Charles River (sometimes called the River Charles or simply the
Charles) is an 80 mi (129 km) long river in eastern
Massachusetts. From its source in Hopkinton the river flows in a
northeasterly direction (after first coursing due south through
Milford), traveling through 23 cities and towns before reaching the
Atlantic Ocean at Boston.
3.1 Creation of modern Boston-Cambridge basin
3.2 History of pollution and remediation efforts
5 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Further information: List of rivers in Massachusetts
Charles River is fed by approximately 80 streams and several major
aquifers as it flows 80 miles (129 km), starting at Teresa
Road just north of Echo Lake (42°12′54″N 71°30′52″W /
42.215°N 71.514444°W / 42.215; -71.514444) in Hopkinton,
passing through 23 cities and towns in eastern
Boston Harbor. Thirty-three lakes and ponds and 35
municipalities are entirely or partially part of the Charles River
drainage basin. Despite the river's length and relatively large
drainage area (308 square miles; 798 km²), its source is only 26
miles (42 km) from its mouth, and the river drops only 350 feet
(107 m) from source to sea. The
Charles River watershed contains more
than 8,000 acres of protected wetlands, referred to as Natural Valley
Storage. These areas are important in preventing downstream flooding
and providing natural habitats to native species.
Boston University, and the
of Technology are located along the Charles River. Near its mouth, it
forms the border between downtown
Boston and Cambridge and
Charlestown. The river opens into a broad basin and is lined by the
parks of the
Charles River Reservation. On the
Charles River Esplanade
stands the Hatch Shell, where concerts are given in summer evenings.
The basin is especially known for its Independence Day celebration.
The middle section of the river between the
Watertown Dam and
Wellesley is partially protected by the properties of the Upper
Charles River Reservation
Charles River Reservation and other state parks, including the Hemlock
Gorge Reservation, Cutler Park, and the Elm Bank Reservation.
The river is well known for its rowing, sculling, canoeing, kayaking,
paddleboarding, dragonboating, and sailing, both recreational and
competitive. The river may also be kayaked; depending on the season,
however, kayakers can only navigate the Charles by getting out and
dragging their kayaks for significant stretches. The "Lower Basin"
between the Longfellow and Harvard bridges is home to Community
Sailing Center, and the MIT Sailing
Head of the Charles Regatta
Head of the Charles Regatta is held here every October.
In early June, the annual Hong Kong
Boston Dragon boat Festival is
held in Cambridge, near the Weeks Footbridge.
Charles River Bike Path
Charles River Bike Path runs 23 miles (37 km) along the banks
of the Charles, starting at the Museum of Science and passing the
campuses of MIT, Harvard and
Boston University. The path is popular
with runners and bikers. Many runners gauge their distance and speed
by keeping track of the mileage between the bridges along the
For several years, the
Charles River Speedway
Charles River Speedway operated along part of
On July 13, 2013, swimming for the general public was permitted for
the first time in more than 50 years.
View of the bridge over Charles River, New York Public Library
View of the Charles River, Memorial Drive (foreground), and the Back
Bay skyline at night
The river was used by Native Americans for local transportation and
fishing and as part of the passage from southeastern
northern New England.
Captain John Smith explored and mapped the coast of New England,
naming many features, originally naming the
Charles River the
Massachusetts River, which was derived from the tribe living in the
region. When Smith presented his map to Charles I he suggested that
the king should feel free to change any of the "barbarous names" for
"English" ones. The king made many such changes, but only four survive
today, one of which is the
Charles River which Charles named for
In portions of its length, the Charles drops slowly in elevation and
has relatively little current. Despite this, early settlers in Dedham,
Massachusetts, found a way to use the Charles to power mills. In 1639,
the town dug a canal from the Charles to a nearby brook that drained
to the Neponset River. By this action, a portion of the Charles's flow
was diverted, providing enough current for several mills. The new
canal and the brook together are now called Mother Brook. The canal is
regarded as the first industrial canal in North America. It remains in
use for flood control.
Waltham was the site of the first fully integrated textile factory in
America, built by Francis Cabot Lowell in 1814, and by the 19th
Charles River was one of the most industrialized areas in
the United States. Its hydropower soon fueled many mills and
factories. By the century's end, 20 dams had been built across the
river, mostly to generate power for industry. An 1875 government
report listed 43 mills along the 9.5-mile (15 km) tidal estuary
Watertown Dam to
From 1816 to 1968, the U.S. Army operated a gun and ammunition storage
and later production facility known as the Watertown Arsenal. While it
was key to many of the nation's war efforts over its several decades
in operation, not the least of which being the
American Civil War
American Civil War and
World War I, its location in Watertown so near the Charles did great
environmental harm. The arsenal was declared a
Super Fund site, and
after its closure by the government it had to be cleaned at
significant expense before it could be safely used again for other
purposes. Likewise, the many factories and mills along the banks of
the Charles supported a buoyant economy in their time but left a
legacy of massive pollution.
Creation of modern Boston-Cambridge basin
Charles River Reservation
A sunny day on the
Charles River Esplanade
Charles River basin between
Boston and Cambridge is almost
entirely a work of human design.
Owen A. Galvin was appointed head of
Charles River Improvement Commission by Governor William E.
Russell in 1891. Their work led to the design initiatives of noted
landscape architects Charles Eliot and Arthur Shurcliff, both of whom
had apprenticed with
Frederick Law Olmsted
Frederick Law Olmsted and Guy Lowell. This
designed landscape includes over 20 parks and natural areas along 19
miles (31 km) of shoreline, from the New Dam at the Charlestown
Bridge to the dam near Watertown Square.
Eliot first envisioned today's river design in the 1890s, an important
model being the layout of the
Alster basin in Hamburg, but major
construction began only after Eliot's death with the damming of the
river's mouth at today's
Boston Museum of Science, an effort led by
James Jackson Storrow. The new dam, completed in 1910, stabilized the
water level from
Boston to Watertown, eliminating the existing mud
flats, and a narrow embankment was built between Leverett Circle and
Charlesgate. After Storrow's death, his widow Mrs. James Jackson
Storrow donated $1 million toward the creation of a more generously
landscaped park along the Esplanade; it was dedicated in 1936 as the
Storrow Memorial Embankment. This also enabled the construction of
many public docks in the
Charles River Basin. In the 1950s a highway
(Storrow Drive) was built along the edge of the Esplanade to connect
Charles Circle with Soldiers Field Road, and the Esplanade was
enlarged on the water side of the new highway.
The Inner Belt highway was proposed to cross the
Charles River at the
Boston University Bridge, but its construction was canceled in the
History of pollution and remediation efforts
As sewage, industrial wastewater and urban runoff flowed freely into
the river from the surrounding city, the
Charles River became well
known for its high level of pollutants, gaining such notoriety that by
Bernard DeVoto wrote in
Harper's Magazine that the Charles was
"foul and noisome, polluted by offal and industrious wastes, scummy
with oil, unlikely to be mistaken for water." It was not an
uncommon sight to see toxins coloring parts of the river pink and
orange, fish kills and submerged cars.
Once popular with swimmers, awareness of the river's high pollution
levels forced the state to shut down several popular swimming areas,
including Cambridge's Magazine Beach and Gerry Landing public
Sailboats moored on the Charlestown side of the
Charles River with
Bunker Hill Monument
Bunker Hill Monument in the distance
Efforts to clean up the river and restore it to a state where swimming
and fishing would be acceptable began as early as the 1960s, and the
program to clean up the Charles for good took shape in 1965 with the
creation of the
Charles River Watershed Association. In 1978, a
Charles River Dam
Charles River Dam was constructed downstream from the Science
Museum site to keep salt water out of the basin.
In 1995, the
United States Environmental Protection Agency declared a
goal of making the river swimmable by 2005. In 1996, Governor
William Weld plunged, fully clothed, into the river to prove his
commitment to cleaning up the river. On November 12, 2004,
Christopher Swain became the first person to swim the Charles River's
entire length, in an effort to raise public awareness of the river's
environmental health. In July 2007, the river hosted the
Charles River Masters Swim Race, the first sanctioned race in the
Charles in over five decades.
A combination of public and private initiatives helped drastically
lower levels of pollutants by focusing on eliminating combined sewer
overflows and storm water runoff. Since Weld's stunt, the river's
condition has improved dramatically, although it was not deemed
entirely swimmable by 2005.
Charles River in December 2010
Conservation Law Foundation opposes the permit given to
the Veolia Energy North America Kendall Cogeneration Station, an
electricity plant near Kendall Square, charging that the water it
releases causes blooms of hazardous microorganisms because of its warm
The water quality of the
Charles River is often at its worst after a
large rainfall because of pollutants carried by runoff, and sewage
overflows. For 2011, the EPA reported that the Charles met state
bacterial standards for boating and swimming 96% and 89% of the time
on dry days, and 74% and 35% of the time on wet days,
respectively. Overall boatability and swimability of 82% and 54%
in 2011 compare with 39% and 19% in 1995.
A study published in the Journal of the American Water Resources
Association in April 2008 and completed by researchers at Northeastern
University, found high concentrations of E. coli bacteria in the
Charles River after a long period of no rain. Using a mathematical
model, the researchers then determined that two major tributaries, the
Stony Brook and Muddy River, are the predominant sources of E. coli in
the lower Charles River.
Oysters have been used to filter and clean
Charles River water.
As of 2013, boating is allowed on the Charles but swimming without a
permit is punishable by a fine up to $250. Starting in 2007,
Charles River Swimming Club has organized an annual race for its
members, but obtains a special permit and must monitor water quality
and rainfall in the days leading up to the race. The "first public
swim" in the Charles since the 1950s was conducted on July 13, 2013,
Charles River Conservancy[Note 1],
Charles River Watershed
Association (CRWA), Esplanade Association, and DCR. Both the
annual race and the Conservancy event have been held in deep water
with swimmers jumping in off a dock, to avoid the toxic sediments on
the bottom of the river that still make beach swimming dangerous.
View of the Charles River,
Community Rowing, Inc.
Community Rowing, Inc. and
Charles River from the
Boston side, facing
Weld Boathouse and the
main campus of
Harvard University in Cambridge.
Charles River at Newton Upper Falls
Charles River under
Echo Bridge in Newton
Charles River at Medfield-Millis town line
Charles River basin from an office tower in Boston.
Charles River Esplanade, 2013
Charles River Esplanade, 2013
View of the
Charles River and Downtown
Boston from the Boston
John W. Weeks
John W. Weeks Bridge
List of crossings of the Charles River
Charles River boathouses
List of rivers of Massachusetts
Sudbury Aqueduct Linear District
Sudbury Aqueduct Linear District which crosses the river from Needham
to Newton on the Echo Bridge
Charles River Conservancy was founded by Renata von Tscharner.
^ a b "
Charles River Watershed". The
Charles River Watershed
Association. Retrieved February 5, 2013.
^  Archived July 7, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
Charles River Mileage Map/Table". Web.mit.edu. Retrieved
^ Brody, Sharon (2013-07-13). "Public Swim Follows 50 Years Of Dirty
Water". WBUR. Retrieved 2013-07-18.
^ Stewart, George R. (1967) . Names on the Land: A Historical
Account of Place-Naming in the
United States (Sentry edition (3rd)
ed.). Houghton Mifflin. p. 38.
^ "Who Made America? Pioneers: Francis Cabot Lowell". PBS. Retrieved
July 30, 2011.
^ Karl Haglund (2003). Inventing the Charles River. Cambridge,
Massachusetts: The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-08307-8.
^ a b c Swimming in the
Charles River Archived May 11, 2010, at the
^ "Group Eyes Lawsuit Over
Charles River Pollution". Boston.com.
Retrieved 16 October 2014.
^ "Clear and Clean". Boston.com. Retrieved 16 October 2014.
Charles River Watershed Association". Crwa.org. Retrieved 16
^ "Online NewsHour: KERRY / WELD: DEAD HEAT". PBS NewsHour. Retrieved
16 October 2014.
^ "Person of the Week: Christopher Swain". ABC News. Retrieved 16
^ "Vermont swimmer hates dirty water, but covers entire Charles River
in Mass. : Times Argus Online". Timesargus.com. Retrieved 16
^ Mark Clayton (8 November 2004). "An 80-mile swim - with hubcaps".
The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 16 October 2014.
^ Malcom A. Glenn, Brown Charles Gets Green Light, Harvard Crimson,
July 20, 2007
Conservation Law Foundation Secures Groundbreaking Outcome in GenOn
Kendall Plant Case - Innovative Solution to Cooling System Issues Will
Charles River Health, Bring Lower Carbon Steam Heat and Power
to City Buildings". Conservation Law Foundation. 2011-02-02. Retrieved
^ "Report Cards -
Charles River - New England - US EPA". Epa.gov.
Retrieved 16 October 2014.
^ Hellweger, F. L.; Masopust, P. (2008). "Investigating the Fate and
Escherichia coli in the Charles River, Boston, Using
High‐Resolution Observation and Modeling1". JAWRA Journal of the
American Water Resources Association. 44 (2): 509–522.
^ "Researcher Develops Model to Track E. coli in Charles River".
Newswise.com. Retrieved 16 October 2014.
^ Beard, David (October 26, 2008). "Oysters help clean the Charles
^ Swimming and ice skating are prohibited by 350 CMR 12.02 (7) except
where posted by the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and as
of 2013 there are no posted swimming areas. The maximum fine is set by
350 CMR 12.03.
^ Belluck, Pam (July 22, 2007). "A
Boston River Now (Mostly) Fit for
Swimming". The New York Times.
^ "FAQs". Retrieved 2013-07-30.
Charles River opens for first public swim since the 1950s". The
Charles River Swimming Club, Inc. : Maps".
Charlesriverswimmingclub.org. Retrieved 16 October 2014.
^ "Public Swim Follows 50 Years Of Dirty Water". WBUR. 13 July 2013.
Retrieved 16 October 2014.
Inventing the Charles River, by Karl Haglund, MIT Press, 2003, in
collaboration with the
Charles River Conservancy.
Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston, by Nancy S.
Seasholes, MIT Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0262194945.
Omeros, by Derek Walcott, Faber and Faber (London), 1990.
ISBN 978-0374523503 (Repeated references to the Charles river in
Tourtellot, Arthur Bernon (2014) . Benet, Stephen Vincent;
Carmer, Carl, eds. The Charles. Rivers of America. Mineola, N.Y.:
Dover Publications. ISBN 9780486492940. OCLC 990111.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Charles River.
Wikisource has the text of the 1879
American Cyclopædia article
The Esplanade Association
Charles River Watershed Association
Interactive watershed map
Recreation links and maps
Charles River Conservancy
Department of Conservation and Recreation
Department of Conservation and Recreation - Charles River
"Swimmable by 2005" EPA Effort
Charles River Swimming Club
Charles River Museum of Industry
U.S. Geological Survey data on flow in
Charles River at various
US Geological Survey Report on The
Charles River Restoration
"Charles River". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
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