The Charles River Water Park

July 19, 2011

When you look at the Charles River Basin today, it’s hard to imagine it as the dangerous crossing it was when neighbor, Annie Fields admired the boating skills of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Author John Harris quotes her in his book, Historic Walks in Old Boston, “Sometime the waves were high and rough…There was little to be learned about a skiff and its management which he did not acquire.”

In the mid 1800s, boating was beginning to make a transition from a necessary method of transportation to a form of recreation and a means to better public health.

Prominent physicians, like Dr. Holmes, began promoting “clean sport” as a part of the early physical fitness movement. Holmes led the fight to develop the Charles River banks as a water park in opposition to a plan to fill more of the river for development.

It was not until changes were made to the riverside that boating became the popular activity it is today.

Creating the Basin

In 1901, proponents of building a dam to stop tidal action and create a wide river basin said, “We believe it cannot be disputed, by any person who has carefully investigated the subject, that in the lower Charles River basin the city of Boston has an opportunity to create one of the most beautiful water parks in the world.”

Under the leadership of James Storrow, this group went on to win the day, and in 1908 a dam was built where the Museum of Science stands today.

Boating was in the Plan

In the 1890s, Frederick Law Olmsted designed a park along the Charles River for the citizens of Boston. Boat landings were in his plan. As Olmsted’s Charlesbank was absorbed into later park designs, boating infrastructure was expanded and improved.

In The Charles River Esplanade, Our Boston Treasure, Linda Cox quoted landscape architect, Arthur Shurcliff, “Boating should be encouraged by easy and frequent access to the water, with floats, landings, and stairs. “The more Venetian the Basin activities, the better.”

Shurcliff’s first design for the Storrow Memorial Embankment was completed in 1936.

It included a boat haven with two curved breakwaters, a granite landing, and docks located near the concert oval and music shell.

Between Fairfield and Exeter Streets, he added a protected lagoon for small pleasure craft and model boating. And, at the end of Dartmouth and Gloucester Streets were granite overlooks with steps leading to the water.

In her book, Gaining Ground, Nancy S. Seasholes said that as a result of these changes, “…interest in rowing and sailing on the basin had revived, the Charles River Basin had finally become the water park that had been envisioned since the 1870s.”

After Storrow Drive

Shurcliff was also the landscape architect for the second plan for what we now call the Esplanade. When the park was expanded in the 1950s, after Storrow Drive was built, he took his Venetian vision to a fuller expression.

He created the concert lagoon next to the music oval, where people in canoes and rowboats could listen to Hatch Shell performances.

The islands that added acres to the park were separated from the mainland by canoeways, where today we see authentic Venetian gondolas glide between the shores.

Iconic Scenes

Boating is now an iconic part of any picture of the Charles.

There are Bostonians who add energy and movement to the riverscape as they sail, paddle, and row. Others serve as audience- watching, photographing, and creating artwork of the Charles River boaters.

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