Fourth of July on the Esplanade

If you have ever had the experience of participating in the Fourth of July celebration at the Hatch Shell by the Charles River in Boston, you know how exciting that can be with the Boston Pops playing from the band shell, fireworks reflected over the water, flag-waving crowds, and cannons fired during the climactic moments at the end of Tchaikowsky’s 1812 Overture. People usually mark their territory on the grassy oval area in front of the performance stage with blankets and coolers as early as possible and then picnic and play games on the grass while awaiting the main event.

tFor many years, the people of Boston and visitors from around the country and the world have enjoyed these concerts. In addition to the annual Fourth of July productions, the Hatch Shell provides a wonderful outdoor setting for free public performances of classical music by the Landmark and the Longwood Orchestras, and summer concerts featuring major artists sponsored by local radio stations WZLX and MIXFEST, as well as productions by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.

On the grassy Music Oval in front of the Hatch Shell, Boston Pops director Arthur Fiedler began to conduct concerts in 1929 in a temporary band shell and then continued to direct these free open-air performances for the public in the many years that followed, as the venue expanded to the larger space in today’s Hatch Memorial Shell, a centerpiece for this part of the Esplanade. Within site of the band shell, a statue of Arthur Fiedler looks out from a landscape of trees, small islands, and a footbridge, and a dock with his name has been added to the Charles riverbank. This beloved Boston musician died in 1979.

Boston’s Charles River basin, a man-made pond encircled by a small park, has long been one of the most memorable sights of Boston and Cambridge, often captured by photographers and artists.


However, the serene waterscape we enjoy today was not always so pleasant. The waters of the Charles River estuary where the fresh water of the river mingled with the salt-water of the harbor became enclosed with all the land-making of nineteenth century Boston, and when the tides receded, an noxious fetid swamp remained.

A civic-minded group led by Boston lawyer and investment banker James J. Storrow envisioned the creation of a pond in this tidal area becoming the city’s crown jewel similar to that of the Alster River basin in Hamburg, Germany, and proposed a dam to prevent the tidal flow of seawater. Landscape architect Charles Elliot drew up plans for the dam and the design of the land bordering the Charles River Basin in Boston between the Longfellow Bridge and the Harvard Bridge (also called the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge). Additional stone and gravel formed more natural-looking, sloping riverbanks.

While plans were underway for the dam, Frederick Law Olmsted, first landscape architect in America and designer of New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace planned a park on the embankment downriver from the Longfellow Bridge for the children and working people of Boston’s West End. He and his protégé Charles Elliott understood the need that people have for fresh air and green open spaces, especially in an increasingly industrialized world. The walking paths along the riverbank in Boston became known as the “Esplanade” (French word for “a walkway alongside a body of water.” Before biking and running were allowed in the 1960s, many Bostonians would walk or promenade along the Esplanade.)

Then in 1951 after construction of a highway between the river and Back Bay that came to be called Storrow Drive, landscape architect Arthur A. Shurcliff of Olmsted’s firm sought to mitigate the effects of the road by enhancing or adding to the Charles River’s park lands wherever possible, creating islands to replace some of the land along the river bank that had been lost to road building. After Storrow’s death, his wife Helen Osborne Storrow donated in his memory one million dollars toward the funding of these projects around the basin.  Along the Boston Esplanade is a granite memorial to James and Helen Storrow that overlooks a small boat dock.


Besides consulting Karl Haglund’s extensive treatment of the creation of the Boston Basin in Inventing the Charles River, (sited in previous articles), I have referred to Nancy Seasholes’article “Gaining Ground: Boston’s Topographical Development in Maps,” in Mapping Boston, The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 2001. I would also refer a reader interested in this topic to follow her Walking Tours of Boston’s Made Land. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006.









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