From the Pilgrims to the Tea Party
The city of Boston became America’s first metropolis and one of the country’s chief ports because of its natural harbor, which was discovered in 1614 by Captain John Smith. Smith, who was in charge of the first English settlements in Virginia and is linked in legend and literature today to the Indian princess Pocohontas, also discovered the Cape Ann and the Charles River, and published a map in 1616 that was the first to use the term “New England”.
Puritans who fled religious persecution in England, first to Holland and then to the New World, used Smith’s map and studied his book on A Description of New England, and gave the name to the colony that they established in 1620 at Plymouth. The next group of settlers, in 1630, built a community on the Shawmut Peninsula to the north which became the city of Boston, and by 1660 Boston had surpassed Plymouth and almost all shipping used its larger harbor.
The harbor achieved international renown a century later, when a group of colonists dressed as Indians threw a shiploadful of tea into the harbor to protest the imposition of a tax on tea by the Parliament in London without the consent of the colonists. The growing economy of Massachusetts Bay and the other American colonies, and the pressing need of the British government for funds for European wars, led to increasingly unpopular attempts during the first half of the 18th century to tax colonial business (the Townshend duties), government papers (the Stamp Act) and the tea that Bostonians consumed in great quantities (the Tea Act).
Because the colonists were not represented in Parliament in London, they refused to accept these taxes on the grounds that Englishmen could only be taxed by their own elected representatives. The Boston Tea Party in 1773 and the harsh repression that followed (the “Intolerable Acts” passed by Parliament in 1774) were among the chief causes of the American Revolution.
Don’t Drink the Water
Although a natural harbor, the estuary of the Charles River is a shallow one and Boston’s harbor tended from the first to fill up with silt. Large parts of the growing city, the “Back Bay”, were swampy and contributed to frequent outbreaks of disease. The situation was worsened by the common 17th and 18th century practice of dumping sewage into the river, and by 1800 residents were advised not to drink water from any part of the river or the harbor. Sewage treatment stations began to be built in the latter part of the 19th century, and the Metropolitan District Commission was created in 1919 to administer the harbor and waterfront, but the harbor was malodorous and the water unsafe until the 1970s.
In the late 1960s a song entitled Dirty Water became a sort of anthem for the city of Boston, and it is still played at Fenway Park when the Boston Red Sox win a baseball game. A series of lawsuits against the city and the state, the establishment of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Massachusetts Clean Water Act led to a determined effort to clean up the harbor in the 1980s, and it is today possible to swim and fish in the waters of Boston Harbor.
Another problem for the harbor was the concentration of shipping and industry around it in the 19th century, and the construction during the 20th century of highways that cut the harbor off from the rest of the city. The Central Artery or John F. Fitzgerald Expressway, built in 1950 and named for Boston’s longtime mayor who was also the grandfather of President John F. Kennedy, made the problem worse and was locally called “the Distress way” and “the world’s biggest parking lot”. The “Big Dig”, the largest and most expensive highway construction project ever attempted in the United States and still highly controversial in the city, put the expressways in an underground tunnel between 1991 and 2007. This has led to redevelopment of much of the old Inner Harbor and the establishment of a state park and a national recreational area taking in the 34 small islands that dot the harbor.
What to do in Boston Harbor
There are many ways to experience the waterfront on land. The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, where the overhead expressway used to be, is a series of parks that can be reached from several stations of the Red, Green and Blue lines of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The Wharf District Park, part of this greenway, features a restored carousel that has not horses but carved representations of harbor wildlife, and a farmers’ market operates here during warm weather.
Another adjacent park, endowed by Boston’s large Armenian community, commemorates the victims of the Armenian genocide of a century ago. Historic Faneuil Hall, a meeting place since 1743, is a convenient starting point for the Freedom Trail that connects Boston’s revolutionary landmarks, and is also the center of Faneuil Marketplace and the Quincy Market, both noted eating and shopping areas. A free MP3 audio guide for the Harbor Walk can be downloaded from the website of the Boston Harbor Association.
The New England Aquarium, located on Long Wharf in the harbor, had for several years after 1970 the largest ocean tank in the world and is still a major marine attraction. In addition to the recently-renovated ocean tank which recreates a pre-Columbian coral reef, a marine mammal center and a six-story-high IMAX theater, the aquarium houses the largest display of jellyfish and related creatures in the United States, and from April to October offers whale-watching cruises to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary 30 miles offshore. Most of these onshore attractions are free, but admission to the aquarium, which is open most days from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., ranges from $27 to $32 for adults, $17-22 for children and $24-30 for seniors. The whale-watching cruises are $16 to $49 depending on age, and some of the exhibits like the seals and sea lions can be seen for free.
There are also several ways to experience the harbor from the water. Water taxis, summoned by telephone like a regular taxicab, serve the harbor area and go across it to Logan Airport. The MBTA operates commuter ferries from Rowe’s Wharf and Long Wharf to Hingham, Hull, Quincy, Charlestown and Logan Airport for $3.25 (Inner Harbor), $8.50 (suburbs) or $13.50 (airport). Boston Harbor Cruises, collaborators with the Aquarium on the whale-watching trips, also operates seasonal ferries to Salem of witch trial fame (60 minutes, $35-41 round trip with discounts for Salem and North Shore residents), Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod (90 minutes, $65-88 round trip), and cruises around the harbor and to the harbor islands (5 options ranging from about $20 to 100 with dinner).
The Charles River Boat Company offers tours up the river to MIT and Harvard (60 minutes, $16.50) and of the architecture of Boston (90 minutes, $27.50) as well as summer sunset cruises in the harbor (75 minutes, $18.50). A high speed and usually wet harbor adventure on Codzilla is also available from May to October for $25-29. Boston Duck Tours offer an 80-minute amphibious tour of Boston landmarks that also splashes into the river and the harbor, costing $10.50-35.99 and leaving daily from Prudential Center on Boylston Street and the Museum of Science on the Charles River, as well as from the Aquarium in summer.
How to get to Boston Harbor
The harbor can be accessed by car on the now-underground Central Artery (Interstate 93). Amtrak and southern Massachusetts commuter trains serve Boston’s South Station, while trains from northern Massachusetts and Amtrak’s Downeaster from Maine go to North Station. Boat service is available from Logan Airport, as well as the Blue Line of the MBTA to Aquarium station. Stations on the Blue and Green Lines at Haymarket Square or South Station on the Red Line are convenient for the waterfront walk and parks, and the Science Museum and Prudential Center have stops on the Green Line. The MBTA fare card for public transportation (Charlie Card) is $2.10.