Drowned Towns: Preserving the Lost Communities of the Swift River Valley

The Swift River Valley Historical Society occupies an unassuming set of buildings in New Salem, a neighboring town only partly flooded in the creation of the reservoir. In the years since the creation of the reservoir, it has grown from a small collection of photos and trappings to a massive and comprehensive archive chronicling the valley’s history and abrupt disappearance. It now comprises three buildings, the Whitaker-Clary House, containing most of the collection, the Prescott Church Museum (hauled over from Prescott before the flooding) and the Carriage House, which contains an engine of the Dana Fire Department, various pieces of farm equipment, and an assortment of hand tools in addition to countless other odds and ends. It is managed by a devoted assembly of unpaid volunteers, several of whom are among the last surviving residents of the towns.

That the society was founded in 1936 is a testament to the fact that the residents’ desire to assemble and preserve their local history was (unsurprisingly) spurred on by the impending demise of the four towns, by the threat that the very ideas of those communities might be drowned along with their physical settings and disappear forever. The urgency with which the act of preservation had to be approached sets the mission of the Swift River Valley Historical Society apart from other historical societies:  if you were confronted with the imminent destruction of everything you knew, what parts would you take away so that the whole could be remembered?

This was one in a series of burning questions facing the society’s founders. What mode of preservation would be the most effective? And what things were already preserved? Despite the absolute elimination of the towns and the land that they occupied, some reminders of the communities nonetheless remained: not only did most of the displaced residents continue to live in the region for the rest of their lives, leading lives not terribly different from those they might have lived had they been allowed to stay, but you can even follow several roads, including Main Street of New Salem, directly into the waters of the reservoir if you go far enough. Whatever means the society would use to preserve those towns would have to focus on what could not be recaptured, and so the curators looked to the region’s recent past.

The versions of Enfield, Greenwich, Prescott, and Dana that are preserved by the society remain (perhaps for the obvious reasons) frozen in a very specific time. The artifacts collected speak to the character of the towns as they were in the early twentieth-century, complete with heirlooms from previous generations and a subsequent awareness of the towns’ recent past, but the communities depicted by the hats, photographs, and furniture of the SRVHS are plainly ones that know nothing of space shuttles or rock and roll, or barely even of World War II. Here it always is the nineteen-thirties, and always will be.

It is clear, however, from every detail down to the Depression-era one-room schoolhouse replica, that this was intentional, that the SRVHS indeed aimed to capture these towns as they were just before the time of their flooding. The story that it tells is more than just a history of these towns themselves—it is also about the tragic series of events that made them so significant. These communities are being preserved not only because of the simple fact that they aren’t here anymore but so that visitors might get a more complete idea of what it felt like when they were taken away. The society is preserving not only physical objects, which stand in for the towns themselves, but also an emotional reaction to the flooding.

What other way is there to preserve the feeling of a tragedy than by capturing the affected community up to and including that moment in time? The Swift River Valley municipalities had a history that decisively ended beneath the waters of the Quabbin, meaning that the SRVHS had its work cut out for it in its efforts to reconstruct that history.