History of the Charles River

1. Story of a River - Milford Reservoir (1)Thousands of years ago, glaciers dredged up clay, sand, and gravel, pushed aside large stones, and carved out hollow spaces in the earth. Then, as the climate began to warm, the melting glaciers formed small ponds and tiny rivulets that swelled with rain and snowmelt and flowed down sloping banks to form rivers and streams. From there the water tumbled into a great volcanic basin before finding its way to the Atlantic Ocean. The water further receded and more land emerged, separating a large waterway into two rivers that would become the Charles and the Merrimack, the former continuing to flow into a large bay.

As the glaciers retreated, Native Americans settled in the forested Northeast region. Speaking the same language, they became part of an Algonquian nation made up of different tribes. One of these was the Massachusetts tribe that settled in a large bay where the fresh water of a Great River mingled with the water of the ocean, creating an estuary that had an abundance of herring, shad, alewife, and Atlantic salmon. The early Americans used small stones to create dams or wove basket-like weirs to slow the water’s flow so they could more easily catch the fish with their nets or spears. The Native Americans living upriver from the bay called the Great River Quinobequin because of its tortuous route.

Charles River Source

The winding course of the Charles is the result of the rocky terrain of this area and the fact that it is a small river without the power to carve a straighter, deeper channel.

Today the Charles River’s official source is Echo Lake in Milford, Massachusetts, at 385 feet above sea level. The Milford Water Company created this reservoir in 1881 to provide water for nearby communities by damming a 108-acre meadow. Using granite from a nearby quarry, they built a small, circular dam between rocky outcroppings at the southern end. Three small streams in Hopkinton, as well as springs from below the reservoir, are believed to contribute to this man-made lake.

Water is piped through an opening in the Milford Dam and passes through a series of filters. Then the river emerges a few feet below the Dilla Street Bridge and begins its journey, briefly disappearing beneath Center Street in Milford before meandering eighty miles through twenty-three towns and cities on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Early History

Europeans were sailing along the eastern coast of North America over four hundred years ago, fishing, trapping for furs, and trading with the Indians. In 1614, explorer, soldier, and entrepreneur Captain John Smith of England found his way into the Great Bay that he called “Massachusetts” and named the river that emptied into it after the reigning King Charles I. Captain Smith saw an opportunity, and with his firsthand accounts and personally drawn maps, he sought to entice his countrymen to leave their homes in England and start new lives in what would become America.

A few years after the Mayflower arrived on the shores of the New World in 1621, with settlers in search of religious freedom, Puritan lawyer John Winthrop sailed with another group of like-minded Christians. They settled first in Salem, then Charlestown, in search of an adequate water supply. Reverend William Blackstone, who had left a failed settlement in Weymouth and was living alone on the narrow Shawmut Peninsula across the Charles River from Charlestown, welcomed the newcomers to the peninsula with its abundant water. Winthrop and a thousand members of the group moved to the peninsula in 1630 and named it “Boston” after the town they had left behind in Lincolnshire, England. They also called it “the city upon a hill” because of its promise of religious freedom.