Charles River Crossings

Charles River Crossings

One of the most famous Charles River crossings memorialized in Longfellow’s poem happened on a moonlit night in April 1775 when Paul Revere quietly rowed across the Charles from Boston to Charlestown, a short time before British Regulars disembarked from their ships in Boston Harbor to cross the Charles and begin their cold, damp seventeen-mile march to the farming community of Concord where they would seize the colonists’ stockpile of weapons, the beginning of the Revolutionary War in America.

Today we can cross from Boston to Charlestown on the majestic cable-stayed Bunker Hill Zakim Bridge that spans the Charles River between Charlestown and Boston. A signature part of the Boston skyline since its completion in 2002, this elegant bridge stands tall with its 270’ towers resembling the Bunker Hill monument in Charlestown, its cables reminiscent of the stays on the tall ships that were built in East Boston in the 1700s using the plentiful white pines of Massachusetts for the masts. Leonard P. Zakim whose name was given to the completed bridge was a religious and civil rights leader who “built bridges” between different ethnic, religious, and socio-economic groups in the Boston area.

The building of the ten-lane suspension bridge was part of the “Big Dig,” the massive Central Artery Tunnel Project that replaced a large highway overpass that had physically divided the city of Boston for several years, although intended as an earlier attempt at “urban renewal.” Vehicle traffic now flows across the Zakim Bridge then underground through the large Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Tunnel, and the above-ground corridor created by the removal of the overpass is now the site of the Rose Kennedy Greenway that extends from Causeway Street to Chinatown.

At the hill in Charlestown where the Sons of Liberty looked across the Charles for the lantern signal in the steeple of Christ Church in Boston’s North End (the old North Church described by Longfellow), you can find the five-acre oval Paul Revere Park, defined by a walking path and landscaped with native plants and grasses where you can have a close-up view of the Zakim. This and other parks, including the small but lovely Nashua Street Park and North Point Park in East Cambridge, were designed to mitigate the environmental impact of the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge construction.

Earliest Crossings and First Bridges

In 1631 before there were any bridges across the Charles River, a ferry began to transport people from Charlestown to Boston. To supplement the income of their humble beginnings as a college to train young men for the ministry, Harvard College  received tolls from the Charlestown to Boston ferry. Then Harvard was granted ferry rights from a landing at the bottom of Dunster Street (now North Harvard Street in Cambridge) to a path in Brookline that wound through Roxbury, traversing the strip of land called the “Neck” connecting the Boston peninsula with the mainland.

When people needed a sturdier crossing to transport their animals and produce across the river, a wooden drawbridge was constructed in 1662, called the Great Bridge. In 1915 this bridge which was often in need of repair was replaced with the construction of an arched bridge of reinforced concrete faced with red bricks, designed by Wheelwright, Haven, and Hoyt, and funded by the family fortune of Larz Anderson and his wife Isabel Weld Anderson. Businessman and American diplomat Larz dedicated the Anderson Memorial Bridge to his father General Nicholas Longworth Anderson who had distinguished himself in the Civil War. Renovations are in progress as I write this and will include pedestrian underpasses on both sides of the river.

Another early bridge was built by Native Americans in Natick who had settled on both sides of the river in the 1660s, while setting up basket-like weirs for catching fish. Their bridge spanned eighty-feet across the river with a nine-foot- high arch. Today a stone bridge at that site next to the Bacon Library provides a crossing for Pleasant Street as it continues into Dover.

Also in the 1600s, Thomas Mayhew’s successful grist mill, powered by the first known dam on the Charles (1634), eventually required a sturdy bridge in 1641 to transport the grain and afford passage across the Charles for people and their animals. An engraving on the current Galen Street Bridge states that “… Here by the mill, bridges were [also] built A.D. 1667 and 1719.”


To write this blog I consulted:

Brief History of Cambridge, Mass. – Cambridge Historical

© 2016 City of Cambridge, MA

Hall, Max. The Charles The People’s River – published by David Godine in 1986, this is the earliest book I came across that inspired me to learn more about this famous river after living in Watertown for fifteen years, biking along the trail that followed the river to Boston, and learning to sail at Community Boating.










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