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Building the dams that doomed a valley

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Swift River map


As an MIT senior, Jerome “Jerre” Spurr had paid little attention to the articles in the Boston Globe about the new reservoir planned for Western Massachusetts. But in 1927, just a month before his graduation, he found himself in a face-to-face interview with Frank Winsor, the chief engineer of the massive construction project.

Winsor had personally visited MIT to recruit top engineering graduates to help build the new reservoir, which—at 18 miles long and up to six miles wide—would be the largest in the world devoted solely to drinking water. Spurr, who grew up in Dorchester, had completed a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering with a focus on soil sciences and had been mentored by the soil sciences pioneer Karl Terzaghi, but he hadn’t thought much about what he’d do next. Suddenly Winsor had chosen him to lead a contingent of other MIT graduates to the Swift River Valley, the site of the future reservoir, immediately after graduation.

Spurr and at least six other new MIT grads set out for Enfield, Massachusetts, the largest of four small towns on the floor of the valley, 65 miles west of Cambridge. They may have understood the significance of their arrival intellectually, but they didn’t grasp it viscerally: they would play a part in destroying everything in the valley. Every building would be razed, every grave dug up, every tree cut, every farm stripped to a moonlike subsoil—every organic item in that green basin removed so that metropolitan Boston would be provided with fresh, clean drinking water in perpetuity. The four towns of the Swift River Valley—Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott—would be wiped off maps as if they had never existed, replaced by 412 billion gallons of water. In all, nearly 2,500 people from the four doomed towns and sections of those around them would be displaced. 

The locals were, understandably, angry and suspicious of these college men in their natty outfits and fast cars. Their own young men had left the valley in search of better work. 

Of course, the MIT engineers, who were soon joined by a cohort of Northeastern and Worcester Polytechnic graduates, were not the first interlopers to descend upon the Swift River Valley, nor were the residents of Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott the first people forced to leave it. Native Americans who had once lived among its many lakes, ponds, and streams had called it Quabbin, meaning “the meeting of many waters” or “a well-watered place.” The name Quabbin Reservoir, officially adopted in 1932, was a nod to the countless generations who had first populated the valley.

The massive effort to construct the reservoir was made up of several overlapping engineering projects: digging the 24.6-mile-long Quabbin Aqueduct between the new reservoir and the Wachusett Reservoir northeast of Worcester (the second-longest tunnel in the world at the time); orchestrating the water’s flow to Boston through a massive 80-mile network of rock tunnels and concrete pipes; building the Winsor Dam, the Goodnough Dike, and the “baffle dam” in the center of the reservoir (to purify sediment-filled water from the Ware River by circulating it); digging the “diversion tunnel,” which rerouted the Swift River; disinterring more than 7,600 bodies from their graves and reinterring 6,601 of them in the new Quabbin Park Cemetery (others went elsewhere at families’ requests); constructing the Quabbin Administration Building; building the Daniel Shays Highway (Route 202) around the western edge of the reservoir; and reforesting the watershed, at Quabbin Park and throughout the vast Quabbin Reservation.

A map shows how the reservoir would change the Swift River Valley.

DIGITAL COMMONWEALTH ARCHIVES

But first, there was much surveying to be done. Every piece of property in the valley, and every acre of woodland and water, had to be documented and in most cases photographed. The new college graduates were assigned to surveying teams and set off across the valley with their equipment, often using axes to hack their way through brush. Spurr worked at first as a “rodman” and then as an “instrument man,” the top-ranking assistant on a surveying team, helping the foreman complete surveys and blueprints.

Spurr enjoyed the difficult outdoor work, but he was saddened by the townspeople’s initial antipathy. In Enfield, where most of the engineers lived, many refused to take in the young men as boarders even though they desperately needed the income. After bouncing between several homes, including one where the engineers and the landlords sat down to dinner together every night, Spurr decided he’d prefer to live alone and rented a farmhouse from the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission, which had recently purchased it from one of many valley residents leaving for towns just outside the proposed watershed. During the day, Spurr and the other engineers worked out of the Chandler House, an elaborate white Victorian mansion the size of a small hotel. And knowing he’d be in the valley for at least eight more years, he began renovating the farmhouse in his off hours.

Spurr was soon promoted from instrument man to deed analyst. The commission’s head of the Enfield office, N. LeRoy Hammond, was impressed with his “analytical mind” and promoted him again, making him the head of the Enfield Soil Division, with a staff of five working under him.

As construction of the Winsor Dam ramped up, the engineers had to test the local soil daily. The massive hydraulic fill dam was built atop a row of sunken concrete caissons attached to bedrock, and its approximately 40-foot-wide core was constructed from repurposed earth and rocks from the valley. Swift River water was piped to the top of the construction site, and after the water ran down the core, the fill was expected to solidify into a material completely impervious to the millions of gallons of water beating against it.  

The engineers at the dam had built an artificial lake at its western base, complete with pontoon boats, to monitor the construction. With each new layer of fill, Spurr said in a 1987 interview, there was the potential for “spits” of sand from the “beach”—the strip of land between the artificial lake and the dam—to penetrate the core, making it permeable. And if bits of the core material extended into the beach, they could create planes of weakness that might eventually slide. The fill had no stability in itself: according to Spurr, it had the consistency of molasses. Each day, he and his soil “sample party” tested the dam’s core and the soil on its beach, collecting 15-pound bags and driving them back to the lab next to the Chandler House to analyze their density and composition. 

They also analyzed samples from the core itself. Spurr had helped Terzaghi develop what he described as “a core sampling device that consisted of a tube, and in the tube was a piston, and the piston was connected through a smaller tube and a rod to the end of the extension, and the sampler could be pushed down into the core to the desired depth of the pool.” The piston would automatically suck up the sample in the core section. Then the sample party filled pint jars with the tubes’ contents, marking them with the location and depth. As the dam grew, contractors built “observation wells” so Spurr’s team could climb down and take samples from inside the dam. Fast-paced analysis under high-stakes conditions was “challenging work,” Spurr said, “because it was new and we developed [the technology and procedures] ourselves.” Terzaghi, the founder of modern soil mechanics, had invented the tools; Spurr was deploying them for the first time, flagging problems with the samples so the head dam engineer could take corrective actions to ensure that the structure would be solid enough to contain the water. 

“It was necessary to keep as current a testing operation as possible,” Spurr said. A pervious dam, he added, would be like millions of gallons of molasses—a frightening image for someone who would have remembered the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, a Boston disaster that killed 21 people.

The economy compounded the project’s devastating impact on the valley’s inhabitants. Most sold their properties to the commission at Depression prices, leaving them with little to show for what often amounted to generations of work. No longer able to farm, many had to take whatever jobs they could get—often with the very commission that was forcing them out of their homes.   

Spurr (second row, left) helped lead the Grand March at the farewell ball in 1938.

DEPT OF SPECIAL COLLECTIONS & UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES, W.E.B. DU BOIS LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS AMHERST (PROGRAM)

Although work consumed most of Spurr’s days, including Saturdays, he felt a responsibility to give back to the people whose lives and livelihoods he was irrevocably altering. So he tried to make himself useful in the community. He taught Sunday school. He started a Boy Scout troop. He met his wife, Anna Chase, a Vermont native who had come to Enfield to teach, when she sang in the church choir. Anna herself became the last president of the local women’s social society, the Quabbin Club, and, according to Spurr, played piano for free at the funerals of those who could otherwise not afford music. He joined the Enfield Masons, serving as the chapter’s “Worshipful Master” and then its treasurer; as of the mid-1930s, the group’s roster included as many engineers as locals. By then, Spurr and many other engineers had become part of the community. They formed jazz bands, played on baseball teams, gave out school awards, and married local girls. As Christmas approached in 1934, a year when few families could afford decorations, several of them pitched in to buy electric Christmas lights and strung them on a large tree they erected in the cellar hole of a torn-down commercial building. They also convinced the electric company to turn the site’s power back on until after New Year’s Day. It became the town tree and could be seen from all over the valley.

Nearly 11 years after Spurr’s arrival in Enfield, the dam construction was entering its final phase. Despite meddling and graft at the highest levels of state government, the Quabbin project would be completed ahead of schedule and under budget. With the four towns of the Swift River Valley set to be disincorporated at midnight on April 28, 1938, the Enfield Volunteer Fire Department sponsored a farewell ball. On the night of April 27, thousands of guests in formalwear or black mourning, flanked by journalists with flash cameras and notepads, arrived at the Enfield Town Hall, an old brick building designed to hold a maximum of 300 people. As befit his place in the community, Spurr was near the head of the line for the ball’s Grand March, and he presumably shed tears along with everyone else when the clock struck midnight and the band played “Auld Lang Syne.”

The Swift River Valley was slated for flooding in 1939; by mid-1938 the area was stripped of growing things and empty of stores, schools, and churches. Spurr had hoped to purchase his antique Enfield home from the commission and move it to another location before the waters rose, but a hurricane in September 1938 knocked out his telephone, electricity, and plumbing, none of which would be reinstated. So he and his wife and their young son moved to Wellesley, and he began working on the next stage of the Quabbin project: pressure tunnels carrying water from the Wachusett Reservoir to the Norumbega Reservoir in Weston. He was the last engineer to leave the valley. 

With World War II looming, Spurr left the commission in early 1941 to become an assistant professor of military science and tactics at MIT and head of the MIT ROTC Engineering Unit; in his spare time, he lectured on the Quabbin Reservoir, using the movies he and other engineers had shot on rare and expensive Technicolor film during construction. He went on to serve in Austria and Poland in the Army Corps of Engineers, fought in the Korean War, and later attempted to launch a Boy Scout organization in Turkey while supporting US military missions there. After retiring from the military in 1958, he occasionally lectured on Quabbin construction history and taught a class in soil sciences at Wentworth. When the farewell ball was re-created in Amherst in 1988 to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of the Swift River Valley, Spurr, 83, once again stood at the head of the Grand March. 

At a lecture in the 1980s, a former valley native who had become an engineer after being mentored by Spurr introduced him as “a pioneer … one of the six or eight people in the world that were in on the ground floor [of modern soil engineering].” Spurr walked onto the auditorium stage to applause. “I will simply introduce my remarks by saying that all you have listened to is very much inflated,” he said in his Boston gentleman’s accent. “I am very thankful for the kind comments that have been made, and I don’t know if I can live up to them or not, but I will try.” 

And then the old MIT engineer launched into a technically complex 90-minute lecture on engineering work that he had finished half a century earlier and still knew by heart.

Elisabeth C. Rosenberg is the author of Before the Flood: Destruction, Community, and Survival in the Drowned Towns of the Quabbin, due out from Pegasus Books in August.

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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