The “ribbon of green and blue” of the Charles River parklands defines the center of Boston's metropolitan area, giving residents and visitors alike an enduring sense of place and a refuge for recreation, contemplation, and renewal. These urban parklands include 19 miles of shore, from the New Dam at the Charlestown Bridge to the dam near Watertown Square, and more than 20 parks and natural areas.
Originally, the last 10 miles of the river formed a tidal estuary, a salt marsh with 9-foot tides that rose and receded twice a day. As was the case for most settled rivers, the Charles was originally used predominantly for fishing and transport, or for industrial purposes. The first of many mills was built in 1634, and by the 19th century the banks were lined with slaughterhouses, coal-burning power plants, shipping wharves, warehouses, and more. Due in large part to this industrialization, in 1849 the Boston Board of Aldermen described the Back Bay marshes as “nothing less than a great cesspool, into which is daily deposited all the filth of a large and increasing population.”
The now-famous filling of the marshes to create the Back Bay, an epic project that created some of Boston’s more prestigious neighborhoods, took place throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, transforming the flow and entire composition of the river. In the 1890s, Charles Eliot, son of a Harvard president and protégé of Frederick Law Olmsted, conceived of a vision of public parklands with the Charles River as its centerpiece.
The river was further transformed in 1910, when James Jackson Storrow led an effort to dam the mouth of the Charles at what is now the Museum of Science. The dam stabilized the water level from Boston to Watertown, transforming a tidal estuary into what is now the Charles River Basin. In 1930 Storrow's widow, Helen, donated funds to create a park along the Esplanade, but these parklands were later appropriated to build a highway separating the river from Boston—a move that Ms. Storrow had explicitly forbidden. Ironically, the road now bears the name Storrow Drive.
Department of Conservation and Recreation
Today the approximately 400 acres of Charles River parklands are owned and managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). The Basin is used by more than a million people each year and hosts the Head of the Charles River Regatta, the annual 4th of July concerts at the Hatch Shell, various walk-a-thons, and multiple river fairs.
In 2002 the DCR's predecessor (Metropolitan District Commission or MDC) completed a Master Plan calling for the restoration of the Basin at an estimated cost of $32 million. The plan has identified more than 30 "improvement zones" and hundreds of subprojects that need work within the parklands. It features over 40 acres of new parklands and 17 miles of pedestrian, bicycle, and ADA-compliant pathways. A previous 1997 MDC plan addressed the reclamation of the "lost half mile" between the Science Museum and the Charlestown Bridge. This area has been officially called the New Basin (the New Charles River Basin) since the Charles River Dam was completed in 1978. With mitigation funding from the Big Dig/Central Artery project, about $100 million will be spent on parkland restoration and pedestrian bridges in the New Basin.
Click here to read the 2002 Master Plan for the Charles River Reservation.
A comprehensive and illustrated history of the Charles River and its parklands can be found in Karl Haglund’s excellent book Inventing the Charles River, published by The MIT Press in collaboration with the Charles River Conservancy. Please click here to learn more about this and other books about the Charles River.