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Dirty Water

His Majesty King Charles I, namesake of the Charles River in Massachusetts

In the early 17th century, Captain John Smith completed a survey of much of the land that would later be called New England.  When Captain Smith returned to England to present his findings to King Charles I, he showed him a map of the new land and suggested to His Majesty that he should feel free to change any of the “barbarous names” on the map to more “civilized” ones.  King Charles did decide to exercise this privilege, and switched out four of the “barbarous names” he found.  One of those names that the king felt had no place in civilization was the name of a river, which was henceforth called the Charles River.  (That river’s long-forgotten “barbarous” name was the ponderously long “Massachusetts River”.  Thank heaven we don’t have to wrap our mouths around a word like that anymore.)

The Charles is not very long, as rivers go.  It’s about 80 miles long, and drains roughly 380 square miles of land.  Before the arrival of European settlers, the indigenous people of the area, the Massachusett, used the river for transportation and fishing.  European settlers did that for a while, too, but eventually realized the potential for the expansion of industry along the river.  Starting in 1640, mills started appearing on the riverbank.  Before long, the river wasn’t so useful for transportation, as dams started to appear.  The Moody Street Dam in modern Waltham, completed in 1814, created a 200-acre mill pond.  The dam was constructed to power cotton mills in the area, but the pond proved popular for boaters who flocked to the site for recreation.

More and more dams were built as industry flourished along the river.  In the 9½-mile stretch of the Charles between Watertown and Boston Harbor, there were 83 different mills alone!  While dams made navigation along the river difficult, industry made fishing impossible.  The once plentiful fish populations of the Charles were wiped out by industrial pollution.  By 1875, most of the Charles was too polluted to support any kind of fishing industry at all, or even recreational fishing.

Norumbega Park in Auburndale, Massachusetts, a popular boating site when the river was cleaner.

In 1908, landscape architect Charles Eliot came to the city government of Boston with a plan to change this terrible development.  A large cause of pollution in the Charles was the fact that the last 9½ miles of the river were a tidal estuary, which pulled pollution upstream from Boston Harbor.  Eliot’s vision was to build a dam at the mouth of the river to stem the intake of polluted harbor water.  Eliot won over the city government and got his dam.  Better still, he convinced them to require that industry be moved away from the lower Charles River, which also helped to cut back on pollution.  The result was a cleaner river, a cleaner harbor, and a popular new aquatic recreation site called the Head of the Charles.

Due to the cuts in pollution, the Charles River was once again able to cleanse itself naturally, and Boston became a more appealing place to live.  What made Boston even more appealing was the Quabbin-to-Boston water system, constructed in the 1930s, which brought water from the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts, about 60 miles away.  This increased water source made rapid growth of the city of Boston possible.  Unfortunately, this increased growth generated more pollution than ever before, and the Charles became filthy again.  By the 1960s, it was full of industrial spills, abandoned cars, old appliances, and all manner of toxic discharge this decomposing trash will give off.

In 1965, the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) was formed with the intention of cleaning up the river again.  The CRWA advocated for the preservation of the wetlands around the river, as well.  The wetlands were threatened by developers.  The CRWA pointed out that if the wetlands were drained, flooding would be a much greater problem, since the wetlands absorb floodwaters.  The Army Corps of Engineers had been consulted to design and construct new dams to control flooding, but the CRWA stopped them, insisting that keeping the wetlands in place was a better option.  Moreover, the wetlands helped to filter out pollution.  If the river were surrounded by dams, that pollution would rush downstream and into the harbor.

Also in 1965, the Boston rock band the Standells released a song about the Charles River titled, aptly enough, “Dirty Water”.  It was a tongue-in-cheek salute to Boston, ironically celebrating the polluted water, muggers and crime:

Yeah, down by the river
Down by the banks of the river Charles
(Aw, that's what's happenin' baby)
That's where you'll find me
Along with lovers, muggers, and thieves
(Aw, but they're cool people)
Well I love that dirty water
Oh, Boston, you're my home
(Oh, you're the number one place)

The song reached #11 on the Billboard charts that year, and it made its point.  Years later, in 1991, “Dirty Water” started to be played in stadiums after the local sports teams won a game.  Whether or not “Dirty Water” was meant as sincere celebration of Boston at the time, it certainly has taken on epic status among Bostonians (particularly sports fans) today.

The Standells’ single from 1965.

All through the 1970s, the CRWA advocated for wastewater treatment plants and for stricter controls on industrial pollution.  They pushed for the removal of landfills near the river, which bled toxins into the river.  The CRWA also pushed for the enforcement of environmental laws, and pressed the commonwealth of Massachusetts to start cleaning up Boston Harbor, an effort that began in 1983.  Boston Harbor was used as an issue against Governor Michael Dukakis during his 1988 presidential campaign against Vice President George H. W. Bush.  The harbor was in the process of getting cleaned up, but it had only been five years.  The cleanup began under Dukakis’s second term as governor, and the pollution had been accumulating for decades.  In fact, the cleanup effort is still going on.  Today, 74% of the Charles River is considered suitable for swimming in dry weather.  Fish have returned to the river, as well.  Pollution is still a threat, pouring in from the congested land in eastern Massachusetts and the busy highways, which also contribute to the mess.  On July 13, 2013, the first “public swim” in the Charles since the 1950s was sponsored by the Charles River Conservancy.  While things are improving, it still has a way to go.

Scene from the first public swim in the Charles, July 13, 2013

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