scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Dirty water is not forever

A bather beside the Charles River, sometime between 1917 and 1934.Boston Public Library

Bostonians weren’t always afraid to get in the Charles River. An 1898 map depicts five floating bathhouses on the river, run by the city’s Department of Public Baths and playing host to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. But even then, the river was intensely polluted by industry and sewage outflow, its banks “a bed of apparently putrescible sludge,” according to an 1892 report by the Cambridge Park Committee.

Conservationists like landscape architect Charles Eliot wanted to reverse that, allowing the unpleasant tidal estuary to truly become an urban pleasure ground. That vision was largely realized over the next century. The damming of the river's mouth and creation of new riverside parks and paths brought paddling, sailing, biking, and fireworks to the Charles.

But the water itself was slow to catch up. Public swimming was banned in the 1950s. The river's caustic reputation was cemented by the Standells' 1966 song "Dirty Water," its raw guitar riff and chorus ("Well I love that dirty water/ Oh, Boston, you're my home") capturing the gritty, downtrodden city of the time.


For six decades, the water was off-limits save for a recent annual race for elite swimmers. But on July 13, a public swim in the Charles River drew more than 140 pioneering bathers. It was a culmination of decades of concerted efforts by groups such as the Charles River Watershed Association and Charles River Conservancy, which have dramatically improved water quality.

A swimmer dove into the Charles River in July.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

So when "Dirty Water" was played in Fenway Park and bars all over the city this fall after the Red Sox' World Series win, it sounded more like a throwback than an indictment. Like the Red Sox themselves, the Charles may have finally shrugged off its curse. Granted, the river is still plagued by sewage overflow during heavy rains, and swimmers are advised not to touch the toxic bottom. But if current progress continues, perhaps those floating bathhouses could make a comeback.