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The Charles River - A Cleaner River Runs Through Boston


by Leslie Gabriel May 05, 2016

A sunny day on the Charles River Esplanade, Boston MA - The Charles River is much cleaner now.

In April 2016, people from all over the world came together to cheer on runners competing in the Boston Marathon.

But for over a decade, the people of Boston have had good reason to cheer for a very different sort of runner, who made its way through the city every day, and had done so for long before the city was ever founded. 

Just like the world's most prestigious marathon, the Charles River also begins its course in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, although it takes a much more circuitous route to arrive at its finish line in the Boston Harbor, covering 80 miles and crossing through 23 towns before it reaches the final destination.

Last year marked a decade since the Charles receiving a grade of B+ for cleanliness form the EPA. And while a B+ in not being polluted isn't the highest achievement for a body of water, for a river that moves through the heart of a major metropolitan area, that is no small feat. And for a river that was as notoriously polluted as the Charles River was, it is nothing short of a miracle. 

Ten years before that B+, in 1995, the EPA graded the Charles River a D. And it wasn't just the EPA who were judging the Charles harshly. In 1966, the Standells released "Dirty Water," a song in praise of their hometown and the dirty water of the Charles River. It became a victory song played at Fenway Park when the Red Sox won. "Well I love that dirty water; Oh Boston, you're my hometown," the fans would cheer. They had more faith in the Sox breaking the curse of the Bambino and winning a World Series, than they did of ever seeing a clean Charles River.

And you can't really blame them. In 1955, when Bernardo DeVoto wrote in Harpers Magazine that the Charles River was ...

"foul and noisome, polluted by offal and industrious wastes, scummy with oil, unlikely to be mistaken for water"

DeVoto failed to mention that it had taken over 400 years to get that way. As one of the earliest European settlements in North America, the area in and around Boston had centuries to dump agricultural byproducts, industrialized waste and raw sewage directly into the Charles River. 

Still, while people fished out pianos from ponds in Sudbury in attempts to break the curse of Babe Ruth, many just accepted that the Charles River was dirty, and when it was declared illegal to swim or fish there in the mid-twentieth century, people stopped swimming there and delighted in bragging about how dirty the water was. Until the EPA gave the river that D in 1995.

Sometimes Boston revels in being the underdog, and sometimes it likes to win. And beginning in 1995, the city started to clean up its dirtiest act. The EPA handed down a decree, and the Clean Charles Initiative was launched. It was a town by town process, by which each individual municipality was responsible for first of all putting an end to the dumping into the Charles, and then beginning the more arduous task of removing the toxic contaminants that were already in there. One of the more innovative solutions was the use of oysters to filter dirty water, a method that is being used in more and more polluted waterways today.

The result? In 2013, the Charles Conservancy hosted the first public swim in the Charles River since it had been banned in the 1950's. And while the Charles is certainly not out of the woods yet, having suffered toxic algae blooms in recent years, it's worth noting that after that swim in 2013, the Red Sox won the World Series in 2014, finally breaking that curse. Nowadays fans at Fenway don't sing about dirty water nearly as often, even though the Red Sox win a lot more. It makes you wonder, maybe that curse had nothing to do with Babe Ruth after all. Maybe Boston went over a century without a Series win, not because of an ill-advise trade to the Yankees, but because of how badly they were treating there most precious resource.

One thing is for sure, a clean Charles River is good news for everyone. Now relax ...




Leslie Gabriel
Leslie Gabriel

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