The Charles River Basin, extending upstream nine miles from Boston Harbor, is among the premier public spaces in the Boston area. What appears to be a natural landscape is actually the result of deliberate design and planning. More than two centuries ago the Charles was a tidal river, surrounded by hundreds of acres of salt marshes and mudflats. In the nineteenth century, the basin was damned for mills and filled for industrial, commercial, and residential purposes. Some of these industrial developments along the river included two prisons, three coal-burning power plants, and several gas works. In addition, two large slaughterhouses, one on the Millers River and the other upstream of the Brighton marshes, dumped offal into the river. As a result, pollution proliferated the river and its sediments and at low tide the lower Charles became stretches of foul, sewage-filled, mudflats.
In 1844, a plan for the Boston area was developed, imagining the river as an expansive public space and the centerpiece of the Boston regional park system. Three key interventions advanced this idea of a great public space, envisioned by Charles Eliot, a notable Cambridge landscape architect and protégé of Frederick Law Olmsted. First, the acquisition of the river banks by the city of Cambridge and Boston Metropolitan Park Commission (established in 1893) transferred the riverfront to the public domain in the 1890s. This acquisition strategy was soon followed by the construction of the Charles River Dam at the mouth of the Charles at Boston Harbor in 1910, an effort spearheaded by James Jackson Storrow, which stabilized the water level from Boston to Watertown. Upon his death in 1926, Storrow’s widow, Helen Osborne Storrow, donated funds to create the Storrow Drive Memorial Embankment, which today is known as the Esplanade.
The Esplanade was widened and lengthened in 1928 when the first lagoon was built, as well as the Music Oval, providing an outdoor concert space for the Boston Pops and other performance artists. In 1941, the construction of the Hatch Memorial Shell gave the Pops, and other performers, a premier permanent outdoor stage for popular summer events, most notably the annual Independence Day concert to accompany a fireworks display over the river.
With the construction of Storrow Drive in 1949, the landscape was once again dramatically changed as the roadway cut into the parklands. To mitigate the land that was lost to the new road, a new island was developed along the Esplanade creating two new lagoons–pedestrian bridges were installed to traverse the lagoons, providing access to this new public space. Later, in the 1960’s, the Esplanade was linked by a pathway to Herter Park (previously the Charles River Speedway) in Brighton, and other upstream linear parks.
While the river and the parklands were gathering places for strolling, and music and cultural events, a tradition of river swimming existed long before the Charles River Dam was built and for some time afterward. During the summer months, river swimming was a popular recreational activity at Magazine Beach, Gerry’s Landing, and beaches by the Harvard Bridge. By the 1950s, however, swimming was banned due to an awareness of the health impacts of the extensive water pollution, the result of intense urbanization and industry along the river. Though improvements to clean up the river had been made since the mid-nineteenth century, dumping of solid and liquid waste, untreated sewage, as well as storm water run-off once again claimed the river, putting public health at risk.
Soon after swimming was banned, major industrial activities along the Charles had ceased by the mid-1960s. With this new decade, the environmental movement had begun to focus on the Charles River and its banks, advocating for improved water quality and ecological health of the surrounding landscape and watershed. A partnership between the Charles River Watershed Association, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the MA Water Resources Authority, MA Department of Environmental Protection, and surrounding municipalities was established to advance improvement of the water quality of the Charles.
By 1995, the EPA launched the Clean Charles River Initiative with the goal of making the lower Charles River, from Watertown to Boston Harbor, fishable and swimmable by 2005. Through the efforts of federal, state and local agencies, nonprofit organizations, and residents, tremendous progress has been made toward this goal; the water quality of the Charles has improved from a grade of “D” in 1995 to a “B” in 2011. As water quality continues to improve, the lower Charles River is now considered swimmable many days of the year.
Despite the dramatic improvements to the water quality of the Charles, there are still significant challenges to meet, including access constraints and sediment contamination, before the tradition of river swimming can return permanently to the lower Charles River. In the meantime, sailing, rowing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, and windsurfing are all popular activities on the river.
Today, the Charles River Reservation is a twenty-mile linear park stretching from Boston Harbor up-river to Riverdale Park in West Roxbury. The lower half of the reservation, from downtown Boston to the Watertown Dam, is the Charles River Basin, which includes the Esplanade on the Boston side of the river. The basin abuts the campuses of MIT, Boston University, and Harvard University. The urban parklands of the basin include natural areas, recreation fields and facilities, playgrounds, critical wildlife habitat, and pathways for cycling, walking, and rollerblading.
In 2002, a Master Plan for the basin was developed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, creating a comprehensive assessment and vision of the parks, parkways, river banks, and watershed of the Charles. In recent years, reclaiming the “lost half-mile” of the river between the old Charles River Dam (now the site of the Museum of Science) and the Charlestown bridge has been a focus of DCR park planning efforts. Utilizing federal, state, and mitigation funds from Boston’s “Big Dig” (a massive infrastructure project that tunneled 3.5 miles of Interstate 93 beneath the city), the New Charles River Basin includes two new parks, North Point Park and Nashua Street Park, and the restoration of Paul Revere Park in Charlestown. These parks are linked by pathways and the newly developed North Bank Pedestrian Bridge, which opened in June 2012.
To learn more about the history of the Charles River and its surrounding parklands, a great resource is Inventing the Charles River by Karl Haglund, published in cooperation with the Charles River Conservancy. The book can be purchased from MIT Press.