Quabbin Reservoir

Quabbin Reservoir

Quabbin Reservoir, 39 sq mi (101 sq km), in the Swift River valley, central Mass., NE of Springfield. The reservoir, formed by Winsor Dam and Quabbin Dike, is the largest reservoir in Massachusetts. It is fed by the Swift and Ware rivers. The water flows to the Wachusett Reservoir through Quabbin Aqueduct (25 mi/40 km long) and supplies the Boston area.
The Quabbin Reservoir is the largest body of water in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and was built between 1930 and 1939. Today along with the Wachusett Reservoir, it is the primary water supply for Boston, some 65 miles to the east, as well as 40 other communities in Greater Boston and the MetroWest area. It also supplies water to three towns west of the reservoir and acts as backup supply for 3 others. It has an aggregate capacity of 412 billion U.S. gallons (1.56 km³) and an area of 38.6 square miles (99.9 km²). Quabbin Reservoir water flows to the Wachusett Reservoir using the Quabbin Aqueduct. The Quabbin watershed is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, while the water supply system is operated by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. The Winsor Dam and the Goodnough Dike form the reservoir from impoundments of the three branches of the Swift River. The Quabbin Reservoir is part of the Chicopee River Watershed.


Metropolitan Boston began to outstrip its local water supplies in the early part of the nineteenth century. Many possible sources of water were explored, including groundwater and rivers, but none was considered adequate in quantity and cleanliness to meet the needs of the rapidly growing city. After several years of controversy, the Massachusetts General Court (the official name of the state legislature) authorized the construction of the Cochituate Aqueduct to bring water to Boston from Lake Cochituate in Wayland and Natick, Massachusetts.

Public policy

This established three important policies, which remain in force today:

  1. Public, rather than private, ownership of the public water supply system.
  2. Use of upland reservoirs, with gravity-fed rather than pumped supply systems.
  3. Watershed protection, rather than filtration, as the primary mechanism of ensuring wholesome supplies.

Increased demand

By 1875, with demand again on the verge of exceeding supply, the Boston Water Board was established to take over the operations of the Cochituate Water Board, construct five new reservoirs on the Sudbury River in Framingham, Massachusetts, and a new Sudbury Aqueduct to deliver that water to the city. In 1895, the Massachusetts Board of Health issued a report analyzing population and water-use trends, and recommended the creation of a Metropolitan Water District, serving several suburban communities in addition to Boston, and the construction of two new reservoirs: one on the Nashua River northeast of Worcester, and one in the Swift River Valley.

Metropolitan Water District

The General Court acted to establish the Metropolitan Water District, including 26 communities within ten miles of the Massachusetts State House, later in 1895. The Wachusett Reservoir was completed in 1908. The Board of Health study had anticipated that Swift River water would be required by 1915, but this prediction had proven overly pessimistic. The introduction of mandatory water metering in Water District communities, and other efforts to reduce waste and inefficient uses, made it possible to delay construction of new water sources until the 1930s.

Frank E. Winsor

Frank E. Winsor was chief engineer for the Metropolitan Water District from 1926 until his death in 1939. He was closely involved in the design and construction of Winsor Dam, Goodnough Dike and the Quabbin Reservoir. Winsor Dam is named for him.

Swift River Valley endorsed

A 1922 study officially endorsed the Swift River Valley as the next extension of the water system and created the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), now the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA), to oversee the construction and maintain the system after its completion. In 1926, construction began on the first stage of the project, a tunnel connecting Wachusett Reservoir with the Ware River. This is called the Ware River Diversion. During the 1930s, this tunnel was extended to the Swift River. The complete tunnel is now known as the Quabbin Aqueduct.

Swift River Valley residents opposed

The project was enthusiastically supported by lawmakers in the Boston area, but bitterly opposed by residents of the affected towns, who took their case all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, but lost. The state of Connecticut also unsuccessfully sued Massachusetts, claiming waters that were rightfully meant to flow into the Connecticut River and subsequently through their state, were being illegally diverted.

Reservoir formed

Before the reservoir’s construction, there was a hill in Enfield called Quabbin Hill and a lake in Greenwich called Quabbin Lake. Named for a Native American chief called Nani-Quaben, meaning place of many waters, these became the basis for naming the new reservoir. The Quabbin was formed by inundating the Swift River Valley, a drainage basin lying entirely within the state, by damming the river and a col, through which Beaver Brook would have otherwise provided another outlet for its water. When construction began in 1936 the Swift River was redirected from its riverbed through a diversion tunnel. On August 14, 1939 that tunnel was sealed with rock. Over the next seven years the waters of the Quabbin Reservoir slowly rose behind the newly completed Winsor Dam, an earth-filled structure 2,640 feet long, rising 170 feet above the riverbed, and the slightly smaller Goodnough Dike. The water gradually submerged the roads that had linked the towns. It swallowed all but the peaks of about sixty hills and mountains, transforming Prescott Ridge into Prescott Peninsula.

Towns dissolved

The Quabbin's creation required the flooding, and thus the dissolution, in April 1938, of four towns: Dana (located in Worcester County), Enfield, Greenwich (pronounced "GREEN witch"), and Prescott (all located in Hampshire County). The land remaining from the dissolved towns was added to surrounding municipalities, including Belchertown, Pelham, New Salem, Petersham, Hardwick and Ware. Because of New Salem's annexation of the Prescott Peninsula, a large wedge of land shifted from Hampshire County to Franklin County.

In addition, thirty-six miles of the Boston and Albany Railroad's Athol Branch were abandoned (originally the Springfield, Athol and Northeastern Railroad). Route 21, formerly reaching Athol, was truncated to the south side of the reservoir, and new roads - now US 202 and Route 32A - were built on each side.

When the buildings in the towns flooded by the reservoir were destroyed, the cellars were left intact. The remnants of the buildings and roads can occasionally be seen when the water level is low, and old roads that once led to the flooded towns can be followed to the water's edge. Not all elements of the towns were flooded, however. Town memorials and cemeteries in the four towns were moved to the Quabbin Cemetery, located on Route 9 in Ware, just off the Quabbin's lands. Many other public buildings were moved to other locations.

Chicopee Valley Aqueduct

In 1947, the Massachusetts Legislature authorized the construction of the Chicopee Valley Aqueduct to deliver Quabbin water to three communities in Western Massachusetts: Chicopee, South Hadley, and Wilbraham. In 1951, with the Quabbin-Wachusett system sufficient to meet foreseeable needs, the Cochituate Aqueduct was abandoned, and the Framingham reservoir system was placed on emergency stand-by.

Present day

Because of state restrictions, most areas around the reservoir are accessible only by foot, through fifty-five surrounding gates. Few people ever go into the deep woods, and it has become a wildlife area. Bald eagles, moose, bears, foxes, and wildcats share the habitat. Large portions of Dana are on higher ground, and its remains, predominantly cellar holes, as well as the former town green (where a historic stone marker was placed) can be visited. Much of Prescott is also above water, on what is now known as the Prescott Peninsula, but it cannot be visited because of state restrictions, although there is an annual tour of the town conducted by the Swift River Valley Historical Society. A few houses and roads exist which were once part of North Prescott (now New Salem), and there is a town line marker just north of the gates, indicating the former town line for Prescott. Cellar holes have been filled near the center of what was once Prescott to accommodate the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory operated by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


Fishing is allowed in designated areas in the northern portions of the reservoir. There is a visitor center south of the reservoir, as well as an observatory tower, the Enfield Lookout. This area is accessible by car from the south using State Route 9. The reservation is a popular spot for hiking and other outdoor activities. This area was formerly part of the town of Enfield, which was annexed by Belchertown.

Popular culture

The novel Someday by Jackie French Koller (Orchard, 2002, ISBN 0439293170) is based on the eviction (1938) of the remaining residents of Enfield.

The novel Stillwater by former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld (Harvest Books, 2003, ISBN 0156027232) depicts the flooding of the Swift River Valley and the creation of the reservoir through the eyes of the novel's 15-year-old protagonist, Jamieson Kooby.

The reservoir is featured as a prominent plot element and set in the 2003 movie Dreamcatcher, based on the Stephen King novel.

Mark Erelli wrote a song, "The Farewell Ball", which was released on the 2004 album Hillbilly Pilgrim. It tells the story of the last night of Enfield.

H.P. Lovecraft an American science fiction writer, wrote The Colour Out of Space, a short story which took place in the valley before it was flooded for the reservoir.


  • Tougias, Michael. Quabbin: A History and Explorer's Guide. Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts: On Cape Publications, 2002.

See also


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