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Up Front: Swift Remedy
September 5, 2005 by Howard Blas
At 6am on a recent Sunday morning, a group of us grabbed mountain bikes, helmets and water bottles and set out from Palmer, Massachusetts for Quabbin Reservoir, 10 miles northwest of us. We rode past the local airport, through the town of Belchertown, alongside Doug’s Taxidermy and Archery shop and a small farm selling peacocks, and up and down a few steep hills. The sounds of what seemed to be 20 different species of birds and the sights of deer, a white-tailed
rabbit and a snake made the long journey worth the sore legs. Finally, one long hour later we made our final ascent to the Winsor Dam; below us were 40 square miles of artificial lake, holding 412 billion gallons of water. In the 1920s, the available water supply was insufficient to accommodate the growing needs of Boston and other parts of eastern Massachusetts and the Swift River, 100 miles to the west, which flowed through several towns, seemed tantalizingly useful. As the Quabbin website recounts, “through a series of ‘buyouts,’ the inhabitants were tossed out of their homes in preparation for construction of a reservoir.” Houses were bulldozed, millions of acres of trees were cut down, and factories were demolished. Interred bodies (except for those of Native Americans) were dug up and reburied elsewhere.
A half-mile-long dam was built on the Swift River in Belchertown and a series of tunnels and aqueducts, creating one of the longest tunnels in the world, was constructed to carry the water 100 miles to the east. Flooding the valley began in August 1939, filling to capacity in 1946. The new reservoir was named after a local Native American tribe’s chief, Nani-Quaben, meaning “well-watered place”.
In the process of creating this water bonanza, four towns - Enfield, Dana, Greenwich and Prescott - were, according to the website, “wiped off the face of the Earth.” Enfield, the most southerly of these, was incorporated in 1816, though it had existed as early as 1760. With its farming and industrial base and 1,000 residents - the largest of the Quabbin towns - Enfield was one of the wealthiest regions in Massachusetts prior to the Civil War. By the 1920s, the four towns had fallen on hard times, and their total population dwindled to 2,000.
On April 27, 1937 a ball was held at the Enfield Town Hall to commemorate the town’s “last day of existence.” About a thousand people crammed into the hall and another 2,000 stood outside. A few minutes before midnight, the cyber record recalls, “the orchestra stopped playing and a hush fell over the crowd. At the stroke of midnight the band played Auld Lang Syne. Many people at the ball wept while they danced. Enfield Massachusetts had slipped into history.”
My ride to the reservoir coincided with the final days of the Jewish settlements in Gaza. In America, we’ve learned the sad reality: Quabbins happen.Howard Blas