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Visiting the Quabbin

The image above is a panorama of a location that came upon us by surprise.  My wife, Chris (who is responsible for spotting many of the best picture opportunities you see here) noticed a reference to Gate 30 around the Quabbin Reservoir in Quabbin, a History and Explorer’s Guide by Michael Tougias.    Passing through the gate and into the forest surrounding the Reservoir, just off Route 32, we were advised to walk just a hundred feet or so at which point we’d be on a bridge with an interesting history.  We found a bridge but from our vantage point on top, it was pretty nondescript.  Just a typical solid foot bridge maybe 20 feet over a small flowing river, in this case one of the tributaries of the Swift River, the waters of which were damned to create the Reservoir itself.  The path over the bridge gave no indication of anything special.  All we saw was a dirt/gravel pathway above the water.  Perhaps this was a wild goose chase, which can happen out here.  Maybe we needed to keep moving, but we decided to stop and consider our options.

Though only a few hundred feet from Route 32, we were actually quite isolated by the dense woods. The gates are often nearly, or completely, deserted.  These are NOT tourist stops.  It’s real easy to ponder on the likelihood of a close encounter with a bear (or a moose, snake, gremlin or leprechaun, take your pick) when walking on one of these paths. (You are by the way far more likely to see wildlife it seems when you’re not looking for it, than when you are.  Murphy’s law.) A walk through the gates around the Reservoir Park, outside of the Park and the boating ramps, can be quite spooky. 

But our guidebook further advised:  Get off the path, that’s where you’ll find the action.    Terrific, just what we were hoping to hear.  Down the embankment toward the river we go.  And there it is.  Now that we’re off of it, and can view it from the side, we see our bridge, and the lovely scene of the swift river flowing underneath.  The bridge is stunning.  It was built in 1866, and NO mortar or cement was used in the process.  It stands through the ingenuity of its keystone construction.   My guess is that this is an area prone to flash floods.  That gentle river that was providing us with a sense of peace and enormous beauty could probably turn angry.  Indeed, there is evidence that once there had been another bridge, about 25 feet away from the structure that was now so impressive.  I don’t know what became of that attempt.  But this bridge has survived, a lot.

The world here was very different in 1866.  Where we were standing while we studied the bridge was in all likelihood not forested land.  It was probably agricultural, as was most of the Swift River Valley.  The Quabbin, for those who don’t know, was created by the damming of the Swift River and its related tributaries, a project completed in the 1930’s.  The Quabbin holds the drinking water for the good people of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts.  Some of the earlier inhabitants of this area, the Nipmuck, described this as the “land of many rivers. “ Ideal for a reservoir.  But in 1866, it was farmland.  The Civil War was over.  The boys, those who survived, had come back to farm, and to participate in a farming way of life, for the most part.  This was not a rich agricultural valley by any means, but it supported several thousand people in four towns, all of which were flooded to create the Reservoir.    

It was not a wilderness.  Most of the wildlife, the bears, moose, turkeys, bald eagles, hawks, etc., etc., that we associate with the area today now would not have been welcome then except as game (and the wildlife largely disappeared as a result).  The majestic beauty of the Quabbin, a beauty that really is only rivaled by the great parks of Maine, New York State, the Smokies and the West of the United States, would not have been nearly as obvious then, as it is today.  (It really is in that league, though very few people visit each year.  That’s probably the way the DCR wants it, and it probably makes sense.) 

It is a wilderness now.  What isn’t under water is for the most part dense, undisturbed forest and large stretches of rolling hills. How can you not appreciate such beauty, the landscape, the deer, the bald eagles?  If you want to see beauty, visit this place in the fall. At the same time, it’s not like most wilderness areas.  A visit to the Quabbin leaves one with a deep sense of paradox and even discomfort.

if you look carefully, you see more than just the beauty.  There were people here.  The signs are everywhere if you open your eyes, and have a decent guide book; stone walls, foundations, town greens.  There were people here; and not that long ago.  But this isn’t like a visit to Colonial Williamsburg.  The history here has not be memorialized, it would be as if one were walking along the ruins of Williamsburg.  It’s hard not to feel a strange sense of guilt. This wilderness is man made, for those of us who live within the area served by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.   Communities and lives were destroyed in the process.  That’s not hyperbole.  Four towns existed, now they don’t.  The residents were forced to move away.  The destruction of the social fabric of a community has tremendously negative consequences for those involved.  A ‘fair market value’ purchase price for your home won’t mitigate the sense of disorientation and loss that can persist for a lifetime.  You can never go home again, ever.

Perhaps this is just the price that must be paid for progress, in this case for Boston’s pristine drinking water?  (The residents should rest assured, this stuff is really well taken care of and it seems to be extraordinarily clean.)  Business folk such as myself talk about this as a part of the process of ‘creative destruction’, not that we’d want to be creatively destroyed ourselves.  This is a place that provides moments that provoke reflection.  But perhaps we’re just being silly.  This couldn’t happen in the 21st Century.  Just ask the folks at the Three Gorges Damn in China.