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The Job Isn't Done

By Tom Richardson; Videography by Camden Spear

The thousands of recreational users—cyclists, paddlers, birders, runners, walkers, anglers, sailors— who enjoy the beautiful Charles River Esplanade Park and the Charles River itself can hardly imagine what this part of the city’s waterfront looked—and smelled—like prior to the early 20st Century, when the lower Charles was tidal. At low tide, much of the what is now the river’s Lower Basin was a reeking, debris-laden mud flat, filled with all sorts of unimaginable refuse. Upstream, factories dumped toxic sludge and debris, including animal parts from meat-processing plants, directly into the river. If that wasn’t bad enough, untreated wastewater contaminated with dangerous bacteria also fed into the Charles. In short, the river was not an inviting place.


Early sailing on the lower Charles.

After much complaining and campaigning by influential Bostonians over the unsightly state of the Charles and its potential health risks, a dam was built across the river where the Museum of Science now stands, creating a wide basin with a relatively constant water level. No more smelly mud flats at low tide! At this same time, the original Esplanade, a narrow strip of grass and walking paths between Back Street and the river, was created as an extension of Charlesbank Park, at the easternmost end of the Esplanade.

The lower Charles at low tide, prior to the dam construction of 1910.

In the 1930’s, landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff nearly doubled the width of the Esplanade and added canoe launches, monuments, extensive tree plantings, and bench-lined pathways. Construction of Storrow Drive in the 1950’s spurred the creation of the Storrow Lagoons to compensate for land lost to the highway.

Construction of the Charles River dam, 1908.

Yet despite the natural beauty of the Esplanade, an ugly elephant remained in the room—the river itself.  By the 1960’s, some 400 years of being treated as a giant toilet and garbage dump had left the Charles a defiled mess and a national embarrassment. At one point it was labeled one of the most polluted waterways in America.

As Emily Norton, Executive Director of the Charles River Watershed Association, explains in this short film, great strides have been made in cleaning up the river in the last 60 years—but more work is needed. The river sediments continue to hold harmful PFBs, and the water is still periodically contaminated by wastewater overflow caused by storms and treatment-plant failures. Then there are the issues caused by upriver septic tanks and nutrient runoff.

As Norton says, “The job isn’t done.”