Charles River Basin | Upper Charles River Reservation

The Upper Charles River Reservation extends from the Watertown dam to Riverdale Park in West Roxbury. Throughout the reservation, continuous public pathways take visitors along the banks of the river, winding through the communities of Watertown, Waltham, Newton and Weston. The reservation links the Upper Charles and its surrounding communities with the Boston and Cambridge pathway system, and, by restoring native plants to the river’s banks, has encouraged a return of local birds and wildlife.

The easterly stretch from Watertown Square to Prospect Street in Waltham is a narrow winding body of water bordered by a ribbon of lush vegetation. Dams and arching bridges regularly punctuate this corridor. The westerly stretch, the “Lakes District,” is characterized by broad and placid water, undulating forested shorelines, small islands, and a series of intimate coves created by the damming of the river at Moody Street in Waltham.

The Lakes District, hidden in a densely populated region, preserves a natural and wild quality. Visitors can see a variety of bird and animal life: great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, mallard ducks, mergansers, cormorants, kingfishers, warblers, sparrows, swallows, woodpeckers, muskrats, rabbits, raccoons, mice, painted and snapping turtles, snakes and frogs.

The banks of the Upper Charles River Reservation were the primary focus of the first park land acquisitions of the Metropolitan Park Commission (the forerunner of the DCR). Historic parks such as Hemlock Gorge, Riverside, and Norumbega were created in the early 1900s, and soon became the most popular recreation sites in metropolitan Boston.

Riverside and Norumbega Parks were eventually closed in the early 1960s, following considerable pollution of the river, but from the 1970s an increased public appreciation of environmental issues led to a clean up of the river’s water quality and its banks; five new riverside parks were opened in the 1980s in conjunction with local towns.

A six mile section of the Upper Charles, from Watertown Square to Commonwealth Avenue in Newton and Weston, has been restored as a self-sustaining natural environment. A continuous pedestrian pathway now links the Upper Charles and its surrounding communities with the Charles River pathway system in Cambridge and Boston.

Reclaiming the Upper Charles River Reservation

The Upper Charles River Reservation has been completely transformed over the past twenty-five years. Both the quality of the water and the condition of the river banks has been dramatically enhanced. New park projects have had an increased focus on habitat enhancement, invasive plant management, proper storm water treatment, and using mostly indigenous plantings. There has also been a much stronger effort to protect and enhance floodplains and wetland resource areas. The greenway along the banks of the river has been designed to function as a self-sustaining natural environment.

Traditionally, the great rivers of the United States have been regarded as major industrial resources and modes of transportation. Between 1634 and the early 1800s, nine dams were built on the Charles River from Natick to Watertown to provide water power for new industries. The Moody Street Mill in Waltham, built in 1814, was the first mill in America that combined cotton spinning and weaving in one plant. It was also the first to use water-powered looms. The Charles River Museum of Industry, located in this historic mill, provides an excellent portrayal of the river's industrial past.

With riverside industrial use came disposal of liquid waste, solid waste, and surface run-off. The dams along the river and the industrial pollutants severely damaged the ecological health of the Charles throughout the 1800s. In the late 1800s officials began to take notice of such impacts, and initiated measures to protect the river's open space and water resources. Much of the estimated 18 miles of unprotected, undeveloped river bank along the upper Charles River Reservation was acquired by the Metropolitan Parks Commission, the predecessor to the MDC and DCR, in the late 1890s.

These key land acquisitions were followed by forty years of river improvement and park construction. Historic parks such as Hemlock Gorge, Riverside and Norumbega (located in Newton, Needham and Weston) were created, as well as the Quinobequin and Norumbega roads, Leo J. Martin Golf Course, and bathing beaches with facilities in West Roxbury, Watertown, and Waltham. These sections of the river were used extensively for canoeing, boating, swimming, walking, and fishing. The Upper Charles River Reservation, in particular Riverside and Norumbega, was one of the most popular recreation sites in metropolitan Boston.

Between 1930 and 1970, however, sewage and industrial wastes, already a problem in the 1890s, intensified as development increased rapidly throughout the metropolitan area. The metropolitan sewers built at the turn of the century could not keep up with the intense growth in the region. The river's water quality, therefore, deteriorated once again, and its recreational appeal declined. Riverside and Norumbega parks fell into disrepair and were eventually closed in the early 1960s. The construction of Route 128 and the Massachusetts Turnpike over and around the river further exemplifies the shift in priorities and attitudes towards the Charles River at this time.

Fortunately, the environmental movement of the early 1970s directly benefited the Charles River Reservation. Through the efforts of public agencies like MWRA and the MDC, and citizen action groups like the Charles River Watershed Association, the river's water quality was significantly improved. The river's value as an ecological and recreational resource was also rediscovered. The remaining portions of Riverside and Norumbega parks were improved and re-opened. The enhanced water quality led directly to a renewed focus on the banks of the Charles River, and the reclamation and creation of today’s greenway corridor along the Upper Charles Reservation.