For the decades since the spring of 1938, when the state flooded the Swift River Valley towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott to create the Quabbin Reservoir, we have remembered the lost towns even as the ranks of their displaced residents have dwindled and the living memory of their hometowns faded.
While the history of those people, their homes and way of life are preserved by the Swift River Valley Historical Society, the allure and importance of the huge reservoir that arose in place of the towns has grown. Today’s Quabbin Reservoir has become a significant element of the ecosystem and culture of western Mass.
In 1938, the four towns bustled with farmers and factories along the Swift River. Today, the area is just as lively — although not with the few thousands of people who once lived there, but with wildlife. The Quabbin has become a huge wild land in a state technically considered to be urban because of the dominant, densely-settled Boston metropolitan area to the east that draws on it for water.
So, as sad a tale as was the taking of the towns decades ago, today the Quabbin is seen as a “real success story,” according to Clif Read, supervisor of interpretive services at the Quabbin branch of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Trout, eagles, otters and mink increasingly have thrived at the 18-mile-long reservoir frequented by fishermen, hikers and nature lovers of all stripes.
The Quabbin accounts for 65 percent of the state’s water supply, and its location was chosen so gravity would pull the water all the way to Boston through underground aqueducts.
The Quabbin is not just a sterile water supply. Important for those of us in western Massachusetts is the Quabbin’s location amid acres of state forest, which has led to its success in protecting and promoting the flora and fauna in its far-flung watershed.
The surrounding woods make the Quabbin an animal haven. If the reservoir were surrounded by larger cities like Worcester or Springfield, rather than towns like New Salem and Belchertown, it would not be this way.
“There’s this accidental wilderness we’ve created,” Read said.
A particular success story in the past four decades has been the Quabbin’s role in providing habitat for bald eagle restoration in a time when the national symbol was endangered.
It was only in 1989 that the first nesting bald eagles appeared at the reservoir — and only in 2007 that the bald eagle was taken off the federal endangered species list. But now, sightings are common at the Quabbin. There are now an average of 16 nesting bald eagles a year at the Quabbin Reservoir, and in 2018 there are 12 nests.
As much as we love history and reflect with some sadness on the disrupted lives of the flooded towns and their inhabitants, these days we also eagerly tell visitors about the origins of what, from the air, looks like a natural watershed and has become a huge part of contemporary life for those of us who live in the western towns that today embrace the Quabbin like a welcome neighbor.