As an MIT senior, Jerome “Jerre” Spurr had paid little attention to the articles in the Boston Globe about the new reservoir planned for Western Massachusetts. But in 1927, just a month before his graduation, he found himself in a face-to-face interview with Frank Winsor, the chief engineer of the massive construction project.

Winsor had personally visited MIT to recruit top engineering graduates to help build the new reservoir, which—at 18 miles long and up to six miles wide—would be the largest in the world devoted solely to drinking water. Spurr, who grew up in Dorchester, had completed a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering with a focus on soil sciences and had been mentored by the soil sciences pioneer Karl Terzaghi, but he hadn’t thought much about what he’d do next. Suddenly Winsor had chosen him to lead a contingent of other MIT graduates to the Swift River Valley, the site of the future reservoir, immediately after graduation.

Spurr and at least six other new MIT grads set out for Enfield, Massachusetts, the largest of four small towns on the floor of the valley, 65 miles west of Cambridge. They may have understood the significance of their arrival intellectually, but they didn’t grasp it viscerally: they would play a part in destroying everything in the valley. Every building would be razed, every grave dug up, every tree cut, every farm stripped to a moonlike subsoil—every organic item in that green basin removed so that metropolitan Boston would be provided with fresh, clean drinking water in perpetuity. The four towns of the Swift River Valley—Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott—would be wiped off maps as if they had never existed, replaced by 412 billion gallons of water. In all, nearly 2,500 people from the four doomed towns and sections of those around them would be displaced. 

The locals were, understandably, angry and suspicious of these college men in their natty outfits and fast cars. Their own young men had left the valley in search of better work. 

Of course, the MIT engineers, who were soon joined by a cohort of Northeastern and Worcester Polytechnic graduates, were not the first interlopers to descend upon the Swift River Valley, nor were the residents of Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott the first people forced to leave it. Native Americans who had once lived among its many lakes, ponds, and streams had called it Quabbin, meaning “the meeting of many waters” or “a well-watered place.” The name Quabbin Reservoir, officially adopted in 1932, was a nod to the countless generations who had first populated the valley.

The massive effort to construct the reservoir was made up of several overlapping engineering projects: digging the 24.6-mile-long Quabbin Aqueduct between the new reservoir and the Wachusett Reservoir northeast of Worcester (the second-longest tunnel in the world at the time); orchestrating the water’s flow to Boston through a massive 80-mile network of rock tunnels and concrete pipes; building the Winsor Dam, the Goodnough Dike, and the “baffle dam” in the center of the reservoir (to purify sediment-filled water from the Ware River by circulating it); digging the “diversion tunnel,” which rerouted the Swift River; disinterring more than 7,600 bodies from their graves and reinterring 6,601 of them in the new Quabbin Park Cemetery (others went elsewhere at families’ requests); constructing the Quabbin Administration Building; building the Daniel Shays Highway (Route 202) around the western edge of the reservoir; and reforesting the watershed, at Quabbin Park and throughout the vast Quabbin Reservation.

A map shows how the reservoir would change the Swift River Valley.DIGITAL COMMONWEALTH ARCHIVES

But first, there was much surveying to be done. Every piece of property in the valley, and every acre of woodland and water, had to be documented and in most cases photographed. The new college graduates were assigned to surveying teams and set off across the valley with their equipment, often using axes to

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By: Elisabeth C. Rosenberg
Title: Building the dams that doomed a valley
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Published Date: Wed, 30 Jun 2021 03:09:53 +0000