Towns of the Swift River Valley – Lost to the Quabbin Reservoir
By Donna K. Keesling
Four towns – Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott – were incorporated in the Swift River Valley in central Massachusetts between the middle of the 18th century and the early 19th century. One hundred and twenty years later, all four towns – or what was left of them – lay beneath the waters of the Quabbin Reservoir, built to supply water to Boston and outlying towns. What happened to these towns and the people whose families had lived and worked there for generations?
As the population of Boston increased and the demand for water grew, the city of Boston diverted water via aqueducts from lakes, rivers, and man-made reservoirs in areas west of the city. Beginning in 1795, water came from Jamaica Pond in Roxbury, Lake Cochituate in Natick, and reservoirs in Sudbury and Framingham. In the late 19th century, construction of the Wachusett Reservoir began. Despite these additional water sources, in the early 20th century Boston and surrounding towns were still in need of more water. In 1919, the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission (MDWSC) was created. The MDWSC began studying the Millers, Swift, and Ware Rivers as possible water sources.
The valley that later became known as the Swift River Valley, was home to the Nipmuc peoples before European settlers arrived. The Nipmuc called the area Quabbin which meant “the meeting of many waters.” European settlers, who were drawn to the area because of the rich farmland, named the area for the three branches of the Swift River that divided the valley.
By the mid-19th century, four towns had been established in the valley: Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott. Although many people made their living by farming the land, there were also a few small industries in the valley including a soapstone quarry and a hat factory in Dana.
Between 1850 and 1890, the towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott lost more than a third of their population. This was due to several factors, including the fact that when the towns were finally served by a railroad in the early 1870s, it had limited success. The Swift River Valley remained an isolated area and many of the small industries either moved to larger towns or shut down completely. Farmers saw their market decline as fresh vegetables were shipped from other places in the country at a lower cost.
According to author J.R. Greene, the Swift River Valley was an ideal site for the proposed reservoir because of the “declining nature of the towns, the low density of their population, the lack of any major cultural or economic landmarks, and the physio-geographical suitability.”
The Swift River Valley was walled-in by hills which were 400 to 600 feet in height, providing a natural bowl which only had to dammed at the southern end. A huge source of fresh water could be created by impounding the Swift River and Beaver Brook where they exited the valley.
The legislature passed the Swift River Act, appropriating money to build a reservoir in the valley, in 1927. Between 1927 and 1938, the four towns were slowly dismantled and cleared of all people, structures, and vegetation.
Approximately 2,500 people were forced to leave the Swift River Valley. Homeowners negotiated with the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission for compensation for their property. They completed an owner’s declaration form that included an offer to sell at a specific price. The property was then appraised by MDWSC-assigned appraisers and a purchasing agent negotiated a final price with the owner. Approximately 650 homes were moved or torn down.
Many farmers bought farms in nearby towns. Some factory workers were able to keep their jobs when factories moved to nearby towns. Many people who worked in nearby towns chose to relocate to where they worked. Although residents of the towns were compensated for their homes and business buildings, they were not compensated for the actual loss of their business or business income.
In addition to the living who were forced to leave the valley, the remains of over 7,500 deceased were removed from more than thirty cemeteries. Most of the bodies were reburied in the Quabbin Park Cemetery, built as part of the Quabbin Reservoir project, in Ware.
At midnight on April 27, 1938, the towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott officially ceased to exist. A notice from the Secretary of the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission to all former town officers of the four towns stated that “…you are hereby formally notified that the corporate existence of the aforesaid towns ceased at 12 o’clock midnight, April 27th.”
By the summer of 1939 all the people who had lived in the Swift River Valley were gone, and the brush and debris removal in the lower parts of the basin was complete. The roads leading into the valley were blocked and guards were posted. On August 14, 1939, the diversion tunnel that had been constructed to carry the Swift River through the newly built Winsor Dam was blocked. At a rate of 500,000 gallons a day, the Quabbin Reservoir began to fill. The reservoir was considered filled to its capacity – 412 billion gallons – on June 22, 1946, covering 25,000 acres of the valley.
Today, the Quabbin Reservoir covers 39 square miles with 181 miles of shoreline and is one of the largest unfiltered water supplies in the United States. The reservoir, along with the Wachusett Reservoir and the Ware River Watershed, are part of a water system that provides drinking water to approximately 3 million residents of Massachusetts.
The loss of four towns and the impact this loss had on 2,500 people cannot be undone. However, the Quabbin Reservoir and its surrounding acreage now provide a site of beauty and enjoyment for many. The Quabbin Park, a small part of the Quabbin Reservation, includes twenty miles of walking trails that afford visitors an opportunity to enjoy the natural landscape and wildlife of the area.
You can learn more about cultural history and management of the Quabbin Reservoir by visiting the Quabbin Park Visitor center in Belchertown. Another resource is The Swift River Valley Historical Society in North New Salem (https://swiftrivermuseum.org), which preserves the artifacts, stories, and records of the lost towns of the Quabbin Valley.
 Michael Tougias, Quabbin: A History and Explorers Guide (On Cape Publications, 2002), 2.
 J.R. Greene, The Creation of Quabbin Reservoir (The Transcript Press, 1981), 7.
 Tougias, 24.