The Charles River: in the Right Place at the Right Time

The Charles River from Weston Bridge, Auburndale, Mass.

The Charles River & Newton

The City of Newton is defined by the Charles.  It has the river on its borders in the south, west, and north, and it was on the river's banks that the city got its start -- not as one unified town, but at first as a string of villages that grew up along the watercourse that provided abundant power for mills and manufacturies.  Improved transportation -- first roads, then rail -- gave those factories better access to markets.  It also tied together the villages of Newton and brought the 18 square miles of farms and woods bounded by the Charles into a closer relationship with the metropolis at its doorstep, Boston.

Through the nineteenth century, Newtonites enjoyed the salubrity of life in the country as they turned farm lanes into residential streets and rode the trains and trolleys to work in town.  And as the mill economy waned at the end of the 1800s, the Charles took on a new role.  The trains and trolleys began to bring Bostonians out to the river in large numbers -- not to work, but to play.  They came with picnic baskets to wander the parks and preserves newly created by the Metropolitan Parks Commission. They marveled at the menagerie at Norumbega Park.  They rented canoes, or kept their own, at the many boathouses on the river.  On summer Saturdays and Sundays, the Charles near Riverside could become a sort of bank-to-bank party room, crowded with canoes full of young people out for a good time on the river.

All this leisure time and recreational opportunity was a new thing, and the populace created a record of it in a new way.  They bought and sent picture postcards -- millions of them.  Postcards printed with colored views were an innovation of the 1890s, a happy conjunction of the technologies of photography and printing and with railroads, which had steadily lowered the cost of transporting freight -- including mail.  Penny postcards captured the public imagination as no other fad had before them.

The popularity of postcards in the decades between the 1890s and World War I is indicated by the numbers that still survive a century later.  If you want a newspaper or a phonograph cylinder from the era before the first World War you will have to look high and low, but any Boston-area flea market worthy of the name will offer a score of views of local weekend destinations postmarked anywhere from 1905 into the 1920s -- the brightly lit dance halls of Revere Beach, the leafy promenades of Salem Willows, and of course the sun-splashed boathouses of the Charles River.

The picnickers and canoeists left Newton carrying huge quantities of postcards that pictured the Charles and its landmarks -- Upper Falls, Lower Falls, Echo Bridge, Hemlock Gorge, Riverside, Norumbega Park, the mills, the bridges, the dams, and the canoeists.  Millions went into the mail, and millions more went into albums that became family heirlooms.  Some of these were eventually donated to the Newton History Museum at the Jackson Homestead, and that's where the collection of postcards you see on this site began.

The postcard craze wasn't confined to the Charles, by any means.  All the important landmarks in Newton (and many puzzlingly unimportant ones) appear in the postcard documentation of Newton's life.  But no subject appeared on nearly as many postcards as the Charles.

The Hard-Working River

The Charles today is slow and civilized, tamed by dams that have turned it into a series of elongated, picturesque lakes that make the river a marvelous resource for recreation and natural beauty.  The original purpose of those dams was almost the opposite.  They made the Charles a very hard-working river.

Water power made Newton Upper Falls a manufacturing center as early as the late 1600s.  In 1688 the first dam was built to power a sawmill, and soon the banks of the Charles in the area of Newton Upper Falls were spotted with mills that used water power to saw lumber, grind flour, and to "full" woolen cloth -- to pound the fabric with fuller's earth -- and more.  By 1790, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.  Simon Elliot owned four mills in the growing village devoted to grinding tobacco into snuff, under the supervision of a master snuff maker recruited from Germany.  After 1800 the Newton Iron Works used water power to manufacture thousands of tons of nails and other hardware each year.  By the 1840s Otis Pettee's Elliot Mills, where 252 looms were installed in a single room, were producing 60,000 yards of cotton calico cloth a week.  Later, in the 1880s, the Upper Falls mill complex was sold and converted to a silk factory, and the new owner operated it into the 1950s. The mills begun in 1840 are still in use -- restaurants, offices and shops now fill the space.

Industry followed the river over time.  Just downstream, Newton Lower Falls got a slightly later start: in 1704 a dam was built to supply power for an ironworks.  Other businesses soon followed: a nail factory, a tannery, a snuff mill.  But it was papermaking that put Lower Falls on the map, literally.  A second dam was constructed slightly downstream in 1788.  In 1790 one John Ware built a paper mill at the upper dam.  By 1816 there were three paper mills at the lower dam and four at the upper dam, and legal battles erupted over the rights to the power the Charles provided.

The paper industry that flourished in the village through the first half of the nineteenth century was doubly dependent on the Charles -- for water, and for power. P aper was made from cotton and rags, softened in water and beaten into a pulp by water-powered machinery. Other machines separated the pulp from the water in a continuous process that made long rolls of paper.  Demand was so great that rags were imported Europe and the Near East.  A search for other materials resulted in the 1850s in technology that used wood pulp, and the mills at Lower Falls suffered from the competition of newer paper mills built closer to the abundant sources of wood in western Massachusetts and elsewhere.  The Civil War boosted paper prices temporarily, but by the 1870s the mills were either converted to other uses or demolished.  By 1900 only one paper mill was still operating.

The Coming of the Roads

Newton Lower Falls and Newton Upper Falls alike grew as the mill owners built large houses for themselves and much humbler housing for the influx of laborers who worked in their factories.  And as their output grew, so did the transportation system.  While the Charles was a great source of power, it wasn’t much use for transportation.  The goods manufactured on its banks moved overland to Boston Harbor for shipment.  As the volume of this traffic grew it offered an obvious opportunity.  In 1809 a private company became the major thoroughfare connecting Newton to points east and west.  (Rebuilt repeatedly, it became one of the first limited-access highways and is now Route 9.)

After the Boston and Worcester Railroad opened a line through West Newton in 1834, the wagons from the mills in Upper Falls were routed over Chestnut Street to transfer goods to freight cars and a stage coach ran between the West Newton depot and the village of Upper Falls.  Newton Lower Falls, on the Natick Road (now Washington Street) was bypassed by the first railroad line in the area, which went through Weston instead in 1830, but a decade later a spur line was run through the village.

Further north and east, down the river, there were other major mill sites.  The Bemis family operated a paper mill in the North Village, as it was called then, as early as the 1770s, and rebuilt the brick mill and dam (at what is now the corner of Bridge and California streets in Nonantum) about 1820.

Railroads and Trolley Cars

While the villages grew up on the banks of the Charles, the 18 square miles of land enclosed by the loop of the river remained largely open farmland until the second half of the nineteenth century.  Rails changed that -- first railroads and later trolley lines.  After the 1830s, it seemed railroad lines ran everywhere.  Along with freight an increasing number of local passenger trains provided easy transportation to downtown Boston.  Newton began to grow as a suburb, and the depots on the Boston and Worcester line became the focus of commercial development -- Newton Corner, Newtonville, West Newton, Newton Centre, Newton Highlands, Upper Falls.

A rail line that connected to the Charles River Railroad at Brookline was laid out through Newton Upper Falls in 1852, and with this direct link the village thrived -- and the railroad, rather than the river, became the new magnet for attracting factories and businesses.  By 1886 the Boston and Worcester had merged several lines to become the Boston and Albany Railroad, and built a circular line.  The main line through Newton Corner, Newtonville and West Newton was connected to the southern line, called the Highland Branch, that ran from Brookline to Riverside.  New stations were built at Woodland, Eliot, and Waban.  The Circuit Railroad started a residential boom in Newton that continued up to World War I.

As the farm fields were divided into suburban streets lined with homes, horse-drawn trolley lines reached out from the depots to cast a transportation network over the city.  Washington Street, Watertown Street, Walnut, Homer, Center, Beacon, and Commonwealth all had trolley lines running over them.

 Destination: Scenic View

By the end of the century the streetcars were electrified, and the scale of streetcar transportation became not just local, but metropolitan.  Streetcar franchises enjoyed a financial boom.  New projects flourished.  Two were particularly noteworthy: In 1895 the Commonwealth Avenue Street Railway extended service over tracks in the median of the new boulevard through Newton to Walnut St., and the next year to Auburndale, where Norumbega Park opened in 1897.  In 1901 the old Worcester Turnpike (now Rte. 9) was reconstructed to include a right-of-way in the median for the "Air Line," an interurban trolley that ran between Boston and Worcester.

The "Air Line" tracks ran right by the Metropolitan Circular Dam that today marks the lower end of Hemlock Gorge, and provided a spectacular view through the gorge of Echo Bridge.  This span crosses the Charles just below the Newton Upper Falls dam.  It was built in 1876 -- not as a bridge, but as an aqueduct.  A six-foot-high water main enclosed in the structure carries the Sudbury Aqueduct which supplies water to Boston.  Echo Bridge got its name from its acoustics (you can stand on the riverbank under the arch and hear your voice echo back from the other side).

Hemlock Gorge today is a beautifully rugged woodland setting for Echo Bridge, but its landmark status is actually a major change from its urbanized past. By the late nineteenth century, the area around Chestnut Street and the Elliot Mills was an aging industrial park.  Steam was replacing water power as the energy source for manufacturing.  Many of the mill buildings had been kept in use because of their easy access to transportation provided by the railroad line, and easy waste disposal by just dumping it in the Charles.

The Charles needed some cleaning up.  The State Board of Health and a new public body, the Metropolitan Parks Commission, issued two reports on the state of the river in the mid-1890s, and the parks commission made its first acquisition of property for public use, 25 acres in Newton Upper Falls that were the first piece of the Hemlock Gorge Reservation.  Over the next few years the commission acquired much of the riverbank along Newton's borders with Weston, Waltham, and Watertown and began a public-works program that turned the Charles from an industrial waste-disposal system into a recreational treasure.(2)

The growth of the parks system came just as the major change in society we now call the "weekend" was taking hold.  The population had an unprecedented amount of leisure time, and used it in novel recreational ways.  The railroads and trolley lines brought city dwellers out for a day in the country.  Boathouses sprang up on the Charles.  Canoeing became a popular activity. Hemlock Gorge became a popular destination for weekend strollers and picnickers and Echo Bridge became the Newton best-known landmark in Newton -- in no small part because of the hundreds of thousands of scenic views of these attractions sold to meet the demand of the new fad for picture postcards.

Out to Norumbega

The rise of public-sector interest in makign the Charles a recreational resource got a huge boost from two private development effrots -- Norumbega Park and the Riverside Recreation grounds. 

The Riverside Recreation Grounds (map) was built on the Weston side of the Charles, just across the river from the Riverside depot of the Boston & Albany. It was built by Charles W. Hubbard, a Weston resident, and opened in 1897. Hubbard's philanthropic project was intended to give young men from the urban core of Boston access to recreational facilities. "The Rec" became a weekend institution in the lives of Boston's young people. Along with a large boathouse "the grounds included the largest swimming pool in New England, a football field, a baseball diamond, practice fields, a complete track facility and outdoor gymnasium, tennis courts, and bowling alleys. There were also a restaurant, a bandstand, and bedrooms and dormitories for overnight guests," writes Bob Pollock(3).

The same year, 1897, the investors in the Commonwealth Avenue Street Railway opened Norumbega Park (
map).  The investors, led by Newton resident Adams Claflin, decided that an amusement park at the end of the line mightincrease ridership on their cars.  Norumbega Park did much more than that.  It was a huge success. The 15-cent trolley fare included admission to the park, which offered rides and a penny arcade, band concerts and an outdoor theater, picnic grounds and a first-class restaurant, and fountains and green, leafy walkways and beautiful vistas across the Charles.

The river became a recreational mecca.  Norumbega had a boathouse that rented canoes, and soon built another to keep up with demand.  "The Rec" was also a popular place to rent a canoe.  The banks of the Charles were soon lined with boathouses.  At one time, more that 5,000 canoes were stabled in the various boathouses in the "Lakes District," the placid stretch of the Charles between Newton Lower Falls and the Moody Street dam in Waltham.  On weekends the river became a bank-to-bank traffic jam. You could walk from Newton to Weston, the joke went, without getting your feet wet, just by stepping from canoe to canoe.  The Metropolitan District Commission established its own police force to keep order, and set up a station in a boathouse that included holding cells for the over-exuberant.  (The MDC station is still in use, occupied by a canoe-rental business.)

"In Auburndale Around the Turn of the Century," writes Norumbega's historian laureate, Bob Pollock, "a young man's first major purchase was likely to be a canoe. The canoe taught responsibility, provided recreation and transportation, and was one of the very few places a young man and a young woman could be together without a chaperon nearby."(3).

Pollock quotes a 1903 Boston Herald article evidently commenting on a recent item in the news: "It may not be wicked to go canoeing on the Charles with young women on Sunday, but we continue to be reminded that it is frequently perilous. . . . The canoeist arrested for kissing his sweetheart at Riverside was fined $20.  At that rate it is estimated that over a million dollars' worth of kisses are exchanged at that popular canoeing resort every fine Saturday night and Sunday."

The phrase "risque postcard" generally calls to mind photographs of young Parisian ladies dressed in very little rather than canoes on the Charles River, but the Herald article reminds us that there's a subtext in the views of canoes pulled up to banks that seemed far racier then than it does today.  The years between the Gay '90s and World War I were the heyday of the canoe, the postcard, and an innocence that modernity and mass media have pushed into the dim past.  Only the postcards are still around to remind us.

Left at the Dock

The canoes didn't all disappear from the Charles at once, of course, but things changed.  The automobile replaced the trolley as a mode of transportation -- and it replaced the canoe as a place to be alone with a girl. In the Teens and Twenties families that a decade before might have climbed onto a trolley and gone to Norumbega instead climbed into their Fords and Pierce Arrows and Packards and drove the Mohawk Trail.  Norumbega Park and the other urban amusement centers around Boston -- Revere Beach, Salem Willows -- went into a genteel decline.

Norumbega held on longer than most, helped by new rides on the midway and electric lights for night baseball.  It got a new lease on life in 1930, when the amphitheatre was enclosed and the theater seats were replaced by 150 sofas.  Big bands and dancehalls were the rage, and the Totem Pole Ballroom became one of the most popular.

The Depression hit canoe traffic on the river hard, as canoe owners stopped paying rent to boathouses and moved their craft to garage lofts and backyards.  The 1936 flood destroyed many of the boathouses that had been the scene of so much weekend activity, and they were never rebuilt.

World War II gave the Rec and Norumbega a big economic boost -- because they were accessible by public transportation they drew crowds that lacked either cars or gas ration coupons.  But when peacetime returned the Charles was more and more undisturbed.

The Riverside Recreation Center, donated by Charles Hubbard to the MDC in 1914, was closed in 1958 and destroyed by a suspicious fire in 1959.  Norumbega Park and the Totem Pole Ballroom changed hands twice in the '50s and finally closed -- the park in 1963 and the ballroom in 1964.  The Totem Pole burned to the ground on November 11,1965, and a fire damaged the restaurant months later.  In 1966 the two Norumbega Park boathouses burned.

By then the Massachusetts Turnpike's intersection with Route 128 had made major changes in the landscape around the canoeing grounds, and the site of Norumbega Park was soon occupied by the Marriott Motor Hotel.  On summer nights the sound of distant traffic, not gramophones and ukuleles, echoed across the Charles.  The golden era of canoes on the Charles -- and of postcards -- was over.


  1. For an illustrated discussion of the role of the Charles River in Newton's history, see "Images of America: Newton," written by Thelma Fleishman for the Newton Historical Society and published by Arcadia Publishing, 1999.
  2. See "Newton's 19th Century Architecture: Newton Upper Falls and Lower Falls" (Newton Historical Commission, 1982) for a thorough survey of the rise and fall of river-related manufacturing in the two communities.  See also Ken Newcomb's Makers of the Mold, a book-length history of Newton Upper Falls maintained on the Web site of the Friends of Hemlock Gorge.
  3. Pollock, Robert F., "Down by the Riverside" in Historic Auburndale, abooklet published by the Auburndale Community Association, revised edition 1996. See also his article on Norumbega Park at