The river Charles.
To-day we have our first spring walk.
It is a short one, hardly more than down to the river, but it is pleasant to note the deepening green of the grass, and still more pleasant to watch for a moment the gentle river itself, rippling here and there, but seeming unconscious of the broadening bay and the ocean not far distant.
A single white-shirted, bare-armed rower glides past us in his slender boat, while the red-tipped oars drop vivid beads of color into the water.
As we look down from the street above a wave of indignation and shame takes away the momentary delight.
Why has our river been so neglected?
Why is it not to-day what surely it must become in the future, a chief ornament of our city?
To-day it is at its height and the waves glimmer and glance in the afternoon sunlight, as if trying to promise beauty and refreshing to an undeserving city, if only the chance be given.
Nothing is more eternal than a river.
Wildernesses vanish, meadows and fields change their aspect or give way to city walls and brick pavements, but a river flows on, either indifferent to the changes upon its banks or ready to adapt itself to them with lovely hospitality.
Our Cambridge river slipped and curved its way through these marshes in something the same fashion long before its shores knew the sound of the white man's axe, and when its Indian name, Quineboquin, meaning circular or crooked, was in common use among those who
alone knew its windings.
It has known less peaceful days than these.
Who can fancy the terrible scenes that may well have happened here, when its chief use was to mark the boundary-line between two hostile tribes, each quick to resist encroachments on their territory?
It is not quite easy to imagine just how it fitted into its surroundings two hundred and eighty-one years ago, when it was first christened with its English name.
The days of his dignified and unhappy Majesty, King Charles the First, seem sometimes far away, but it brings them a little nearer to remember that he was only a prince, “Baby Charles” as they used to call him, at the time when Captain John Smith
gave his name to the just-discovered and disappointing river.
was this beguiling stream, which promised much in its wide welcome to the eager adventurers, but soon betrayed its secret of dependence on the ebb and flow of the tides, confessing its narrow banks and its country manners.
Little did sturdy Captain Smith
imagine that these same banks would one day give peace and protection to the judges of his unfortunate ruler.
The regicides, Goffe
, came in the same ship that brought the news of the Restoration.
They must have been dignified and self-respecting refugees, received courteously by the Governor
, as they were, and visited by the principal persons of the town.
The magistrates of Cambridge
“entertained and feasted them with great solemnity” say the old records, and the river rippled on, unashamed of its name.
The name and nothing more was the bequest of Captain Smith
to the stream.
The first event of its witnessing that nearly concerns us was the “semi-military picnic,” as Colonel Higginson
it, two hundred and sixty-five years ago, when an exploring party came hither, seeking a place for a fortified town which should be the seat of government.
was the ruling spirit in the choice of this place, and Johnson
describes the plan in such quaint words as these: “At this time, those who were in place of civil government, having some additional pillars to underprop the building, began to think of a place of more safety in the eyes of man than the two frontier towns of Boston
were, for the habitation of such as the Lord
had prepared to govern this pilgrim people.
Wherefore they rather made choice to enter further among the Indians than hazard the fury of malignant adversaries who in a rage might pursue them, and therefore chose a place situate on Charles River
, between Charles Towne
and Water Towne
, where they erected a town called New Towne, now named Cambridge
had a “sharp controversy” over this, and Winthrop
seems to have had no notion of coming here to live; but we can have no quarrel with him on that score to-day, as we look across to the gilded dome and reflect that it is in its right place.
There was a ferry at the foot of Dunster Street which served the colonists for twenty years before the Great Bridge
From the ferry a road led through Brookline
, and whoever wished to take another route must make his way through Charlestown
and across a ferry at Copp's Hill
That bridge cost a deal of money, and various expedients were adopted to aid Cambridge
in her bearing of what was justly considered a heavy burden for the poor little town.
County itself helped to keep the bridge in repair, and even the General Court occasionally granted money on its account.
It would take too long to review in detail all the important events that have happened here, such as the brilliant scene in 1716 when Colonel Shute
, the newly made governor of Massachusetts
and New Hampshire
, was met at the bridge by Spencer Phips
, with his “Troop of Horse, the Sheriff
and other gentlement of the County
,” and conducted by them to Harvard College, where he was entertained with a long oration, all in Latin.
It was nearly sixty years after that gala day, that the planks of the Great Bridge
were hastily torn up and piled along the Cambridge
side in order to impede the march of Lord Percy's advancing reinforcements, on the nineteenth of April, 1775.
Then what days and weeks followed.
Many a time has Washington
gazed on these tiny waves, or lifted his eyes to the misty hills, softly outlined against the sky, as he pondered over the fortunes of the venturesome colonies.
Sweet Dorothy Dudley
, whose journal we read so recently, has paused here to note the changing green of the marshes as she carried her lint and bandages to the improvised hospitals.
We can fancy her forgetting the absorbing subject of the war for a minute and knitting her pretty brows in perplexity over the aberrations of President Dunster
and thinking what a dreadful thing it is when the Evil One originates peculiar “views on baptism” to confound college professors.
The afternoon is too short for us to pass in review the many who have felt their puzzles and bothers somewhat soothed by thy even flow, O River Charles!
No less dear are the recent associations with the river.
What venturesome scribbler would dare
follow after the poets who have lavished their wealth of fancy and richness of words, most undying of all the materials mortals may build with, on descriptions of its charm?
talks of people who must go over to the Alps
to learn of the divine silence of the snow, or to Italy
before they can recognize the daily miracle of the sunset; but he himself has done much to teach us better by such description as this, where he catches the shades of the marshes:
The Charles slipped smoothly through green and purple salt meadows, darkened here and there as with a stranded cloud shadow.
Over these marshes, level as water, but without its glare, and with softer and more soothing gradations of perspective, the eve is carried to a horizon of softly rounded hills.
More familiar still are the well known passages from “Under the Willows” :
The sliding Charles,
Blue towards the west, and bluer and more blue,
Living and lustrous, as a woman's eyes
Look once and look no more, with southward curve
Ran crinkling sunniness, like Helen's hair
Glimpsed in Elysium, insubstantial gold.
In how many of Longfellow
's poems do we trace this love for the river, which flows ever on past the windows from which he used to exult in its ever-changing, never-wearying beauty!
“The broad meadows and the steel-blue river remind me of the meadows of Unterseen and the river Aar
; and beyond them rise magnificent snow-white clouds, piled up like Alps
Thus the shades of George Washington
and William Tell
seem to walk together on these Elysian fields.”
Dearer was the river to the poet for the name, which reminded him of “three friends, all true and
tried,” and how tender is the later good-night to one of these, “a friend, who bore thy name,” sleeping in sweet Auburn
, around which the river still steals “with such silent pace.”
Others have written too of our river, ours and the world's, but the cool wind blows more freshly, reminding us that this is still March.
We look across to the Brighton meadows, look once more where “the Charles
writes the last letter of his name,” and then turn homeward.