For messing about in boats, there are few places that rival Boston. The placid Charles River is a place unto itself, altogether separate from the tourist crush of Faneuil Market or the Common. The sails of small boats dip and sway like so many white butterflies, sharing the water with scullers and kayakers. Along the banks of the river green parklands stretch, interspersed with boathouses and band shells, all connected by bike paths and footbridges. The cities of Boston and Cambridge lie as a backdrop on either side of the river, both more attractive places (as is usually the case) when viewed from the water.
Having a view of the Charles and its activity from our eighth-floor riverside hotel room made me long to get out on the river. When the image of a graceful riverboat on a flyer in our hotel lobby caught my attention, I made plans to take a river tour first thing the next morning.
After taking the "T" to Lechmere Station and walking to the departure point in front of the Cambridgeside Galleria, my son and I boarded the charming 64-foot Henry Longfellow, a boat especially designed to fit beneath the Charles River’s low bridges. We shared the craft with several dozen rambunctious children kept suitably in check after a lecture-cum-reprimand delivered by the gruff captain.
Not long after casting off, we were out on the river. The captain began a steady stream of refreshingly opinionated narrative about the buildings and sights in view. The Harvard boathouse, for example, he deemed "the most beautiful structure" on the river, whereas that of M.I.T. was "a building only an engineer could love." As the Hancock towers came into view, he pointed out the weather beacon atop the art deco Old Hancock Building and recited the poem Bostonians use to decipher the beacon’s colored lights:
Clear blue, clear view
Flashing blue, clouds due
Steady red, rain ahead
Flashing red, snowstorm ahead
(Or today’s Red Sox game has been cancelled!)
The story of how the Harvard Bridge was measured by M.I.T. fraternity members using a freshman pledge, one Oliver Smoot, as a yardstick, was particularly entertaining. The hapless Smoot was carried by fellow pledges, who marked off the distance every 10 "Smoots" (a Smoot being 5’ 7"). The bridge measured precisely 364.4 Smoots plus an ear. The enterprising undergrads later had the Smoot registered as an official unit of length, and to this day the bridge’s "Smoot markings" are repainted every two years. The local police even use them as reference points when filing accident reports.
The one-hour cruise ended all too soon, alas. I could easily have sat on board all day and watched the river – and the world – flow by.
September 3, 2002
From journal You Say You Want a Revolution