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Massachusetts Conservation

Charles River Reservation in the

Charles River Basin Historic District

Charles River Reservation
Charles River Reservation
Photograph Courtesy of Ann Chapman

The creation of the Charles River Dam and the subsequent formation of the Charles River Reservation transformed the shoreline of Boston and Cambridge from muddy flats and wet marshes to acres of beautiful river scenery filled with recreational opportunities. The construction of the Charles River Dam near Boston Harbor converted the Charles River from a tidal estuary to a freshwater basin. The alteration of Boston’s landscape at the turn of the 20th century represented the desire of Massachusetts conservationists and landscape planners to preserve and create natural environments in increasingly urban areas.

Charles Eliot, a member of the Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot firm, gets the credit for establishing the Basin as the focal point of the Boston Metropolitan Park System. Charles Eliot’s ideas for landscape along the lower river basin included promenades and plazas, shade trees, concert grounds, gymnasia, and gardens. His desire was to “create a system of public reservation for the benefit of the metropolitan district as a whole.” The completion of the Charles River Dam made Eliot’s vision a reality by altering the public perception of the Charles River as highly polluted and a public nuisance. The Metropolitan Park Commission contributed to the new vision by creating parks and roadways along the river’s embankments for the public’s enjoyment.

Charles River Reservation
Charles River Reservation
Photograph Collection of Library of Congress

Today the Charles River Reservation remains a linear park encompassing 20 miles through Boston, Newton, Watertown, and Weston. The lower, middle, and upper basins span an eight-and-a-half mile stretch of land and are part of the Charles River Basin Historic District. Based on landscape and architectural designs each section within the historic district maintains a distinct character. 

The lower basin is highly structured as a result of its man-made design. The basin features the Harvard Bridge connecting Cambridge and Boston along with views of the State House on top of Beacon Hill.

The location of this area in the heart of downtown makes it one of the most heavily trafficked open spaces in Boston and the most urban of the Metropolitan Park Commission reservations. The middle and upper sections are more natural, with a meandering river. On the upper section there are wooded banks. Each section offers a variety of activities including boating, biking, rowing, sailing, and picnicking. The grounds feature playing fields and ice skating in the winter. Concerts, including performances by the Boston Pops, movies, and special events are regularly offered at the Hatch Memorial Shell along Storrow Drive.

In 2000, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation sponsored a Master Plan for the Charles River Basin. The Master Plan included reshaping the riverbanks and moving industry away from the shoreline. More recreational opportunities including the addition of bike paths and walkways were planned to increase access to the “Central Park” of the Metropolitan Park system. The restoration efforts will realize Eliot’s original vision for the Charles River Reservation.

Plan your visit

The Charles River Reservation comprises a 20 mile stretch of the Charles River from downtown Boston to Riverdale Park in West Roxbury. The Reservation is a Massachusetts State Park and is managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation. A portion of the Park between the Charles River Dam and the Eliot Bridge has been designated the Charles River Basin Historic District. All of the parkways, bridges, and canals bounding the park have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Charles River Reservation Parkways. For more information about the Charles River Reservation including directions, recreational opportunities, and special events visit the Department of Conservation and Recreation website.

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