How Long is the Charles River?

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on May 13, 2010

Sharp-eyed readers of ArchitectureBoston may have noticed a discrepancy in the lengths cited by Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, in our “Political Science” interview, and Christopher Swain, who swam the entire river, in our “Other Voices: Boston Harbor” feature. Here are their responses to the editor’s question about the actual length.

Bob Zimmerman (80 miles): The accepted length of the Charles is 80 miles. It’s actually slightly more than that. The accepted headwaters is Echo Lake, a drinking-water source in Hopkinton, which is fed by a small stream issuing from Central Hill in Hopkinton, but Christopher didn’t swim that little stream.

Christopher also swam beyond the New Charles River Dam into the harbor, which historically would have been the mouth of the Charles River at the beginning of its estuary, but with the creation of the dam first in 1908 and then again in 1976, the length of the river was “shortened.” Everything beyond the dam is saltwater, and therefore no longer the river.

Christopher Swain (81 miles): My calculation included the stream from the Central Hill Swamp, which is not swimmable—except perhaps by a frog. I did hike and wade this section, however (as I did every un-swimmable section) and that’s how I got a total of 81 miles.

The New Charles River Dam is, of course, man-made. The mouth of the river—the actual hydromorphological end of the Charles—stretches out underneath the spot now spanned by the Charlestown Bridge. Had I stopped at the NCR Dam, I would not have been able to claim I swam the river’s entire length.

When we try to fit rivers into man-made constructs, we do so in the interest of convenience, not truth. And I believe we do this at our peril.

(But what else would we expect a river swimmer to conclude?)

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