NERGC – Day 2

by Carolyn L. Barkley

My favorite experience from this second day of the New England Regional Genealogical Conference was my early morning lecture entitled “Where the Waters Meet – Exploring Greater Quabbin’s History and Natural History,” which was presented by Michael Tougias, author of several books about New England history and natural history.

The morning started out well with my purchase of Tougias’ Quabbin: A History and Explorers Guide. That action precipitated one of those wonderful “small world moments” that always seem to happen when least expected. As I was waiting to have the book autographed, I heard Michael comment that he was from Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Well, my ears definitely perked up at that, as I grew up in East Longmeadow, the very next town! I just had to share that information with him, as well as the fact that my father had been head of the English Department at Longmeadow High School. (Michael looked about the right age to perhaps have been one of his students.) He searched his memory and acknowledged that, although he had never had my father as a teacher, he did indeed know of him. What a small world it was at that moment this morning in Manchester, New Hampshire!

The Quabbin Reservoir is a sight well-known to any Massachusetts native driving between Worcester and Springfield. What these drivers may not know, however, is the history of the creation of this body of water and the history that was lost in the process.

The growth of the City of Boston, some sixty-five miles to the east, is intrinsically tied to the creation of the reservoir. The city’s rapid growth continually required it to find new and larger sources of water for its populace. By 1896, a metropolitan water district had been created and the search for an additional water source had begun to focus on the sparsely populated and largely agrarian “Three Rivers” area along the Swift, Millers and Ware Rivers. By 1919, the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission had been created and the scrutiny of the Three Rivers area had become more intense. Eventually, the Swift River Act of 1927 authorized the construction of the massive public works project that would become known as Quabbin Reservoir.

The statistics for Quabbin Reservoir, one of the largest man-made public water supplies in the United States, indicate that it is eighteen miles in length, has a maximum depth of 151 feet, and a capacity of 412 billion gallons. Built at a cost of $53 billion, water was first dammed in 1939 and the first water flowed into Boston in 1941. What those sterile figures cannot convey, however, is the human cost of the construction. The history illustrating that cost is particularly interesting to any of us who may have had ancestors from the several towns lost due to the reservoir’s creation –  ancestors like my great-great-great grandmother, Lucy (DeWitt) Smith, who died in Enfield on 9 November 1861. (I must admit that in my early years of research, I incorrectly thought that she died in Enfield, Connecticut, rather than Enfield, Massachusetts – realizing my error led to much more exciting research opportunities!). I would very much like to know more about her as she is one of my female line brick walls.

Several towns were disincorporated and flooded in 1938 as the waters of the rivers began to be build up behind the new dams. These towns included Dana in Worcester County, and Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott, all in Hampshire County. Any land in these towns that remained unflooded was merged into surrounding towns such as Belchertown, Pelham, Petersham, Hardwick, and Ware. During construction of the reservoir, 7,500 graves were relocated and 2500 people (650 homes) were displaced; every building was dismantled. In some cases, houses were purchased and moved; in other cases, they were bulldozed into their foundations and covered up. Today, only the stonework is visible in those areas above water, as for example, is the Dana town common.

The history of these towns presents a series of interesting obstacles for any researcher, including identifying the present location of their town records. My future search for Lucy will need to determine if all land originally within Enfield’s borders was flooded, and if not, with what neighboring towns did specific portions become merged? Deed research into land owned by both the Smith and DeWitt (sometimes alternatively written as Witt or De Witt) families will need to place their farms accurately within the confines of Enfield to determine if their farms were part of the land that was flooded or land that was merged into another town. I do not know where Lucy (or her husband) were buried, but their names are not listed on Find a Grave for Quabbin Park Cemetery in Ware, Massachusetts, where almost 90 per cent of the relocated graves were located at the time of the reservoir’s construction. Perhaps the land research will help identify other possible cemeteries where their graves might be found.

More information on the Quabbin area can be found by visiting the Quabbin Visitor Center at 485 Ware Road in Belchertown (Hampshire Co.), Massachusetts, and the Swift River Historical Society, located at 40 Elm Street, in New Salem (Franklin Co.), Massachusetts, and  Friends of Quabbin, Inc. Town records are available at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. Print resources include Elizabeth Peirce’s The Lost Towns of Quabbin Valley (MA) (Arcadia, 2003) and Quabbin Valley: People and Places (Arcadia, 2006); Thomas Conuel’s Quabin, the Accidental Wilderness (Univ. of Mass Press, 1990); and J.R. Green’s The Day Four Quabbin Towns Died (J.R. Greene, 2001).

Clearly, I have a new impetus for tackling my Lucy (DeWitt) Smith brick wall once again. Now to find the time!

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