The Towns That Were Lost So Boston Could Have Clean Water

May 14, 2014

Have you ever wondered where your water comes from? If you live in Boston, or one of 50 other communities in eastern Massachusetts, every time you turn on your tap, take a shower, water your lawn, flush your toilet, or wash your dishes, you’re drawing water from the same place: the Quabbin Reservoir.

The sprawling, bucolic body of fresh water, 70 miles west of the city, provides clean water for 2.2 million people, according to Clif Read of the Department of Conservation and Recreation. 

“The entire reservoir holds 412 billion gallons of water, at the time it was built it was the largest drinking water reservoir built for that purpose in the entire world,” he said

The largest body of fresh water in Massachusetts was created by damming the swift river and letting the valley flood. It was the answer to a centuries old problem – Boston didn’t have enough clean drinking water. The only problem: there were 2,500 people were living in the valley.

Photo Credit: Brendan Lynch / WGBH

“There were four towns that lay in the Swift River Valley and these had to be disincorporated.”

The quaint Swift River Valley towns of Prescott, Greenwich, Dana, and Enfield all had to be disincorporated. Towns where folks shopped at the general store, sent their kids to school, and went to church on Sundays. For fun, the residents formed bands and ball clubs. Generations were born here, they grew up here, they grew old here. And it all came to end in 1927. That’s when the state passed the Swift River Act, which gave the authority and the the funding to take the land by eminent domain, according to Read.

Over the next 10 years, the state’s watershed agency cleared the entire valley. Thousands of laborers removed every building, every home, every tree. Even bodies in the cemeteries were moved.

Bob Wilder grew up on a farm in Enfield. He remembers the day in 1938 that his family was forced to leave.

“My grandmother used to wear a bib apron. And when she got nervous she used to wrap her hands in that to keep her hands still and she had her hands all wrapped up in that apron and we knew something was cooking and she says, ‘you know, we gotta go.’”

Like hundreds of other families in the valley, the Wilder’s way of life was taken from them.

“My family was bitter. They were bitter and you’d be bitter if you saw our little town, and they took it away from you- “they” being this organization out in Boston. We didn’t know them,” Wilder said.

Residents were paid compensation for losing their property, but Dana native Earl Cooley said that wasn’t enough.

“Of course they didn’t get paid that much for their houses either, and if they had a business, that didn’t count into it.”

Cooley’s grandfather owned the sawmill in town.

“My grandfather, he never recovered from it. Once they moved, he only lived about six months after that after the moved out of the Quabbin,” Cooley said.  

Richard Rohan’s family was forced to leave Enfield.

“It was very upsetting for them,” he said. “They did not care too much for the people of Boston, let’s put it that way.”

But the construction of the reservoir also provided thousands of jobs at the height of the Great Depression, Rohan’s family among them.

“Both my father and my uncles they worked here in Quabbin for the rest of their lives to be honest about it so it provided a living for us, too,” he said.

Today, Bob Wilder and other former residents volunteer at the Quabbin – speaking to visitors from Boston about the origins of their clean water.

“A few years ago, a bunch of kids from Boston came down on a bus and we asked them ‘Do you know where your water comes from?' they said, ‘Yeah, from our faucets,’ and we were shocked. They weren’t taught about the sacrifices that all these people made. They weren’t taught what happened.”

Those encounters with the people who benefit from his sacrifice has changed him, for the better, Wilder said.

“I was one of the most bitter people that came out of the valley, and it changed because all of a sudden I realized that those aren’t some sub-human beings out there, those are people with families like ours and they had to have it. It was a necessity and it was worth the sacrifice."

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