“Down by the banks of the River Charles…Well I love that dirty water, Oh Boston, you’re my home!”
The song by the Standells is catchy. But tragic. The refrain–“Well I love that dirty water, Oh Boston, you’re my home!”–not only acknowledges the putrid state of Boston’s most iconic river, but effectively glorifies it. Once a popular swimming and recreation destination in the 19th and early and 20th centuries–my grandparents recall floating along the Charles– sewage, urban wastewater and runoff caused the waterway to become so polluted that, in 1955, an article in Harper’s Magazine called it “foul and noisome, polluted by offal (refuse) and industrial wastes, scummy with oil, unlikely to be mistaken for water.” Beaches were shut down to swimmers, and those who had the misfortune of falling into the river were advised to get tetanus shots.
Unfortunately, the story of the Charles River is hardly an anomaly–more the rule than the exception. When I sat down to write a blog post about freshwater this year, I realized that the “Dirty Water” ditty was the refrain of my childhood.