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Water Resources and the Urban Environment, Lower Charles River Watershed, Massachusetts, 1630–2005

By Peter K. Weiskel, Lora K. Barlow and Tomas W. Smieszek

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

Circular 1280


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Figure 3 - The Lower Charles River watershed in 1852 (modified from Sidney, 1852) - (1.5 MB)--1 page

Figure 4 - Lower Charles River watershed, Massachusetts, 188586 (U.S. Geological Survey, 1890) - (1.54 MB)--1 page

Figure 18 - The Main Drainage Works sewage-collection system, 1884, Boston, Massachusetts, (modified from Clarke, 1888) - (814 KB)--1 page

Report (6.2 MB)--53 pages


The citation for this report, in USGS format, is as follows:

Weiskel, P.K., Barlow, L.K., Smieszek, T.W., 2005, Water resources and the urban environment, lower Charles River watershed, Massachusetts, 1630–2005: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1280, 46 p.

 For more information about USGS activities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, visit the USGS MA-RI Water Science Center Home Page.


The Charles River, one of the Nation’s most historically significant rivers, flows through the center of the Boston metropolitan region in eastern Massachusetts (fig. 1). The lower Charles River, downstream of the original head of tide in Watertown, was originally a productive estuary and important source of fish and shellfish for the Native Americans of the region. This portion of the river has an exceptionally long and colorful human history. In 1615, the explorer Captain John Smith gave the river its modern name, in honor of young Prince Charles of England. In 1617–18, the Native American community of the watershed was decimated by an epidemic, after having continuously occupied the area for the previous 4,000 years. In 1630, the first large group of English settlers, led by John Winthrop, set foot on the Shawmut Peninsula at the mouth of the river (fig. 2), and established the town of Boston. In the 1630s, the first printing press, public park, public school, and college in the English colonies were all established on the banks of the Charles River. Almost immediately, the settlers of Boston and adjacent towns also began to modify the landscape and water resources of the watershed.

Perhaps the most important type of landscape alteration in the watershed was the filling of the extensive salt marshes and tidal flats of the estuary downstream of Watertown (fig. 2). This landmaking activity along the lower Charles River began in the mid-1600s, and did not conclude until the 1950s (Seasholes, 2003). In the early 20th century, the estuary mouth was dammed, creating a freshwater basin in the lower 9.5 miles of the river. A system of parks and parkways was built along the banks of the impounded river (Haglund, 2003). In addition to the mainstem river, virtually all of the remaining water resources in the watershed have also been altered. Most of the river’s tributaries, for example, were culverted, or placed into tunnels, and many of the ponds and freshwater wetlands in the watershed were filled to facilitate urban development.

One additional legacy of the river’s long human history is pollution from industry and sewage. By 1875, a total of 43 mills were operating along the lower Charles River between Watertown Dam and Boston Harbor (Charles River Watershed Association, 2004a). Thousands of gallons of untreated sewage and industrial wastewater entered the river daily through gravity drains, posing a major threat to public health (City of Boston, 1878). Concerted efforts to address the sewage problem began in the late 1870s. By the 1960s, the water quality of the river was significantly improved, yet still not suitable for swimming, fishing, or even boating under most conditions. In 1965, the Charles River Watershed Association was organized and the call to restore the environmental quality of the river and its parklands was heard anew. Passage of the Federal Clean Water Act in 1972 and the subsequent court-ordered reconstruction of the region’s sewage-treatment infrastructure in the 1980s and 1990s (the “Boston Harbor Cleanup”) provided additional impetus to address the river’s remaining pollution problems.

In 1995, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched the Clean Charles 2005 Initiative, which brought together government agencies, private-sector institutions, and environmental organizations to focus on restoring the river to fishable and swimmable conditions by Earth Day 2005. This initiative has achieved substantial improvements in water quality; sewage discharges to the river, for example, have been largely eliminated. Nevertheless, it is now widely acknowledged that full attainment of water-quality standards will likely depend upon improved public understanding of the watershed, continued efforts to eliminate illicit sewage discharges to the river, and better management of the urban runoff that enters the river both directly and from its many tributary streams.



Purpose and Scope

Previous Investigations

Landscape History

Bedrock Geology

Surficial Geology

Human Alteration of the Landscape

Filling of Back Bay

Other Landmaking Projects

Water Resources

Surface-Water Resources


Charles River

Stony Brook

Muddy River

Laundry Brook

Faneuil Brook

Other Streams

Ponds, Reservoirs, and Wetlands

Ground-Water Resources

Water and the Urban Environment

Hydrologic Effects of Urbanization

Factors Controlling Runoff and Recharge

Runoff Quality

Water Supply and Sewage Disposal

The Colonial Era

Public-Water Supply in the Modern Era

Public-Sewage Collection and Disposal in the Modern Era

The Main Drainage Works

The Back Bay Fens Sanitary Improvement

The 1908 Charles River Dam

Recent History



References Cited


1–10. Maps showing:

1. Location and major tributary watersheds of the lower Charles River, Massachusetts, 2004

2. A plan of the town of Boston and its environs, with the lines, batteries, and encampments of the British and American armies, 1776

3. Lower Charles River watershed, 1852

4. Lower Charles River watershed, 1885–86

5. Water resources of the lower Charles River watershed

6. Topography of the lower Charles River watershed

7. Simplified bedrock geology of the lower Charles River watershed

8. Surficial deposits of the lower Charles River watershed

9. The estimated 1630 Boston shoreline, overlying a 1999 orthophotograph of Boston and surrounding areas

10. Land-use types in the lower Charles River watershed, 2002

11. Photograph showing the culverting of Stony Brook at Forest Hills, about 1905

12. Map showing major tributary watersheds and small watershed areas of the lower Charles River

13–16. Graphs showing:

13. Population of Boston, 1790 to 2000

14. A, Average monthly precipitation and evaporation from surface-water bodies in the lower Charles River watershed; B, average monthly temperature, city of Boston; C, average annual rainfall, simulated runoff, simulated evapotranspiration, and simulated recharge in the lower Charles River watershed

15. A, Rainfall measured in 15-minute increments at the Watertown Dam during a storm, July 27–28, 2000; B, streamflow per unit watershed area during this storm at stream-gaging stations in the multifamily, Faneuil Brook, Laundry Brook, and Charles River watersheds; C, surficial deposits; D, average slope; and E, impervious surface area in the Laundry Brook, Faneuil Brook, and multifamily watersheds

16. Boxplots showing quality of runoff in the Charles River at Watertown, and in major tributary streams of the lower Charles River watershed during wet-weather events, 2000: A, fecal coliform; B, total phosphorus; C, total recoverable lead

17. Lithograph of the Boston Water Celebration on Boston Common, October 25, 1848

18. Map showing the Main Drainage Works sewage-collection system, Boston, 1884

19. Schematic of combined-sewer overflow (CSO) under dry-and wet-weather conditions

20. Map showing the confluence of Stony Brook, Muddy River, and the Charles River, as it existed in the early 19th century, and the subsequently constructed area of the Back Bay Fens, about 1903

21. Photograph showing the seawall and tidal flats on the Boston side of the lower Charles River, northern Back Bay, about 1900


1. Named tributaries of the lower Charles River, Massachusetts

2. Characteristics of watersheds that drain directly to the lower Charles River

3. Ponds, reservoirs, and wetlands of the lower Charles River watershed

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