the idea of an apple orchard if the actual land it occupied now lies beneath a massive body of water? How can you archive the idiosyncratic community that would have resulted from this specific set of “doctors, dentists, lawyers, [and] statesmen,” all interacting with each other in a way that can never be totally reconstructed? The Swift River Valley featured a unique community of people, the essence of which could not survive such a transplanting unaltered.

The collection of the SRVHS represents simply what the valley’s displaced residents ultimately decided would be the best way to preserve and honor a collective idea both of the places that they lost beneath the water and the group of people that had inhabited those places. The idea that a place can be reconstructed by pulling together as many of its tangible, material artifacts as possible is an interesting one—certainly a former resident of Dana or Enfield will experience a surge of memories upon viewing a photograph of a particular house or examining a doll that might have belonged to a childhood friend. But as the number of valley refugees shrinks further and further with the years, the question of whom these towns are being preserved for becomes an increasingly important consideration.

The uninformed visitor to the museum is presented (ignoring, for the moment, the details that deal directly with the flooding) with a set of trappings that could spell out any part of rural New England in the early twentieth century. The melodeons, the farm equipment, the children’s clothing—these are items that could just as easily have appeared in the collections of countless other small-town historical societies.

How are these artifacts different from those of any other town in that period? The simple answer is that they are not. While there are certainly exceptions, a number of the items contained in the vast annals of the SRVHS could have come from any town in a similar time and region. Speaking generally, the only difference between most of the pieces in this collection and those in others like it is that here, the baseball uniforms and fire engines say “Dana” or “Greenwich” on them.

The exceptions to this rule, the things that remind the visitor of the unique fate of these towns, pose different problems. Copies of the letters from the state informing residents of the situation; a program from Enfield’s Farewell Ball; a relief map showing the stages of the reservoir’s construction. While these artifacts are certainly remarkable for their poignancy, they play into the unfortunate fact that for most outsiders (and as the original residents age and pass away, nearly everyone is one), the most notable thing about these places is that simply they are not there anymore.

The land on which Dana, Enfield, Prescott, Greenwich, and small parts of other communities were established now lies quietly at the bottom of the reservoir, and the number of people who can remember that land when it belonged to four small towns is diminishing rapidly. And though the younger generations may learn, even deeply appreciate the story of those towns, it is unavoidably a different sort of understanding that they experience. No combination of artifacts will awaken nostalgia for life in 1920s-era Dana or Prescott for someone who never got the chance to experience that firsthand—all it can do is dispassionately suggest what these places were like in their last moments. A lot of the artifacts are commonplace things that but for their context would never be associated with such a specific location and story, unremarkable but for their invisible history. Nothing ties them to these places but the society’s determination to preserve the mythology of the four towns by presenting their history as a series of objects.

Peirce wisely and sadly notes that the society’s mission is a necessary but bittersweet one. It is, she says, “a story about times that once were and can never be again [that] is remembered and told over and over at the Swift River Valley Historical Society, where that story is frozen in time.” Frozen to be sure, but necessarily so. The Quabbin towns never got the chance to exist beyond the 1930s, and any story or memory associated with them unavoidably stops there.

On April 27, the eve of disincorporation, the residents gathered in the Enfield town hall for a “Farewell Ball,” featuring a live band, a dance floor, and, assuredly, an overwhelming sense of imminent loss. At midnight, the musicians struck up an emotional rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” before the attendees sadly shuffled out and the hall was locked up for good (one resident observed, “It is no longer a town hall in a town that is no longer”). The following day, they would walk away from the places that many of them truly felt they belonged to but would never even be able to visit again.

Only the youngest of those people in attendance that night are still alive today, and they, along with the very few other onetime residents of the valley, have the distinction of being the only ones who can remember the four towns that were lost to the reservoir, the only ones who can ever possibly understand what those places were truly like. When they are gone, Dana, Enfield, Prescott, and Greenwich will cease even to be memories, existing only in the clothing, photographs, hand tools, and fire engines contained in the rooms of the Swift River Valley Historical Society. 

 

“Prescott is my home, though

rough and poor she be

The home of many a noble soul

the birthplace of the free

I love her rock-bound woods and hills

they are good enough for me

I love her brooklets and her rills

but couldn’t, wouldn’t, and

shouldn’t love a man-made sea.”

 

Charles Abbott (Prescott resident), 1921