Reservoir of Knowledge

Quabbin expert Tougias fills new `Explorer’s Guide’ with details from own excursions

By Pamela H. Sacks



It was the Big Dig of its day, an engineering marvel — only, unlike the notoriously costly Boston project, this one came in $12 million under budget.

Sixty-three years after its completion, the Quabbin Reservoir, reputed to be one of the largest-ever man-made reservoirs for a domestic water supply, holds its own fascination, from the story of its creation to the stunning natural beauty of its 56,000-acre watershed to the pristine, historic towns that surround it.

Writer, lecturer and outdoorsman Michael Tougias has been drawn back to Quabbin again and again. He was a youngster when he started hiking, biking and observing the flourishing wildlife of the vast preserve.

Ten years ago, Mr. Tougias began documenting his excursions.

“Each time I’d go for a hike I’d take notes and write them up, thinking, `Maybe there’s a book here,’ ” he said.

Soon, the 47-year-old author and lecturer, who enjoys considerable regional renown, began to collect first-person accounts from people who had lived in Enfield, Prescott, Dana and Greenwich, the four Swift River Valley towns that were sacrificed to create the 25,000-acre reservoir.

“Through chance meetings, I came into contact with them and added the historical parts,” Mr. Tougias said.

Mr. Tougias’ long-term project progressed even as he wrote several of the other dozen books he has penned. Last month, “Quabbin: A History and Explorers Guide,” with 50 maps and 60 photographs, was published. It is a comprehensive look at the creation and operation of the Quabbin, and offers an expert’s advice on how to enjoy the watershed, which supports an astounding array of wildlife, including cougars and bald eagles.

There are 55 gates from which to enter the Quabbin land by foot. Mr. Tougias, who lives in Franklin, has hiked 40 of them.

The first part of the 220-page soft-cover book (On Cape Publications, $18.95) offers an absorbing tale of the men, women and children who were forced to give up their homes, farms and businesses to provide drinking water for Massachusetts residents living to their east. The reservoir now serves Boston and 45 other communities.

The stories told by former Swift River Valley residents, who all were children when the reservoir was under construction from 1928 to 1939, underscore the yin and yang of what occurred.

All 2,500 residents of the four towns were displaced and more than 7,500 graves were relocated. Buildings that were not moved were razed. Hills were sheared of their trees and other vegetation up to the point where the water level even tually would rise.

Mr. Tougias said those he interviewed recalled that, because they were young, they found much of what went on exciting, while their parents were heartbroken. Mary Thomes, who lived with her family in Greenwich, remembered hollering to her mother, “Come quick, they’re going to give Mount Lizzie a haircut!” as construction workers, whom residents derisively called “woodpeckers,” were starting to clear the trees.

Now, the tops of those hills appear to be thickly wooded islands dotting the reservoir, which covers 39 square miles.

“The scene below, while the reservoir was under construction, was total devastation,” Mr. Tougias said.

Several of the book’s first-person recollections are heart-rending.

Ray Whitaker was 12 in 1936 when the state took the family farm to protect the watershed.

“Five generations of my family had lived on this land,” Mr. Whitaker said. “The house that I lived in was relatively new, because the original home was destroyed by fire in 1919. My dad rebuilt from scratch, using trees cut from the farm. Most of the lumber was chestnut. When we learned that the state would be taking our farm, we tried to disassemble the house, but the chestnut wood splintered when we tried to extract the nails. There was only one small L-section that we were able to detach from the rest of the house intact.”

Yet, Mr. Tougias said, many of those he interviewed, including Mr. Whitaker, understood that something of great value had been substituted.

“Over the years, I’ve taken some walks back to the old homestead,” Mr. Whitaker goes on to say. “… I like going back. At least now it’s preserved for wildlife, and that’s a good thing.”

Mr. Tougias holds the same view. Today, without the Quabbin, the region would most likely be marred by subdivisions and a profusion of roads cutting east to west.

“That was blocked, and it never got highly developed,” Mr. Tougias said. “Thank God we have this to stop it. It’s an oasis in a sea of development encroaching on both ends.”

On a recent picture-perfect summer day, the sun sparkled on the great expanse of water that is visible from the Quabbin Visitors Center off Route 9 in Belchertown. Waves gently lapped the shoreline.

Mr. Tougias noted the weather was ideal for a visit to several of his favorite sites. He pointed out that the water seen from the center makes up no more than one-fifth of the entire reservoir and reaches its maximum depth of 151 feet at that location.

Nearby is Winsor Dam, which, along with Goodnough Dike, holds back the Swift River to create the vast body of water. The top of the dam used to be open to the public, but has been off-limits since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

“I’m glad they kept Quabbin open to the public,” Mr. Tougias said. “The more people are walking around, the more they could spot something strange.”

The next stop on the tour was the Enfield Lookout to the east. There, a sign contains two photographs, one of Enfield in 1927 and the other after the town’s dismantling, as the reservoir filled in August 1939.

“As you view the vastness of the Quabbin and its watershed, pause and reflect upon what this uprooting has meant for those who once called these lands their home,” the text advises.

The tip of Prescott Peninsula can be seen from the lookout. The peninsula, thick with vegetation, is reserved for wildlife. The public is permitted to visit it only one day a year. The sole building on the entire 12,300 acres is the Five College Observatory, which is used for research relating to radio signals.

Mr. Tougias has devoted one section of “Quabbin” to historic events in the region, among them the siege of Brookfield by Nipmuck Indian warriors in the 17th century and the story of Bathsheba Spooner, who was hanged during the Revolutionary War for arranging the murder of her husband by British soldiers.

Also included is the little-known story of Mary Felton Gibbs, who was alleged to have murdered her husband, Warren, by feeding him oyster stew laced with arsenic. The victim’s brother had the tale, believed by some to be apocryphal, inscribed on Warren’s headstone, and it became known as the “poison oyster epitaph.”

A drive northwest up Route 202 took us to Knights Cemetery in Pelham, where a replica of the original gravestone can be seen: “ … She in my oysters did prepare some poison for my lot and share …”

“I read about it in passing,” said Mr. Tougias, as we sat on the stone wall that surrounds the small, 19th-century graveyard. “It took 10 years to find it. Even if tracking it down was tedious, the locations were great.”

From there, we headed north to the New Salem Town Common, Mr. Tougias’ favorite. It sits at the end of a road and abuts conservation land. Its twin church spires and sugar maples are reminiscent of a scene from Thornton Wilder’s quintessentially New England play, “Our Town.” Just off the Common are Colonial-style homes set at the edge of fields of wildflowers.

Not far away, in another section of New Salem, we wound up the tour at the Swift River Valley Historical Society, which is housed in a large white Colonial home and contains artifacts and records that tell the story of the Swift River Valley.

“This is where people come to do research,” Mr. Tougias said.

As for the construction of the Quabbin reservoir all those years ago, research would reveal that the project was expected to cost $65 million, but came in at $53 million — hardly peanuts in those days, but nowhere near the Big Dig’s $14-billion-plus price tag.

In today’s dollars, creating the Quabbin, which provides water for several million Massachusetts residents, would cost about $688 million.