High and Dry and Dearly Departed: The Ghost Town of Dana

September 15, 2013 – The term “ghost town” kind of means two different things. On TV, in movies, it usually means an intact town that’s completely deserted. As if it were populated by ghosts. That’s the place where the Scooby Gang’s van breaks down. Where the Enterprise away team beams down into. Where 26.8% of horror movies start, or at least Phantoms. In real life, these types of ghost towns do exist, but they’re rare and hard to access.

The second type is a lot more common: sites where towns once were. Where only a ghost of it remains. Cellar holes, walls, roads to nowhere. These are the types of ghost towns that I always seem to end up at. Like the ex-town of Dana in central Massachusetts.

Except Dana is a little bit different.

Because Dana should be underwater.

Dana became a town in 1801. It grew, prospered…and then was dissolved, literally and figuratively, in the 1930s as part of the Quabbin Reservoir project.

The Quabbin Reservoir project was an undertaking by the state of Massachusetts to collect a large reservoir of fresh water to serve Boston and its suburbs.

The state went in, evacuated the four towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott—displacing about 2,500 people in the process—and then razed or moved all the structures that made up those towns. Finally, the land prepared, they then flooded the valley, creating a 40-square-mile reservoir.

These towns were drowned so that Bostonians could bathe.

But bits of those towns, the areas on the highest ground, survived the deluge. One of those areas is the Dana Common.

And it, unlike some of those other areas, is open to the public.

I set the coordinates on my GPS not knowing exactly what I’d find at the end of those numbers or really just how accessible Dana Common was. I made sure to be prepared for anything, as a result. Just kidding. I prepared for the minimum of hardship. Basically, I wore clothes.

When I turned off Hardwick Road onto Dana Road, I discovered the way barred by a metal gate. A few cars were parked in front of it and some signs explained what could or could not be done in a watershed area. That was good news. Meant I was heading in the right direction and that it shouldn’t be too hard to find. The bad news was that my GPS said I still had 1.8 miles to go.

So round trip, I quickly calculated in my head, was like seven or eight miles. Fortunately, it was a cool day and wandering through forests is one of my prerequisites for a well-celebrated Autumn. Plus, I’d driven over an hour to get there, and couldn't just put it off until I was in "shape." That would be like seven karmic cycles from now. Too long.

However, it turned out not to be bad at all. The path was actually a road, flat and paved, so less like hiking and more like, I don’t know, walking to the gas station after your car runs out of fuel because part of the steering wheel always blocks the gas light. That simile might be too detailed.

I don’t know if that road itself was a remnant of Dana, but it soon became evident that we were in a reclaimed town. Off the sides of the path were old rock walls and a couple of cellar holes. One was marked with a condensation-stained placard denoting the rock-lined pit as the vestige of a blacksmith shop. It included a picture of the place, like one of those portraits on gravestones. Apparently, the blacksmith shot his wife and then killed himself right there in the shop.

I even passed a tour group on the way to the town, with the guide recounting the stories of Dana's local eccentric, Asa Snow.

Soon after the blacksmith cellar, the forest opened up into Dana Common…which looks remarkably like a common. Sure, there weren’t any buildings visible, but the area was formed by an intersection of streets like you’d find at any downtown square and it was all nicely mown.

Two memorials marked the place as Dana. One was a simple bronze plaque on a boulder that merely attested that the place was on the National Register of Historic Places. The other was a gravestone-shaped monument dated 1996 that was dedicated to, “all those who sacrificed their homes and ways of life.”

Encircling the common were a series of placards just like the one at the blacksmith’s shop. They pointed out the locations of a church, a school, a general store, residences. Each one included a picture and almost every one was in front of a rock-lined cellar hole. Online, people have taken old pictures of the town and matched them up with the blank spaces they are now. Worth looking up, especially before you visit.

However, far from the remnants just being overgrown pile of rocks after overgrown pile of rocks, each cellar seemed to have its own unique character. Some it was because of the types of rocks used (one was made up of stream-smoothed, almost round stones), others because of what foundation structures survived with it.

A sidewalk was still intact at one end that led to nowhere, part of a road at the other that led to an even vaguer destination. Hiking trails branched off into the forest from the cleared area, and I walked down one not very far before finding another cellar hole. I’m sure there are plenty more unmarked ones in the forest, as well as artifacts. For instance, on the top of one rock wall someone had laid a bunch of found items...a small broken glass vial, rusted pieces of who-knows-what.

All in all, the whole area was well-maintained, pleasant, and would have been almost life-affirming had the main theme of the whole thing not have been that you can’t go home again. At least when your home is underwater. Or should be.

And that’s the big thing about Dana. The fact that people didn’t leave because the place was untenable, like most ghost towns. The main industry didn’t dry up, nobody built a highway that circumvented the town. This place was meant to be underwater. And then mixed with Kool-Aid packets. Had these plans of mice and men been better-laid, I shouldn’t have been able to see what I saw without a wetsuit and a tank of compressed gases.

And speaking of that, here’s a great video from some divers who got rare permission to explore the Quabbin Reservoir itself. They found pretty much what you can find at Dana, remnants of rock walls and foundations.

Just under 50 feet of murky, lifeless water.