The Quabbin and the Catskills: Memory’s Role in Ruination

Growing up in Massachusetts, I went on a field trip to the Quabbin reservoir in western Mass, when the leaves were just beginning to fall. We went to enjoy the beauty of the water and foliage, but were first given a picture book to read about its history. Thinking back, the gravity of the history didn’t dawn on us. Learning now about the impact the construction of the Catskills reservoirs had on residents, it does.

Figure 1. A view of the Quabbin Reservoir from above

Due to rising water demand in the Boston area, construction began in 1938, when the Metropolitan District Water Supply Company acquired four towns: Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott (Bourgault 2019). The Swift River Act of 1927 forced these towns’ residents to leave their homes (Ibid.). About 2,700 people were displaced and 7,163 bodies exhumed and reburied (Ibid). The MDWSC demolished the area’s buildings, built dams, and flooded it to create the reservoir, which holds 412 billion gallons of water (Ibid).

Figure 2. The well-preserved foundations of the Josephine Marcille House in Dana

Now, much of the Quabbin watershed is accessible to the public for outdoor activities, has several trails, and a park (DCR Office of Watershed Management 2018). Dana, which lost the least land to the reservoir, is memorialized at its town common and registered as a National Historic Place (National Parks Service 2019). Over the years, former residents have worked to keep the memory of these towns alive. At the Quabbin Park Cemetery, where many of the exhumed now lay, they restore and maintain headstones, as well as hold a Memorial Day service in honor of both soldiers and those whose homes were sacrificed for the reservoir (Godfrey 2018).

Figure 3. The restoration of a Quabbin area resident’s headstone

Similarly, NYC created six reservoirs in the Catskills to respond to rising water demands. The reservoirs displaced 16 villages and 4,464 people, and now NYC labels the surrounding purchased plots as environmental protection and recreation land (Beisaw 2017). Yet this land is hard to find, littered, and treated by adjacent residents, many unaware of their history, as private property (Ibid.).

This comparison reveals another dimension to the process of ruination: how the ruiners treat the ruins, both physically and symbolically. In ruination, the cause of the destruction or decay doesn’t bother to clean it up, but in its own way, NYC has, by helping to erase these places from collective memory. The city has restricted access to much of the reservoirs’ surrounding land, and kept the public plots barely accessible. It has tried to make these ruins part of the natural landscape, void of historical significance. That is, effectively, an attempt at erasure, not just ruination.

Figure 4. The stone memorial at Dana Town Common, reading “to all those who sacrificed their homes and way of life”

Massachusetts has helped to preserve them, but by saying it was a “sacrifice” rather than a “taking”. By making the ruins accessible and by labeling Dana’s town common as a National Historic Place, they’ve curated the memory of the ruins that they created, something maybe stranger than hiding them. Whether it was an act of respect, or a retelling of history to be quaint rather than tragic, remains to be known.




Beisaw, April                                                                                                                   2017 Ruined by the Thirst for Urban Prosperity: Contemporary Archaeology of City Water Systems. In: Contemporary Archaeology and the City: Creativity, Ruination, and Political Action, edited by Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski. Oxford Press. pp. 132-148.

Bourgault, Bethany                                                                                                         2019 Lost Towns of the Quabbin Reservoir. New England Living, June 26, 2019., accessed November 9, 2019

DCR Office of Watershed Management                                                                           2018 Quabbin Reservoir Watershed System Public Access Policies – 2018. Electronic Document,, accessed November 9, 2019

Godfrey, Paul                                                                                                                 2018 Memorial Day Services at Quabbin Park Cemetery. Electronic Document,, accessed November 9, 2019.

National Parks Service                                                                                                   2013 Dana Common Historic and Archaeological District. Electronic Document,, accessed November 9, 2019.



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Further Reading

Dana Common National Historic Place Registration Report:

Friends of Quabbin:

Letting Swift River Go:

Lost Towns of the Quabbin:

2 thoughts on “The Quabbin and the Catskills: Memory’s Role in Ruination

  1. This is a good, focused blog post. I enjoyed your personal reflections on your experiences learning about and visiting the Quabbin reservoir. You mention having read a picture book about the reservoir’s history but how the extent of it didn’t dawn on you at the time. What responsibility do elementary school teachers have to give children accurate depictions of darker periods of history? As a child, should you have learned about the displacement that many people faced as a result of the construction of these reservoirs?

    • When it comes to explaining more difficult topics to younger kids, it’s important to treat them as intelligent, if inexperienced (Blair 2013). Of course, mincing words or skirting around those subjects may shield them from potentially shocking or disillusioning knowledge of how their way of life came to be. However, it could also equally harmfully give them the lasting impression that those subjects aren’t important, and even if they do find out otherwise, it may only cause resentment towards the adults who neglected to share that information with them. As educators of children at an important time in their development, I do think that elementary school teachers have some responsibility to let their students see a more complete and diverse view of historical events.

      Reference Cited:

      Blair, Elizabeth.
      2013 How To Introduce Kids To Tough Topics? Art And TV Can Help. Electronic Document,, accessed December 14, 2019.

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