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Let’s Go Swimming in Boston's River—No, Really!
It took decades, but the Charles has gone from one of the dirtiest urban rivers in the country to one of the cleanest. Here’s how it happened.

“Contact!” was Thoreau’s famous cry upon encountering raw nature. More than 150 years later, it still has a nice ring to it. But how to directly experience nature in an increasingly crowded, cluttered, and technological world?

One way, I’d argue, is by swimming in it.

My family and I are now vacationing in Massachusetts, and at each stop on our trip we have made it a point to dive into the local waters. Two days ago that meant wading into the ocean off osprey-thick South Dartmouth; yesterday it meant diving off a boat in Buzzards Bay; and today it means swimming in Cape Cod Bay. And while we may not make it back to Boston on this trip, if we do, I know just where we’re heading. The latest news—thrilling news, I think, maybe even historic news—is that the Charles River is open for swimming. Earlier this summer, on July 13th, the Charles River Swimming Club hosted a group of 144 swimmers who took the plunge, jumping off a dock in the Esplanade, and splashing around for 30 minutes or so.

They were celebrating the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed the river swimmable—if not all the time, then on most days. Back in 1995, when the EPA began grading the river, the first grade was a D. But the river that the swimmers were immersing themselves in last month now merits a B+, according to the agency, which means that it is deemed safe for swimming 54 percent of the time. That may not be enough to make you reach for your bathing cap and floatie, but it does make the Charles one of the cleanest urban rivers in the country.

Obviously it has not always been that way. Not long ago I published a book, My Green Manifesto, about paddling the Charles with Dan Driscoll, the visionary environmental planner who helped green the banks of the river through the promotion of native plantings. (The book grew out of an article for this magazine: “Riding the Wild Charles.”)  As we made our way down the river, Dan, who works for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, described the Bleachery Dye Works that, less than a hundred years ago, changed the waterway’s color almost daily with its discharge: from purple to red to brown. And Dan pointed out that the river has always been at the mercy of human ideas about it, changing along with those ideas.

In the 19th century, the Charles was seen as many urban rivers were seen at the time: as an all-natural sewer system. But in late-19th century Boston, an interesting cultural confluence was taking place: one of our most base, practical needs—getting rid of human waste—was intersecting with one of our most high-minded concepts, the idea that nature constituted a kind of “cathedral.” It’s no coincidence that the formation of America’s first metropolitan park system and the first public works commissions for sewage and water occurred here within four years of each other, between 1889 and 1893.

The Charles River's current grade wouldn’t exactly get it into Harvard. But I’ll take its revival as a hopeful sign.

Along with the practical matters of getting water to drink and getting rid of waste came the more romantic one of giving the people in the newly crowded city a place to get away from it all. Charles Eliot, a disciple of Frederick Law Olmstead (who created New York’s Central Park), led the charge of a group of Brahmin reformers in this first greening of Boston. As James C. O’Connell, a historian of the city, puts it: “This effort was the urban counterpart to the Progressive campaign of Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and others to preserve natural wonders and rationally manage natural resources by creating national parks and national forests.”

But the Charles became more than a place to get away to. It turned into a social center. On any given day there were 3,000 canoes for rent, and the river—formerly a place to dump sewage—became a place to congregate, picnic, swim.

Given the picture of today’s Charles—dozens of people out on the river in canoes, sailboats, kayaks and powerboats; and, now, actually swimming—you could be forgiven for thinking that this social tradition simply continued unabated from its origin in the early 20th century. But this was not the case. As O’Connell writes: “When World War II broke out, Boston’s metropolitan parks were at a height of popularity they would never see again.” After the war, the advent of a more suburban, car-oriented culture led to the parks’ decline. As people fled the city for neighboring communities, the Charles lost its attraction as an urban center.

“Basically, Boston turned its back on the river,” Dan Driscoll said. “Buildings were built as if the river wasn’t there, and people started dumping again. The human perception of the river changes with time. Each era has its own river. But from the 1950s to the 1970s—that was the worst vision of the river. Part of the demise of the parks was caused by the rise of the suburbs, the dream of having your own piece of nature, with a grill, and a car, and you’d wax your car while you grilled. And that altered the public consciousness toward public open spaces. So we had a collective force going against the river as open space. Everything contributed. It was a time of industrial pollutants, and a time that lacked the concern for coming together that had been there in the 1920s and ’30s.”

It wasn’t until the late 1960s, in fact, that Boston’s citizens and city planners began to remember the waterway that had been hiding in plain sight for so many years. During the environmental awakening of that decade, and upon passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, plans emerged for a restoration of—possibly even an expansion of—Eliot’s original vision.

“I came along at the right time,” says Dan Driscoll, who starting working on the Charles in 1990. “The state economy was booming. There was money, and excitement. A chance to return to the original vision.”

One of the reasons I chose to write a book about Dan Driscoll was to show that one person really can make a difference. But the fact that swimmers were able to dive into the Charles this July was actually the result of the work of many people, and several organizations, including the Charles River Watershed Association and the Charles River Conservancy, which works with the EPA to monitor the river’s water quality. They’re all heroes in my book. And the EPA deserves plenty of credit, too: its grading system proved a great way to publicize the river’s health (or lack thereof), and it was through the agency’s tightening of regulations, via its Clean Charles Initiative, that the river earned its improved grade.

The Charles River still isn’t exactly pristine. Heavy metals and other leftover toxins are still mired at its murky bottom, and its current grade wouldn’t exactly get it into Harvard. But I’ll take its revival as a hopeful sign in a world where environmental hope is often bludgeoned out of us. It’s true that I passed a shopping cart or two when I paddled the river with Dan Driscoll. But I also passed through beautiful floodplains of silver maples.

It took the Charles River Swim Club six months to get the permit for this summer’s public swim, the first to be held in the river since the 1950s. But permit or not, the next time I see the Charles, I plan on doing more than just paddling on top of it. I will be staging a swim of my own—and I’ve already chosen the war cry I will let loose as I cannonball in:


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image of David Gessner
David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at Harvard, and founded the literary journal Ecotone. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. MORE STORIES ➔
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Ludicrous. Make sure your tetanus shot is up-to-date. Never trust the EPA on anything.
Frederick Law Olmstead not only designed Central Park, but he is also responsible for Boston's Emerald Necklace, where one can find Olmstead Park, abutting Jamaica Pond. It's not nearly as grandiose as Central Park, but it does have the Olmstead charm right here in Boston proper.