As you have noticed, Monday is when this blog goes out of town to highlight examples of hidden urban streams outside of New York City. 190 miles northeast of New York’s City Hall is its longtime rival whose downtown also appears nestled between two waterways that lead to a harbor.
While the Charles River of Boston is lined by parkland designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and flows past the city’s great universities, the Fort Point Channel has spent the past two centuries as an industrial backwater, gradually filled in as rail yards and factory shrunk it in size. In the past three decades, this waterway has taken on a new life as a recreational and cultural corridor on the border between the city’s downtown and South Boston. The photo above was taken in 1904, showing the lifelike raising of the Rolling Bridge that took trains to South Station across Fort Point Channel.
The most dramatic changes
In 1630, the year of Boston’s founding, the settlement was limited to the Shawmut Peninsula, an orange thumb pointing north on the map above connected by a thin neck of land to the continent. The Charles River was to its north and on its other side was South Bay, appearing as a purple blob. The orange peninsula pointing east is South Boston.
By 1879, Shawmut’s isthmus was considerably widened and a bar of reclaimed land created Fort Point Channel to connect South Bay to Boston’s Inner Harbor. By 1995, South Bay was entirely filled and only Fort Point Channel remained.
A tour of Fort Point Channel
I haven’t visited Boston since at least seventh grade so for now, Google Street view captures some of the scenery. The present head of this waterway is at West 4th Street, where a storm water sewer emerges to the surface in a park-like setting hemmed in by the South Bay rail yard and the Central Artery (Interstate 93). To the south of this former bridge is the rail yard built on landfill that covered South Bay. The site appears far removed from the bustle of the city’s center but prior to 2015, the head of the channel could have had a future with the world’s attention on it.
The failed 2024 Boston Olympics proposal would have covered the South Bay rail yard and relied on Fort Point Channel as a linear park connecting the sports park to the harbor. Public opposition related to the massive cost of hosting the games resulted in Boston’s withdrawal from consideration.
The first bridge crossing Fort Point Channel is a few feet to its north at Traveler Street, whom which one can see the storm sewer outlet where the waterway begins. This inner stretch of Fort Point Channel has been designated by planners as the South Bay Urban Industrial Wild. Its “wild” appearance is shaped by a rocky rip-rap shoreline taking the place of seawalls and parks along the shoreline.
Rolling Bridge Park
Formally known as the Old Colony Railroad Bridge, the Scherzer design rolling lift bridge at the top of today’s post dates to 1898. With the decline of passenger rail service following the Second World War, only one of the three drawbridges remained in use. All were demolished by 1988, replaced by a fixed span across the channel. A preserved fragment of the bridge by artist Ross Miller serves as a monument in the park to the area’s industrial past. Behind the sculpture, trains enter Boston’s South Station.
Along with a historical sign next to it, visitors should have no questions on how Rolling Bridge Park received its name. The channel leaves Rolling Bridge Park beneath Dorchester Avenue, which serves as an approach to the postal facility on the western bank. Beneath the park, Massachusetts Turnpike (Interstate 90) runs through the Fort Point Channel Tunnel. The highway briefly sees daylight in South Boston and then dips beneath the harbor through the Ted Williams Tunnel, connecting to Logan Airport. At 3,020 miles, Interstate 90 is the longest highway in the country. On its eastern side, the channel’s shore features the offices and factory of Gillette, a potential General Electric office complex, the Boston Children’s Museum, and an iconic federal courthouse. The section of Fort Point Channel between Dorchester Avenue and Sumner Street is known as the Seawall Basin. The Massachusetts Turnpike tunnel and the Red Line subway rumble beneath the stream.
Summer Street Bridge
The above photo of Summer Street bridge from the Boston Public Library collection shows what made it unique for the city. Completed in 1899, it is comprised of two spans that retracts using rails in order to open the channel for tall vessels. It is one of four retractile drawbridges in the country. Here in New York, examples include Borden Avenue at Dutch Kills and Carroll Street at Gowanus Canal. Owing to the width of the channel, the tracks are built atop the water. As Fort Point Channel hasn’t seen large vessels in decades, the bridge’s tracks are too rusty to function at this point.
Congress Street Bridge
The Congress Street Bridge resembles the Rolling Bridge as a bascule lift. Completed in 1930, it is the youngest of the drawbridges on Fort Point Channel. Following the bridge’s 1998 reconstruction, its appearance was preserved but it is now a fixed span. The bridge is best known as the entrance to the Boston Tea Party Museum, which commemorates an important event of the American Revolution that took place at Fort Point Channel.
A pier containing the museum structure stands at the midpoint, flanked by two replica revolutionary period ships. On the east bank of Fort Point Channel facing the Boston Tea Party Museum is a salvaged roadside milk stand transported from Taunton to South Boston in 1977. The arrival of the Hood Milk Bottle was an early sign to the revival of this waterway.
Evelyn Moakley Bridge
The most recent bridge across Fort Point Channel was completed in 1996 as part of the larger Harborwalk project. It carries the name of Congressman Joseph Moakley‘s wife, a resident of South Boston. Parallel to it is the unused Northern Avenue Bridge.
An industrial relic facing a cluster of office towers, it has been deteriorating to the point of being closed to vehicles in 1997, and to pedestrians in 2014. Constructed in 1908, it opened to vessels as a swing bridge, pivoting on a pier in the middle of Fort Point Channel. With its removal scheduled in March, it will soon join the elevated subways and old Boston Garden as a memory for older residents. A replacement pedestrian bridge is expected at the location.
The future of Fort Point Channel
With so many cultural, historical, recreational, residential, and business institutions built along the banks of Fort Point Channel in the past three decades, it serves as a textbook example of a revitalized postindustrial waterway that welcomes visitors. Similar to a public park in its function, it has a dedicated support group to bolster funding and branding. Used only by small vessels, the water has a new use as a wildlife habitat and an outdoor art gallery.