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Going with the flow

Along the Charles, a continuous pathway emerges from tangled and abandoned space

By fall's end, people will be able to do something they never could before along the Charles River: walk, jog, or cycle on a single pathway from Norumbega Park, near Route 128 in Newton, to the Museum of Science in Boston.

Workers are busy laying down boardwalks and painting footbridges, as the state Department of Conservation and Recreation nears the end of its massive 15-year project to provide public access to nearly 6 miles of once-impenetrable riverbank from Auburndale to Watertown Square.

Granite pillars engraved with the image of a blue heron mark the 6- to 9-foot-wide pathway, which varies from a soft, sandy-looking surface to sturdy boardwalks. Split log benches -- many at riverside nooks -- provide plenty of resting spots; and several new footbridges offer serene river vistas.

The entire pathway will be accessible to the disabled and equally suited to cyclists, joggers, and even baby carriages. Crosswalks will identify the path as it intersects with a handful of streets.

"It's probably the single most significant thing that's been done for the river since 1950," said Robert Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. Founded in 1965, the association promotes the cleaning up of the river and its surroundings. "I can't tell you how remarkable it is this is being done," Zimmerman said.

Until the environmental movement in the 1970s, few cared to go anywhere near the river because it was so filthy. Groups like the watershed association routinely fished cars, bicycles, tires, shopping carts, and barrels of "God knows what" out of the river, said Zimmerman. Now "the water quality is excellent," he said, despite a muddy brown appearance that's caused by natural tannins and the river's leisurely flow.

Unlike in Cambridge and Boston, the state provided little public access to the river from Watertown west to Hopkinton.

"In 1990, there was nothing above Watertown Square," said Daniel Driscoll, a senior state planner who has been the driving force behind the river project.

"We're trying to give people a place to reconnect to the river while protecting the wildlife," said Driscoll. "With so many people living in the city, it's an opportunity to bring people back to the natural world, especially going through low- and moderate-income neighborhoods [where] not everyone has the luxury to go to Cape Cod or New Hampshire."

Perhaps the most dramatic piece of the new pathway is the Blue Heron Bridge, a 140-foot suspension bridge for pedestrians that crosses the river by Cheesecake Brook in Newton. Hidden by industrial and commercial buildings, including a Super Stop & Shop, the bridge serves as a graceful link between Newton and the Watertown/Waltham line. One couple has already asked to hold a wedding ceremony there when it's done.

For boaters, the highlight is the renovation of the Woerd Avenue launch in Waltham. The launch is located in the Lakes District, a wide section of river between the Moody Street dam and the Newton boathouse that is dotted with islands and shaped by numerous small coves. When finished later this fall, Woerd Avenue's will have a ramp wide enough for two motorboats, a new canoe launch, and a spruced-up parking area. Long-neglected state-owned parkland surrounding the launch will also get a makeover, as will small city parks near the Moody Street dam and bridge.

Work on one of the more ambitious segments of the walkway in Waltham will not begin until spring: a path along the north side of the river between the Moody and Elm street bridges, which will include a cantilevered boardwalk. For now, river tourists will have to make do with a sidewalk detour.

"The goal of the city and DCR is, where possible, to get public walkways on both sides of the river," said Ronald Vokey, Waltham's longtime planning director. The city worked with the state this summer to build a handicapped-accessible dock and ramp at Cronin's Landing, where small pleasure boats and anglers gather.

"The thing that concerns us is the maintenance," Vokey said. "It's one thing to build everything. At some point, you've got to take care of it."

To preempt maintenance concerns, Driscoll has reintroduced native plants to the river banks, creating what he calls a "self-sustaining" environment. Designed to spur a return of local birds and wildlife, it also means no lawns to mow -- like along the Esplanade -- and no Canada geese droppings to clean up. The paths will not be plowed in winter to encourage cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and to protect the boardwalks from damage.

The western end of the pathway is already generating enthusiasm.

"You have people walking on the river now, and they'll see our boats," said Mark Jacobson, manager of Charles River Canoe and Kayak in Newton. "Having a nice path on the sides makes it more appealing for people to stop and go ashore."

Jacobson said many of his customers are excited about the paths, and he expects the improved access to the riverbanks will not only help his business, but shift public perception of the Charles.

"For so many years, people turned their backs on the river and put parking lots and chain-link fences on it, and now people are rediscovering what was here 100 years ago. There were so many boats here. It was a huge recreational resource," said Jacobson.

Paradise to parking lotsFor hundreds of years, Native Americans relied on the Charles for transportation and fishing. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, mill owners built dams to harness the river's power. A century later, the state viewed the Charles as little more than a burden during the construction of Storrow Drive.

State leaders "completely ignored what they had, abandoned it," even trying to sell off parts of the river, said Zimmerman. Businesses dumped chemicals, sewage, construction debris, asphalt, dirt, and compost into the river. Waltham once had a landfill just steps away from the river.

"Rivers like the Charles weren't treated well," said Zimmerman. "For many years, people didn't look at the recreational value, they looked at it as a way to take waste away."

The DCR, formerly the Metropolitan District Commission, developed a master plan in 1994 for a continuous pedestrian pathway in what's known as the Upper Charles River Reservation. Using $9 million in federal and state money, the project runs from Galen Street in Watertown Square, through Waltham, and into Newton and Weston by the Mass. Turnpike and Route 128 interchange.

The plan's first efforts -- paths, boardwalks, and overlook decks from Galen Street to Bridge Street in Watertown and Newton and from Farwell Street to Elm Street in Waltham -- were completed in 1998.

The watershed association was one of the first that supported the pathway plan, said Zimmerman. It "worked with the attorney general's office to help reestablish state authority over land people and companies thought they owned."

Indeed, the plan's biggest hurdle early on was the large number of illegal encroachments by businesses and homeowners on public land, such as parking lots, chain-link fences, patios, and rusting equipment on the riverbanks. A 1992 land survey identified more than 90 encroachments in the way of the proposed path.

In many cases, the intrusions had gone on for so long "many landowners were surprised to learn they didn't own the land," said Driscoll, whose early days on the project were spent negotiating with abutters.

Since then, the state has been able to reclaim property through scenic easements and land gifts from a number of formerly encroaching businesses. Some, like Sasaki Associates in Watertown, have even agreed to pay for maintenance of overlook decks and boardwalks next to their buildings.

"We've turned encroachers into stewards," Driscoll marveled.

Fighting fear Not everyone welcomed the idea of a public walkway along the Charles. Zimmerman recalled "tremendous resistance" to the plan from some leaders and residents in Newton, Waltham, and Watertown.

"There were some neighbors who were worried about it, feared an increase in crime or undesirable activities if more people were using it," said Martha Horn, senior environmental planner for the city of Newton.

"I haven't heard any complaints or issues in a long, long time," she added. "They finally realized that more activity means more eyes" to watch things, she said.

The paths from Bridge Street to Watertown Square have been very popular with cyclists since they first opened in 1998. It's "a phenomenal success; everyone uses it," said Peter Brooks, chairman of the Watertown Bicycle Committee.

Brooks's only complaint was with the 17-mile stretch of bike path along the river from Watertown to Boston. Built in the 1950s and popular with commuters, the path "badly needs renovation," he said.

Citing broken pavement, intruding tree roots, and a lack of traffic signals at busy intersections, Brooks said, "You might as well ride on the road, and people do."

The road ahead Over the next few years, the state plans to extend the pathway up the river from Newton into Needham and then on to Dedham and West Roxbury, creating "a Boston-to-Boston greenway corridor," said Driscoll. He hopes that with better access to the Charles, children will be able to learn about nature and wildlife right in their own communities.

"It's unbelievable," said Driscoll. "Every time I go out there, I see kids looking at birds and turtles, neighbors talking to one another. . . . It's something special."

Christina Pazzanese can be reached at cpazzanese@globe.com.

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