December 21: Hartford’s Need for Water Uproots An Entire Community


In 1929, the Connecticut General Assembly approved the creation of the Metropolitan District Commission, a non-profit corporation designed to help design and implement long-term plans for managing the water supply of the greater Hartford region. The very next year, the MDC assumed operations of several reservoirs located in the hills in the western part of Hartford County, including the Nepaug Reservoir, which had a capacity of 9.5 billion gallons. However, almost from the moment the MDC was created, its engineers realized that they would need to increase the overall capacity of Hartford’s water supply, due to the explosive population growth Connecticut was experiencing during the first half of the 20th century. The MDC’s master plan to build a new, badly needed 30 billion gallon capacity reservoir in Barkhamsted was approved by the state legislature in 1933.

This detail from an 1868 map of Barkhamsted shows the communities, located along the East Branch river valley, eventually displaced by the Barkhamsted Reservoir. (UConn Library Map and Geographic Information Center)

The only problem? There were still over a thousand people living in the valley where the future reservoir was slated to be built. MDC and state officials had been secretly buying up property in the Barkhamsted Hollow area as soon as the idea for a new reservoir was first hatched in the late 1920s. Local authorities became increasingly aggressive about condemning — and promptly seizing — dilapidated houses and farm buildings, which were easy to find in the old, rural village. The Great Depression made it easier to convince private property owners to sell their holdings to the state, and between the buyouts and condemnations, the valley was emptied of residents by 1936.

There was more to the Barkhamsted Hollow community than just the people that lived there, however: Buildings, houses, roads, tree-filled forests, and even graveyards all had to be removed or destroyed before the valley could be flooded. Four church cemeteries had to be moved, with a total of 1,300 bodies being carefully exhumed and then re-interred elsewhere. More than twenty miles of highway had to be rerouted around the soon-to-be-flooded valley. A stripping company was hired to clear the land bare of everything that stood above ground level, with building ruins and trees torn down and then burned in massive bonfires. Only intermittent cellar holes and abandoned roads remained where entire communities once stood.

An autumn view of the Saville Dam pumphouse on the southern end of the Barkhamsted Reservoir. (Photo credit: John Schiller)

The Saville Dam marking the southern end of the new reservoir, complete with an attractive stone pumphouse, was completed in 1940, and the MDC started slowly flooding the valley soon thereafter. On December 21, 1944, water flowed from the Barkhamsted Reservoir into Hartford for the very first time, although it would take nine more years before the massive, 30 billion gallon reservoir would be filled to capacity. Today, the eight-mile-long Barkhamsted Reservoir remains one of the primary sources of clean drinking water for the Hartford region. A milestone in civil engineering reached — but at a great human cost — today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Barkhamsted Reservoir Construction Washes Away a Community,”

Kevin Murphy, “A Valley Flooded to Slake the Capital Region’s Thirst,Connecticut Explored

History,” Metropolitan District Commission website