Circling the Square

The Charles

Once a happy hunting ground of the Indians and the background for a Norse saga, the noble Charles maintains its dignity despite the aqueous encroachments of the University. Rising from its headwaters in the town of Hopkinton, southwest of Cambridge, the Charles follows a circuitons course for sixty-nine miles to its mouth in Boston Bay, draining along its way about 300 square miles of good Massachusetts soil. Twenty-six artificial dams scattered along the river might interest any men who contemplate an upstream journey in a canoe to Wellesley.

But the Charles River was not the same several million years ago in the pre-glacial era. At that time, it probably took the most obvious shortcut to the ocean at Narragansett Bay, considerably south of its present mouth. In those days, the Charles was just an agglomeration of several smaller streams. Then, only two million years ago, there was a great uplift in the land area followed by a street of glacial ice down from the Arctic. With the gradual recession of the ice, the Charles became a maze of small lakes and streams that were soon afterwards consolidated into one more or less continuous river which cut a new route winding northward in and around obstructions caused by glacial deposits. Today, it pursues a zigzag path from Hopkin to past Cambridge and into Boston Bay, hitting twenty-eight towns and cities along its whole course.

Called "Quineboquin" or "circular" by the Algonquin Indians, the river first deceived explorers by its broad mouth and led them to believe that it was the gateway to the vast expanses of the interior. Even Virginia's famous Captain John Smith, was fascinated by the Charles and he went to New England to seek gold, and if not gold perhaps fish, at the source of the river. He gave a map of the Boston area to England's Prince Charles, who took great delight in naming the various landmarks of the area and who finally gave his own name to the river.

Harvard had a definite financial interest in the Charles for sometime. Before anyone had conceived the idea of building a permanent bridge across the river, the College prospered on a ferry boat business. It was the ever enterprising John Hancock who in 1786 spanned the Charles despite objections from the Harvard Corporation that such facile communication would disturb the College's scholars and be conducive to corrupting their morals. Hancock silenced the President and Fellows with a grant of two hundred pounds per annum for the toll bridge concession. But Hancock's profitable monopoly suffered thereupon from a bridge-building craze which lasted down to 1858 when the Commonwealth took over all the bridges. Harvard, in the meantime, continuing to assess each bridge entrepreneur for two or three hundred pounds, suffered no ill-effects.

Whether many of the inhabitants of Black Bay realize it or not, their dark mansions are resting upon oyster shells, debris, and refuse which were used to fill in the area. And an additional mark of the Charle's utility is that a number of such reputable towns as Wellesley, Newton, and Watertown have obtained all or part of their water supply from it. Despite what some rumor mongers may have said, the Charles is pretty clean, except for a small amount of sediment.

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