Charles River

From Academic Kids

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Charles River in Cambridge

The Charles River is a small, relatively short Massachusetts (USA) river that separates Boston from Cambridge and Charlestown. It is fed by some 80 brooks and streams, and several major aquifers, as it flows snakelike for 80 miles, starting at Echo Lake in Hopkinton, through 58 cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts, before emptying into Boston Harbor. Its watershed contains 33 lakes and ponds, mostly manmade. Despite the river's length, and relatively large drainage area (308 square miles), its source is only 26 miles from its mouth, and the river drops only 350 feet from source to sea. It is the most densely populated river basin in New England.

Harvard University, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are all located along the Charles River; at Boston proper it opens out into a broad basin and is lined by parks such as the Charles River Esplanade (in which stands the Hatch Shell where concerts are given in summer evenings). The river is well known for its rowing, sculling, and sailing, both recreational and competitive. The Head of the Charles Regatta is held annually, in October.

Despite its famous water pollution, making the Charles "Swimmable by 2005" became an important EPA goal1. While this promise was not attained in time, swimming and fishing are progressively re-emerging as about 90% of the length of the river is now considered safe for swimming2. Health risks remain however, particularly after rainstorms and when walking in certain riverbeds stirs up toxic sediment.


Early history of the Charles River

The river's earlier name, before the English, was Quinobequin (meandering), and it was used by Native Americans for local transportation and fishing, and as part of the way from southeastern Massachusetts to northern New England. Captain John Smith gave the river its current English name in honor of Charles I of England, his reigning monarch. Subsequent European settlers harnessed the river for industrialization, and by 1640 entrepreneurs on the Neponset River had diverted its water to power their mills.

Waltham was the site of the first factory in America, built by Francis Cabot Lowell in 1814, and by the 19th Century, the 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 tidal estuary from Watertown Dam to Boston Harbor.

Today's design of the Charles River

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Today's Charles River basin between Boston and Cambridge is almost entirely a work of human esthetics and design, and forms one of the finest planned landscapes in the United States. Its design was the vision of noted landscape architect Charles Eliot who, with his associates Guy Lowell and Arthur Shurcliff, descended from the direct tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted. This designed landscape now includes over 20 parks and natural areas along 19 miles 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, but major construction began only after his death in 1910 with the damming of the river's mouth at today's Museum of Science, an effort led by James Jackson Storrow. This new dam stabilized the water level from Boston to Watertown, eliminating the existing mud flats, and creating the river we now see. Upon Storrow's death 1930, his widow donated funds to create a park along the Esplanade. However, in the 1950s a highway (Storrow Drive) was built instead, and the Esplanade park was built from the highway out into the river.

The Charles in popular culture

The Charles River is an icon for Boston and is featured in the song Dirty Water by The Standells:

Down by the River...
Down by the banks of the River Charles
(Oh, that's what's happenin' baby)
That's where you'll find me
Along with lovers, muggers, and thieves.
(Ahh, but they're cool people)

Charles River crossings

The following bridges and tunnels cross the river from east to west.

See also


  • Inventing the Charles River, by Karl Haglund, MIT Press in collaboration with the Charles River Conservancy.
  • Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston, by Nancy S. Seasholes, MIT Press, 2003.

External links


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