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Reflections on the Past in Relation to the Present – Thoughts on the Quabbin Reservoir.

I’ll soon be taking down my exhibition, “Constructing Quabbin” which the good folks at the Westborough Massachusetts Public Library were good enough to host for the last three weeks.  The exhibition was sponsored by the Art and Frame Emporium in Westborough, an art and framing store I highly recommend.  In the exhibition are 10 monochrome images of the structures of the Quabbin Reservoir of the present, the Winsor Dam, Goodnough Dike and in juxtaposition, a series of color images of the artifacts of the towns lost to the creation of the Reservoir.    For those new to this blog and not familiar with New England History, the Quabbin Reservoir is a large open reservoir supplying drinking water to approximately two million residents of eastern Massachusetts.  The creation of the Reservoir involved the taking of four towns and the relocation of several thousands residents in the late 1930’s.

It has been a powerful experience for me as an artist.  My artist talk on the evening of August 28 was well attended and received.  Strangely, the setup at the Library provided perhaps the most powerful experience of the evening for me.  The talk took place in the gallery space, so I was busily getting ready when an older gentleman walked in to look around.  I don’t have permission to use his name, but if he should read this, I hope he recognizes himself.  I’m grateful for our short conversation.  It turns out that he lived in one of the four towns that was lost in the creation of the Reservoir, as a child.  I’ve posted an image here of the Dana Common School House cellar hole and that image hangs in the exhibition.  He went to that School.  We wandered around the images together.  He shared some of his memories of the construction of the Dam and the Dike and what it was like to be on the land as it depopulated.  He seemed to think that it was important that the story of the Quabbin be remembered.  There are of course many other artists and historians working at just that, so I’m hardly unique.  I’ll just speak here as an artist, but to me it is clear that each photograph or image created represents something about the way the artist experiences the Reservoir, and its history.  It is a complex set of feelings.  I don’t think that the matter is every settled, at least it isn’t for me.

I remain impressed by the engineering that created the Reservoir and its apparent effort to somehow come to grips with the wonderful hills and water that provide the context for that engineering.  It is not your average Dam and Dike.

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This is from the west end of the Winsor Dam.  I often wonder about the mind-set of those who designed these structures.  What kind of signal were they trying to send about themselves and their understanding of what was happening.  It is probably worthy of note that Frank Winsor, namesake of the Dam and the Dam’s Chief Engineer, died on the witness stand during one of the many law suits that were provoked by the Dam’s construction.

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He created a beautiful park.  Was that his intention?  We will never know for sure of course.  It is almost as though there are hints if you look hard enough.  My wife and I were hiking at the base of the Dam a few weeks ago, and noticed something in a large clump of trees just to the right of the lone tree you see above.

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A stone marker.  Of course stone markers are hardly surprising in New England, they are everywhere.  Obviously, we took a closer look.  I had to use some flash to bring out a bit of contrast in the carving on the stone.

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That’s a W.  It stands for west perhaps?  On the other side, with the help of more flash and extreme cropping:

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That is an E.  East and west?  My compass app settled the matter.  It was not east and west.  It quickly struck us that this may have been a boundary marker between the towns of Enfield and Ware. (Enfield was one of the four towns that was taken and was unincorporated in 1938.  The town of Ware still exists.)  We checked at the Administration Building and sure enough, that was the case.  Why was it left there?  They didn’t know.  They speculated that perhaps it was just too much trouble to remove.  Perhaps.  This was at the base of what was at the time one of the largest engineering projects the world had ever seen.  I would guess they had the ability to take it away if they choose to do so.

It will soon be time for me to move onto other projects I think.  I wonder if I’ll ever find a project quite so compelling.  We’ll see.  I am not sure I accomplished what I had hoped, so perhaps I’ll keep trying.  The reconciliation of past and present is always a challenge.  Several years back I stumbled upon what to me is the best effort I have seen to date and it was in the form of a prayer.  The Reverend John S. Curtis offered this prayer at the Congregational Parish in Enfield as the parishioners met for the final time on June 26, 1938.

“We thank thee O Lord for these hills, from whence our strength has come.  We thank thee for the valleys that lie between the hills; and the streams and lakes that have brought life and beauty, recreation and industry to those who have dwelt here, and visitors from near and far.  We thank thee for the countryside with its farms and fruit and fertility.  We thank thee for the pleasant villages and hamlets scattered through this area.  We thank thee for the homes that have meant so much to the people who have dwelt here; and, from which have gone many to gladness, bless and enable the world far and near.  We are grateful for those who elected to stay in this valley and make its history.  We are proud of their achievements and the things that they have inspired others to perform.  We thank thee for those who have endured to the end, have not allowed religious services to cease nor faith to falter.  And now, as we look into the future, may we not allow distrust to blind us or disappointment to embitter us, but may we, with the sublime faith of the Psalmist say; ‘I will fear no evil for thou art with me.’  Amen.”

(Courtesy Ware River News, June 29, 1938 located with the assistance of author J.R. Greene.  You will find Mr. Greene’s documentation of the prayer in his book, From Valley to Quabbin, p. 45, Athol Press, Athol, MA.)