Today, this 1886 receipt for towing a boat from the Craigie Bridge to Cambridge is listed on eBay for more than twenty times what it cost for the tow.
On September 11th, 1866, Captain Fred W. Stedman used the steam tow boat "Mattie Sargent" to tow the John Tara up river. Unlike other rivers that spurred upstream commerce, the Charles was not easlily navigable by large boats in its early days.
Oysters Blocked the Way
A very early description of the Charles by William Wood was reported in D. Hamilton Hurd's History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts.
While some locals did take a gastronomic approach to eat away the problem, the needed dredging didn't happen. And, as bridges spanning the river were added, the river became even less welcoming to large boats.
Once, oysters were plentiful in the Charles, but the damming of the river and filling in of the marshlands have changed the character of the wetland making it unsuitable to sustaining an oyster population today. In 2008, the Massachusetts Oyster Project planted 150,000 oysters at the mouth of the river. There, the brackish waters and tidal flow might nuture an oyster bank to help filter the water coming into Boston harbor from the Charles.
The Charles River Basin that we know today is a man-made creation. Author Karl Haglund opens the introduction to his book, Inventing the Charles River, with a quotation that is very descriptive of the change.
"Today the Charles at Boston… Does not appear actually to flow at all. It is more like a great mirror held to the city's most favoring profile." David McCord, 1948
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Words: Penny & Ed Cherubino
Post Card: "Man and woman dressed in historical costume, man eating oysters." from the Boston Public Library Collection used under creative commons license.