Saturday, February 19, 2011


By Archie Mazmanian

About five (5) years ago, a friend brought to my attention the following inscription on the Galen Street Bridge over the Charles River in Watertown Square:


I was surprised by this information, especially the dates, recalling from grade school history the Pilgrims at the Plymouth colony in 1624 and the Puritans led by John Winthrop at the Boston colony in 1629; and this same grade school history had taught the story of John Smith and Pocahontas in the Virginia settlements prior to these Massachusetts settlements. With a Google search I learned that Captain John Smith, from the Jamestown (Virginia) settlement in the early 1600, explored Massachusetts and Maine, with trips in 1614 and 1616, and wrote a book: “A Description of New England (1616),” available online via Google at:

The Charles was a tidal river, with estuaries and tidal flats, back then. The Indians had great respect for this and other rivers in Massachusetts. As the Boston colony expanded, the Charles was convenient not only for travel and fishing and fowling, but as a means of disposing of wastes. Over time, as the Boston colony further grew, it was realized that good health and the environment required steps to control impacts upon the Charles, recognizing also the Charles’ recreational contributions to the adjoining communities. Wikipedia provides a concise history of the Charles River, including the steps taken by the state and the communities that gave us the Charles we know today, which as a result of damming is more an elongated lake than a flowing river. The filling in of the Back Bay and the Charles’ tidal flats provided more land for development and for recreation.

My family moved to Brookline’s Cottage Farm Neighborhood in the summer of 1973, my wife, our four (4) children all under four (4) years of age, and my mother. We were just a couple of blocks from Commonwealth Avenue and the Boston University Bridge (formerly known as the Cottage Farm Bridge) and a hop, skip and a jump from Magazine Beach in Cambridge that I mentioned in Part I. As our kids were growing up, the Charles became part of their learning and entertainment, and I also learned a great deal through their innocent eyes as we explored both the Boston and Cambridge sides of the Charles, sometimes together, sometimes separately.

Before getting into these memories, back in 1973 the BU Bridge, other Charles River bridges, Storrow Drive in Boston and Memorial Drive in Cambridge were under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan District Commission, commonly referred to as the “MDC.” There was a time when the MDC provided relief from the urban environment. Driving on MDC roads prohibiting commercial vehicles could be enjoyable. But over time, as traffic increased, MDC roadways faced many of the same problems as urban roadways.

The MDC also provided recreational facilities, especially along the Charles River in both Boston and Cambridge. Over the years, due to budgetary (and thus political) issues, the MDC could not keep up with the growth of use of these recreational facilities. As a result, changes in state governance have limited the role of the MDC, especially as it relates to the Charles River. The long deferred bridge work along the Charles will take years of corrective action. When completed, will the Charles provide comfort to its communities? Unlike the Mississippi River, the Charles is not commemorated in song. While “Ole Man River” just “keeps rollin' along,” the Charles has been dammed. But that doesn’t mean that the Charles should be damned. The Charles is too valuable a jewel to be tarnished.

[Part IV will discuss what I learned of the Charles through my children’s eyes.]

Ed: I think the following is an addendum from Archie:

The link works with your Blog post and the book can be downloaded from the website linked to. Also, the website provides a link to Capt. Smith's 1616 map of New England which may be of interest to visitors to your Blog.

Ed 2:

For prior installments, please see:

Part II, 2/5/11:

Part I, 1/29/11: