Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Jeffrey R. Egan

Egan2-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

 I have studied at the University of Connecticut since 2005, first as an undergraduate and presently as a PhD. Candidate in the History Department. My dissertation research has brought me to archives all around southern New England, and my work has been supported by the Graduate School of the University of Connecticut, the Massachusetts Historical Society and, currently, the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute.

 

-What is the project you’re currently working on?

At present, I am writing my dissertation, which is entitled: Watershed Decisions: The Environmental History of Boston’s Quabbin Reservoir, 1880-1940. My project studies the expansion of the Boston metropolitan waterworks and the building of the largest reservoir in the northeastern United States. To create this artificial lake, the state of Massachusetts decided to eliminate four towns and expel over 2,000 people from their homes in the Swift River Valley. The dissertation tells the human story of these valley residents building their communities during the late-nineteenth century, grappling with the threat of eviction during the 1920s, and memorializing their former towns after construction was complete. To this I add the environmental story of a landscape transformed, first by rural farmers and mill owners and then by engineers tasked with permanently altering the valley to satisfy Boston’s ever-growing demand for water.

 

-How did you arrive at this topic?

I arrived at this subject a few years ago, after my advisor, Robert Gross, gave me an overview of this curious story. He had heard the popular retelling of the building of the Quabbin Reservoir while living in western Massachusetts during the 1970s, and he wondered if an academic study of this event would make for a suitable dissertation. After a preliminary investigation, I found that my work could add to the ongoing academic conversations about the meaning of rural land use, urbanization, conservation, and scientific land management during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. When environmental historians consider the meaning of conservation and displacement, they usually tell stories about the development of the American West, such as the decline of the bison or the eviction of Native Americans from federal lands. Opposing visions of how humans should relate to their environments are typically found at the heart of these dramatic episodes. Yet, my historical evidence suggests that implementing conservationist policies and scientific land management schemes played out differently in rural Massachusetts. Here protestors used conservationist logic to defend their claims to the land, suggesting that these natural resources belonged to the people of the valley and that Boston was mismanaging its own water supply. When this complaint of waste and inefficiency proved unfounded, the residents of the Swift River Valley acquiesced to the logic that their sacrifice would serve the greater good of the Commonwealth state. The environmental thought of people in this rural section of Massachusetts had much more in common with that of Boston’s urban planners than the available academic literature allows.

 

-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

The story of the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir is one of broad interest in Massachusetts. Several novels, children’s books, and local histories have been written on the subject, and the newspapers and magazines in the state have rediscovered this human and environmental drama every two or three years since construction began during the 1930s. In western Massachusetts, where Daniel Shays raised his insurrection at the dawn of the American republic, this story of Boston “abusing” and “dispossessing” the people of the rural Swift River Valley looms especially large in the popular imagination. I hope that my thorough and rigorously researched study can give the people of Massachusetts an historically accurate and well-written account of this event. People living outside of this region might look to my study for insights into the meaning of rural life at the turn of the century and the human and environmental change brought about by the growth of cities during the twentieth century.


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