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Quabbin: Accidental Wilderness


15 Miles and 17,000 Years Away

quabbin-5-12Artifacts show that Pocumtac and Nipmuc Indians were stewarding the land along the Swift River Valley as far back as 15,000 BC.  Their communities thrived through planning and attention to cycles of hunting, gathering, planting, and harvesting.

Some 30 thousand years later, English settlers appeared.  Over the next 200 years they drove out or buried most of the Natives, and in 1736, the General Court in Boston granted a thousand acres of this land to the new settlers.  The territory was renamed Quabbin, meeting of many waters, after Native American chief Nani-Quaben.

Four towns grew along the Swift River – Dana, Enfield, Prescott, and Greenwich (pronounced “Green-witch”).  New settlers  farmed the land and entered the industrial age producing palm leaf hats, textiles, shoddy, and piano legs.

200 Years is Time Enough

…Time enough to build communities; to grow roots; to see new generations born, grown, and married.  Though the tenure of this second wave of residents was a bit shorter than that of their Native predecessors – and their expulsion a bit gentler by comparison – they considered the taking of their homes and property by eminent domain as bitterly destructive to their communities and the land.

Boston had first set its sights on the Swift River Valley as a potential source of needed water in 1895.  By 1937, all residents were forced to leave.  Homes, industries and farms were removed or destroyed, and 39 square miles of land were cleared and burned.  The graves of ancestors were carefully dug up and relocated – the sole exception being the graves of Native Americans, which remained untouched.

Quabbin Reservoir was born.

Accidental Wilderness

A brief 86 years brings us to now. Quabbin Reservoir is the largest body of water in Massachusetts, with 25,000 acres of water surrounded by 81,000 acres of watershed lands.  In the creation of this new territory, three crucial policies shaped its future – and ours:

  •          Quabbin was to have public, rather than private, ownership;
  •          Water would be delivered to its destination by gravity; and
  •          The area would be protected by watershed lands


As a result, Quabbin belongs to the taxpayers; it is open to visitors through any one of its 55 gates.  Visitors will find no hum of pumps transporting the water, as it simply flows downhill – and no filtration systems: the watershed naturally protects and filters the water.

The Quabbin has also become, in author Thomas Conuel’s words, an “Accidental Wilderness.”  The watershed protecting the water is also an ideal wildlife habitat. Once again moose, deer, coyotes, fox, fisher cats, beaver, and black bear inhabit the area.

Eagles were reintroduced in the 1980’s, and they now join hawks circling overhead. Several loon pairs can be spotted on the lake, as Quabbin is one of the few water bodies in the state that provide enough privacy for rearing chicks.


Quabbin appears in no less than 3 novels, one children’s book (by local author Jane Yolen), one movie, one song, two short stories (by a sci-fi/horror writer), several poems, and a roller derby team. (You can find their name here.)

As one might expect, Quabbin has its share of ghosts.  It also sports numerous cellar holes, and a golf club-house on top of an island that was once a Greenwich hilltop.

Greenwich was also home to a goldmine, which the Barlow brothers worked in the early 1900’s.  And in the 1940’s, Dana was home to Asa “Popcorn” Snow, whose nickname derives from his vegetarian diet – primarily popcorn and milk. This is one of the more “normal” details of his life (more…here).

For further information about our Day Long Writing Retreat in this beautiful setting, click here.


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Main Street Writers

- Writing support for individuals, groups and organizations -

664 Main Street, Suite 60, Amherst MA
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(413) 221-4652


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