Inventing the Charles River

Inventing the Charles River

By Karl Haglund

An illustrated account of the creation of the Charles River Basin, focusing on the precarious balance between transportation planning and the stewardship of the public realm.





An illustrated account of the creation of the Charles River Basin, focusing on the precarious balance between transportation planning and the stewardship of the public realm.

The Charles River Basin, extending nine miles upstream from the harbor, has been called Boston's "Central Park." Yet few realize that this apparently natural landscape is a totally fabricated public space. Two hundred years ago the Charles was a tidal river, edged by hundreds of acres of salt marshes and mudflats. Inventing the Charles River describes how, before the creation of the basin could begin, the river first had to be imagined as a single public space. The new esplanades along the river changed the way Bostonians perceived their city; and the basin, with its expansive views of Boston and Cambridge, became an iconic image of the metropolis.

The book focuses on the precarious balance between transportation planning and stewardship of the public realm. Long before the esplanades were realized, great swaths of the river were given over to industrial enterprises and transportation—millponds, bridges, landfills, and a complex network of road and railway bridges. In 1929, Boston's first major highway controversy erupted when a four-lane road was proposed as part of a new esplanade. At twenty-year intervals, three riverfront road disputes followed, successively more complex and disputatious, culminating in the lawsuits over "Scheme Z," the Big Dig's plan for eighteen lanes of highway ramps and bridges over the river. More than four hundred photographs, maps, and drawings illustrate past and future visions for the Charles and document the river's place in Boston's history.


$65.00 T ISBN: 9780262083072 515 pp. | 10 in x 9 in 350 illus., 90 color


  • A remarkable and beautiful book outlining the origins of the famed and admired Charles River.

    Dennis Lythgoe

    Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah

  • a superb book.

    The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine

  • ...[a] fascinating fact-packed and photo-filled book.

    Boston Metro

  • Haglund has fascinating stories to tell...serious students of urban development will be engrossed.

    H. Nolan


  • Inventing the Charles River is a fascinating account of how a great urban area acquired its current shape.

    Philip Langdon

    New Urban News

  • Inventing the Charles River makes it hard to think about the Charles in the same way again.

    Max Page

    Architecture Boston

  • ...lavishly illustrated with maps, etchings, lithographs, drawings, paintings, and photographs...


  • ...[Tells] a sweeping, detailed story of the directed evolution that produced the Charles that Bostonians and tourists cherish today.

    Civil Engineering

  • The book swells with Haglund's excellent research and hundreds of illuminating maps, photographs, and plans.

    Michael B. Shavelson


  • Throughly fascinating...

    Michael Kenney

    Boston Globe


  • In an era when human incursion into the landscape invites trepidation, Karl Haglund's thorough and intriguing Inventing the Charles River arrives to remind us that heroic construction can, in fact, ameliorate it. Haglund's timely and engaging tale of the transformation of a river replete with 'squalid hovels' and 'inky black' sewage deposits shows how the past can be the portent of a better future.

    Jane Holtz Kay

    architecture and planning critic, and author of Lost Boston and Asphalt Nation

  • The wonderful Charles River is taken as a given, but, as this elegant, illuminating book shows, the Charles is a gift. Karl Haglund honors its 'inventors', our benefactors, by showing, also, that their work remains unfinished. Haglund has written an important, beautiful book.

    James Carroll

    Boston Globe columnist, and author of Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews

  • The Charles River truly was inventing. Befitting its Boston setting, and the great universities that line its banks, it is a confluence of nature, ideas, design, and engineering—not to mention ideals, politics, vision, and intrigue. Karl Haglund, through words and images, lovingly and intelligently tells the story of the ever-evolving, and ever-inspiring Charles.

    Charles M. Vest

    President, MIT


  • Honor Award, American Society of Landscape Architects, 2003