Off North Road

Earth movers

By Russell Hoxsie - July 13, 2006

I'm at a time when memory serves the distant past far better than the immediate present, and reminiscence of long ago becomes an active pastime and subject for conversation among us beings of similar-stage maturity.

The days of childhood seem now like Elysian Fields, blissful, delightful. Grandparents moved in circles of magic, anticipating every need and supplying the patience of Job in all pursuits. Now in my own role as grand-pere, I'm in awe just remembering the life we led during summer with them. Shopping became an adventure and rite of passage when we were allowed to walk alone "up-town." The center of Gilbertville lay across the Ware River at the top of a hill and looked benignly down on the water toward a dam at the Gilbert Company Woolen Mill. Nanna would say, "Be careful of the cars and watch the railroad tracks before you cross over."

When the Goodfield Dairy man delivered heavily creamed Guernsey milk and picked up the returns, he would say to us, "Your grandmother has the cleanest return milk bottles in town." In the hottest days of summer, the river out our bedroom window (from the third floor in front) seemed a place which kept us a bit cooler than farther into the countryside with its wide mowed fields and lazy cows.

Late summer produced sudsy, noisome flotsam on the dammed-up run-off from a wool-scrubbing plant in South Barre upstream. We watched their huge trailers loaded with bales of raw wool rumble the main drag of Route 32 headed north. Now that water, long ago liberated from its use as a convenient sewer, enters the Swift River system nearby in high-water season and ends in Quabbin Reservoir and then on to the millions of domestic water systems of Boston and environs.

My brother (younger) and I spent time with grandparents together. Our most mundane trips occupied a day away from Gilbertville into the city of Springfield, where Gramp had his 1936 Plymouth serviced regularly. Before that car, it had been a boxy Reo. The most spectacular single day was the time we visited the city rail yards to see a real whale in all its putrid smells laid out on a giant flat car in a side-tracked train open for inspection. Better still was a live elephant in the same location but, according to Nanna, much too dirty to take advantage of the advertised ride on its backside. A big disappointment.

However, these attractions held no candle to the evening visits, before the sun set in the western hills, to the construction of the future Quabbin Reservoir. There, in central Massachusetts, northeast of Springfield and about a 20-mile drive from Gilbertville, we kids of 9 and 11 had no notion of the century-old drama playing out there in the Swift River Valley. All we knew or cared about was to be parked in the Plymouth on a steep embankment overlooking the greatest workplace we could have imagined. As far as we could see to the east the earth lay disturbed, and tumbled trees poked this way and that in disarray while sawyers cut them to length and carted them away. Men, like pygmies in the distance, worked outsized tractors, bulldozers and steam shovels lifting tons of dirt at a time. A constant rumble of behemoth-trucks thundered away to the site of a huge man-made earthen dam in progress. Somewhere at a distance and not so accessible to a comfortable view, we knew a dike was being built in the gap, or col, between two mountain caps to prevent water from escaping the basin to be filled with Swift River water once its normal flow downstream was blocked entirely by the dam. As darkness deepened, the night spotlights seemed to grow in brilliance and we were watching a play performed on a giant stage. If we tired at all of the activity, Nanna would break out a wicker basket and out-sized thermos jugs for a supper as good as we would have had at home, baked beans, frankfurts, brown bread and butter. Soda pop was either Hire's root beer or Moxie. We didn't know what Coca-Cola was (or if it then existed).

By eleven o'clock our grandparents must have been tired but they never said so. "Time we traveled back," they'd say, and we were soon asleep in our seats only to be rousted out and trundled upstairs to bed at home. I remember those special chock-full days when tired was almost an illness and my head hit the pillow like a stone and never moved till morning.

As years went by I learned some of the drama of those years, which culminated in the building of the largest natural water supply lake in America, perhaps the world, the razing and de-registering of four whole towns in Massachusetts: Enfield, Prescott, Dana, and Greenwich. Since the early 1800s Boston officials knew that growth in Boston would eventually outrun its water supply. Growing sentiment favored the transformation of the large natural Swift River Valley into a superb reservoir, which would last indefinitely. Bostonians were very agreeable, but native residents were bitterly opposed to it. In years past the region had been a prosperous cluster of farming and industrial towns, but it had experienced a slow and steady downturn as word of its future fate gained credence. The area would be turned into a vast unpopulated watershed 18 miles long with 191 miles of shoreline including its islands, and would hold when finished 412 billion gallons of water for the distant city population. Plans and notoriety developed around the project for over half a century. Citizens of the towns sued Massachusetts water commissions all the way to the state supreme court and lost. Also the state of Connecticut sued Massachusetts, claiming loss of water resources rightly theirs. That effort lost also.

Slowly over time, aqueducts pushed farther underground from existing lakes and reservoirs feeding a line to Boston. A two-way aqueduct was actually built connecting Ware River to Wachusett Reservoir. In High-water season excess water was skimmed from the Ware River to Wachusett, and the rest of the year flow reversed. By 1936 actual work at Quabbin began and provided my brother and me wonderful late evening entertainment. The entire basin to be submerged was clear-cut, all buildings razed and burnable materials destroyed by fire. Roads were deserted and two railroad lines abandoned. Contrary to folklore over many years, no buildings could be seen rising above water levels or be viewed by divers swimming the streets below. As critics claimed, "home owners were given a hundred dollars for their homes and tossed out" to find homes elsewhere. Cemeteries were emptied and re-established in nearby land. All memorials were moved to new ground. Some town lands were absorbed by neighboring towns. Quabbin area not to be submerged was clear-cut, buildings were razed and burned, and the whole area was de-populated, all for maintaining water purity. Quabbin is the largest reservoir in the United States which maintains purity by control of the watershed instead of by filtration and maintains flow by natural gravity instead of by pumping. Since 1946 when Quabbin opened, it has fulfilled the dream of a pure and seemingly plentiful water supply for eastern Massachusetts. Eagles have in-migrated to the region and flourish. Seventeen species of fish swim in the waters, including small-mouth bass, perch, and trout. The great state park is a beautiful area to hike and observe nature.

Alas, the experience which delighted our kids, and presumably many others, had a darker side. A short novel published probably 10 years after Quabbin opened told a story of rancor and loss for heartsick residents who saw their existence disrupted and homes destroyed for the benefit of distant strangers in another world.