Visiting The Drowned Past

Those that have been around me for more than five minutes quickly learn that I am a fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  Not because his writing is particularly good (it’s not…the man needed to both back away from the thesaurus and go find one at the same time, no small feat, that, and his politics, racism, and classism are the stuff of nightmares all on their own), but because the stories, once you read past the surface issues, are strangely compelling and envision a universe more deeply weird and intriguing than we imagine it to be.  I’m also greatly amused by how much the mundane freaked him right out.  Like, “Farmers in the mountains can read!  They must be in league with ancient horrors from beyond the stars, because there’s no other rational explanation, especially in the part of the country that pioneered public education for everyone!” is a recurring theme of his, and I find it hilarious.  Especially as a woman who grew up as a townie in rural New Hampshire, the grand-daughter of Eastern European and Irish immigrants.  My existence would give him the vapors and it’s delicious.

Anyway, one of my favorite stories is “The Colour Out Of Space”, which takes place in Western Mass., and (here be spoilers!) involves a town that gets flooded to save the world from the eldritch horrors coming out of some farmer’s well.  One of the interesting things about Lovecraft is that he often would allude to current events or scientific finds in his stories (the discovery of Pluto as the discovery of Yuggoth from whence the Mi-Go come, the first expedition to the Polar Plateau on Antarctica in the Mountains of Madness, etc.) and “The Color Out of Space” is no exception to this.  In this case, it was the creation of what is now the Quabbin Reservoir, which provides water for most of the eastern half of the state.  This, of course, means that I’m fascinated by it, both on the merits of story and the truth of what it is in it’s own right.

The Quabbin is a huge manmade lake now, where once stood the towns of Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott.  The towns were disincorporated, the residents (both living and deceased) relocated, and any remaining land not flooded divided up among the surrounding towns.  The area immediately surrounding the Reservoir is state land and a number of state parks, and is accessible to the public for hiking and visiting, with some pretty tight restrictions, as it is the main source of water for 47 towns and cities, include Boston, and not much else.  The surrounding towns remain small and somewhat isolated, distanced from the roads that surround the reservoir that claimed the drowned towns.

The other day, as I was driving aimlessly, I realized how close I was to it, and decided to visit for the first time in the 14 years that I’ve lived in the state, and see it for myself.  The state run visitor’s park, while neatly maintained is and has a beautiful visitor office, feels strangely…void.  Like, it’s lovely, but it’s like an artist’s rendition of what it should be, if that makes sense.  It’s too…pristine and orderly green, and it’s honestly somewhat unnerving in it’s well-manicured state.  I didn’t go very far in, and continued down the road to visit the cemetery where the remains of the dead of the four towns were relocated to.  It’s still a working cemetery, but only for the few folks who once lived in the lost towns, and their families, and it is beautiful. 

As I walked among the headstones, thinking about how strange it was to walk past stones and statues that can date back over 200 hundred years but that have only stood where they do for 81 years, musing on the surrealness of the place…these memorials from lost towns… I noticed there was one other person walking around, occasionally stopping to adjust a flag (it was the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and there are people buried there who fought in wars as recent as WW1) or carefully brush lichen from an old marble stone.  A tall, older gentleman who, while clearly not a park employee, just as clearly knew his way around.

Eventually our paths crossed and we got to talking, as you do.  It turned out that his name was Gene Theroux, and he’s the president of the Friends of Quabbin a local organization dedicated to preserving the area and it’s history, and also a member of some of the families who lived in the drowned towns.  He gave me an impromptu tour of the section we were in, and bits of history about the people buried there, as well as some of the issues that the group runs into with the State regarding better care for the cemetery.  It’s maintain relatively well, as cemeteries go, but given the scale of sacrifice that was asked of those families, they deserve far better than “relatively well”, in my opinion.  (There’s a link to the issues they’re working on on the front page of their website, which I’ve linked above. I highly suggest checking it out.)  I learned a fair amount about the people who had actually lived in the area, as well, from him and it was really neat.  

What had started out as a wandering drive on a sunny day and an unplanned side trip out to follow a curiosity born in fiction and terrible prose, turned into an opportunity to learn a bit more about the history of the state that I have made my home from a man who very clearly loved the land that his ancestors had lived on for generations.

Not a bad way to spend a Friday afternoon.