The Mystic Lakes begin in Winchester Massachusetts. South of the Winchester border, the Upper Mystic Lake becomes part of Arlington. The Mystic River flows from Lower Mystic Lake down to Boston Harbor at Charlestown and Chelsea in Boston. These waterways and the communities along them are full of history, important natural resources, and under-utilized recreation resources. This book is a users’ guide to their boating and other recreational opportunities, history, and environmental challenges.
The river, its lakes, and tributaries mean more. In their short path, the history of America is told – from the Native Americans to the early colonists, to the revolution and through agriculture, market farms, and the Ice King to the industrial revolution, residential developments, commuting and suburbia, recreation, pollution and the environmental movement.
In its early years of the Native Americans and its first European settlers up until about 1850, the river did not change much. It was a curving river with many marshes. Few people lived in the area during the pre-Colonial era.. Fishing, hunting, and agricultural pursuits did not have much impact upon the river. While trees were cut down, farms were created, and small villages and mills were developed, they did not fundamentally alter the largely rural character of the landscape. Communities in many ways were similar and not substantially differentiated.
Beginning early in the 19th century, technology led to larger farms and more diverse and larger industries. The Middlesex Canal and especially the railroads and streetcars and then the automobiles and new highways brought the river towns closer to Boston. They made some towns and cities popular sites for industries and all areas locations for residential developments and the new immigrants and growing middle class flowing out of Boston. The towns on the north side of the river were opened up to development whereas before they were relatively inaccessible.
The rivers were altered. Portions of the Aberjona River, Mill Brook, the Malden River, and Island End Creek (also called Island End River) were covered over or put underground in pipes. Nearly all marshes were filled in to create more land as the cities and towns expanded and highways replaced the old shore lines. Spy Pond no longer connected to Little Pond and Fresh Pond no longer drained through marshes to Alewife Brook. All of the rivers and ponds such as Fresh Pond were straightened and their edges smoothed out. Stone and concrete riprap replaced wild shorelines. Grassy mowed fields or homes replaced much of the diverse habitat along the rivers. Heavy pollution made swimming impossible except in the Mystic Lakes.
Communities developed in different ways. Winchester, Arlington and Medford became important suburbs. Office parks began to replace dirty industries along the Malden River. Everett became an industry center then fell into recession. Somerville’s squares were the focus of industry development and moderate income housing and it is now reinventing itself with students and the green movement. Charlestown became a transportation hub as the canal and then railroads linked distant places to Boston Harbor. It now is a popular place for those working in Boston to live. Chelsea transitioned to a small summer resort and second home location and then a major industrial port. For the most part, the cities and towns are separate entities, infrequently working together.
Something, though, has not changed. The Mystic still flows. It is different now but still has beautiful places on the river and along its shores. Paddlers are rediscovering it. More parks and walking and bike paths are being created near it. Eagles come to the Upper Mystic Lake and gulls, cormorants, and black crowned night heron feed on the growing number of alewives that arrive each spring. Serious efforts are underway to clean up the water. Organizations are joining together, understanding that working together they can do much more than going at problems alone.