Remembrance of Towns Past

Five minutes into our hike, we arrive at the point where the original Route 21, which once connected Athol to Springfield, runs into the water. Ahead of us, the resonant blue and green panorama that is the Quabbin Reservoir stretches south for eighteen miles to Belchertown, where today’s Route 21 begins its journey down the Valley. Somewhere across the water, the old state highway hiking trail resurfaces beside the bike path that runs along the east side of the man-made lake, tracing the long-gone tracks of the railway. The four drowned towns of Enfield, Dana, Prescott, and Greenwich, of course, remain submerged at the bottom of the reservoir, as they have for the past seventy-five years.

“There’s a very romantic notion about the Quabbin,” J.R. Greene tells me, stading at the water’s edge as the waves lap at his feet. “But there’s no Atlantis down there.”

Greene has a large beard and is wearing an old Red Sox cap. I too am outfitted with a Sox cap, though my beard isn’t nearly as full as his. Then again, this is my first trip to the reservoir, while Greene “has been writing about the Quabbin, and hiking its watershed since 1975,” reads the Preface to his 1994 offering, Historic Quabbin Hikes.

In addition to authoring several books on the Quabbin’s history and topography, Greene is also involved in many of the organizations that work to manage the Quabbin watershed today in order to realize a particular version of what it will look like tomorrow. These include an alphabet soup of government agencies and local community groups: the Swift River Historical Society (SRVHS), the Quabbin Watershed Advisory Council (QWAC), and the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA), a division of the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

As we meander along the north shore of the reservoir, Greene stops from time to time, calling my attention to a patch of woods, or a former clearing now largely grown in, then producing an old black-and-white photograph from the time when the spot was flooded so clean drinking water could be pumped to people back east, in Boston. The four towns that made up the Swift River Valley may be long gone, but the Quabbin continues to exude a particular sense of place, with its unusual mix of historic nostalgia, resource land management issues, and wilderness recreation offerings. It involves many, often contradictory aspects that in turn are driven by many, often competing interests.

“Quabbin is a microcosm of our more polarized society,” Greene tells me as we make our way past a small pond to the dirt path of the old railway. “And some of that plays out legislatively.”

Hunters, loggers, environmentalists, anglers, bicyclists — everyone, it seems, is angling for a piece of the Quabbin; the recent dustup between loggers and environmentalists is only one case in point. The Quabbin Watershed Advisory Council alone includes representatives from the New England Sierra Club, the Massachusetts Wildlife Federation, the Swift River Valley Historical Society, and six other state, local, and national organizations, as well as an individual citizen, usually a local. Formed in 1981, the council has no legislative power, notes Greene, but it does exert political influence.

Greene, a native and longtime resident of Athol, is careful not to speak undiplomatically about the often-contradictory elements that have stakes in the Quabbin, as he is involved in so many aspects of its management. Still, looking across its waters from the site of the old New Salem Railroad Station, he concedes that its creation was indeed a “most blatant example of intrastate colonialism.”

(Originally appeared in Preview Massachusetts.)


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