Summer in the City: Remembering Charlesbank Beach

By Leigh Blander

For some, summer in the city is a reminder of Charlesbank Beach, where thousands of Bostonians flocked to the banks of the Charles River in the West End to go swimming.

Charlesbank – which ran from the Longfellow Bridge to the Museum of Science – was a popular spot for folks in the city to relax, picnic, exercise, and… yes, swim.

Jim Campano, 80, remembers his sister taking him swimming at Charlesbank Beach when he was a kid growing up at 32 Poplar St. in the West End. “If you went out my front door and looked down Poplar Street you could see the river. None of those streets are there today.”

Campano says Charlesbank Beach was a great way to keep cool in the summer.

“A lot of people didn’t have air conditioning,” he said. “It was summertime and the water felt refreshing.

“A lot of us would sunbathe on the beehives, those round things around the bottom of the bridge,” he continued. “And there was a house in the river you could swim out to, a bathhouse where you could dive into the water.”

Famed Boston architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the “pioneering park here in the 1880s and ‘90s that included a promenade along the river as well as landscaped grounds for active and passive recreation,” according to documents from The Esplanade Association.

In the 1930s, Works Progress Administration (WPA) crews expanded the park and constructed a baseball diamond.

A WPA bulletin from the time read, “Charlesbank Beach, official title of the WPA Project, has proved to be one of the most popular swimming places in this section of the state. It is daily crowded with hundreds of children. Charlesbank Beach runs 300 feet along the Charles River, has a deep, gently sloped, fine-sand beach and extends back 120 feet to Charles Street.”

Of course, this was decades before Storrow Drive was constructed. The roadway hampered access from the West End to Charlesbank Beach. At about the same time, the river became too polluted for swimming and the beach closed.

Over the last 25 years, several groups have launched river clean-up projects and in 2019 the Environmental Protection Agency gave the Charles a letter grade of B, up from D in 1995. According to the Charles River Conservancy (CRC), swimming in the Charles is only allowed if a permit is obtained by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. 

In 2013, the CRC held City Splash, one of the first public community swims in the Charles in more than 50 years. The CRC hopes to create a public swim park along the Charles near the Longfellow, bringing a favorite summer tradition back to the West End.

As for Campano, he joined the Coast Guard in 1958 and when he came home six months later, his family was living in Somerville, forced out of the West End by the urban renewal project.  But he’ll always have fond memories of his old neighborhood and swimming in the Charles

“It was a whole different world in those days,” he said.

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