Elena Palladino ’07 Publishes Revelatory Book on Local History
In her new book,Lost Towns of the Swift River Valley: Drowned by the Quabbin (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2022), Elena Palladino tells the story of a community that was displaced to make room for a new reservoir. In doing so, she conveys what was lost in the name of progress.
For some researchers, the topics they write about hit close to home. This was literally the case for Elena Palladino, who lives in the historic home once owned by a key figure from her new book on local Massachusetts history.
A former resident of the Boston area, Palladino moved to the central Massachusetts town of Ware in 2015. From the outset, she knew that the house was special and historic. Her neighbors referred to it as "the Quabbin house," because it is near the Quabbin Reservoir.
"I started to do some research," says Palladino. "It turns out that our house was built by a woman named Marion Smith. She lived in Enfield, one of the four towns that was disincorporated to build the Quabbin."
Lost Towns of the Swift River Valley covers the historical period between the 1860s and the 1940s. "The book is the story of the Quabbin Reservoir, which is Boston's water supply. It is told through the stories of some of the people who had to leave in order for the reservoir to be built," explains Palladino.
The book follows three principal figures: Marion Smith, a woman from a wealthy manufacturing family; her friend Willard Segur, the country doctor; and another friend Edwin Howe, the postmaster and manager of a general store. "They all contributed to their community and built civic institutions. Later in life, in their 60s and 70s, they were told to leave their homes. They did not want to leave, but all ended up in Ware, where I live now," says Palladino.
Initially, Palladino just wanted to find out more about Marion Smith. However, she says, "the story was so fascinating to me that I realized it could be a book."
Palladino's quest for knowledge took her to a number of local archives. She began the formal research process in 2018, and conducted archival research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which has a collection on the Quabbin. She also visited the Forbes Library in Northampton, the Swift River Valley Historical Society in New Salem, and the Quabbin Visitor Center in Belchertown.
When her book proposal was accepted in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway. Palladino still had to conduct additional research before she finished writing the book. Fortunately, she found helpful online resources, such as the Boston Globe and Springfield Republican archives. Digital Commonwealth has numerous historical photographs that are accessible online.
During the research process, Palladino encountered a number of surprises. Smith, whose family had passed away before the Quabbin was built, had no children or husband. But she did have a chauffeur and a housekeeper who were married, and they had a daughter named Marian, who was named after Smith. "These people became like family to her, so that was a beautiful story to learn," reflects Palladino, who got to meet the younger Marian, who was almost 90 at that time. Marian got to visit the house again, which was memorable for her and for Palladino.
When preparing the book manuscript, Palladino was curious why the people of Swift River Valley did not fight more for their land. In the course of her research, she found that a comparable situation occurred in Massachusetts when the Wachusett Reservoir was built in around 1900, and residents of several towns in the watershed were removed. Moreover, New York City was also building reservoirs at the same time and taking towns and villages by eminent domain.
As Palladino realized, the people of Swift River Valley likely realized they could be next. "People were removed by powers much greater than they were. And by the 1920s they knew it was inevitable," she says. While the friends were devastated to leave, they formed their own community in the next town over. "I loved their sense of solidarity," remarks Palladino, who hopes that her book will be an illuminating read for locals and does justice to the stories she's uncovered. "I don't think enough people in Boston know where their water comes from," she says. "Or if they know where it comes from, they don't know that four towns were sacrificed. I want people to know and remember this story."
Palladino's advice for young researchers of local history is to start the process. "If you are curious about something, just start researching," she advises. "This can even begin at a town hall. In my experience, one thing led to another. There's so much to uncover and many towns have wonderful resources. Just take one small step. People should know the history of the land on which they live."