It would be difficult, if not impossible, to picture Harvard University without also imagining the scenic Charles River, coursing along the southerly flank of that world-renowned campus. (In fact, the Charles River actually bisects the University, as Harvard’s Graduate School of Business and most of its athletic facilities lie opposite the central campus, along the southern banks of that waterway. So too do many of the acres acquired in recent years by the University for future expansion.
Of course, Harvard shares its siting along the banks of the Charles with other notable colleges, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University and Brandeis University. No wonder, as The Charles River has the most densely populated river basin in all of New England, despite being just 80 miles long, dropping only 350 feet from its source at Echo Lake to its mouth in Boston Harbor.
Often locally referred to as the River Charles, this broad watercourse’s Lower Basin, bracketed by the Harvard Bridge and the Longfellow Bridge, serves as the annual site of the Head of the Charles Regatta each October. Rowing, sculling, sailing, and even dragonboating share the River, while the festivities of food and amusement stalls, cyclists, pets, joggers and partying pedestrians occupy the banks. The boathouses that serve both the Harvard men’s and Harvard (Radcliffe) women’s rowers and scullers occupy opposite shores of the River at the Larz Andersen Memorial Bridge at the foot of John F. Kennedy Street
Many of Harvard’s upperclassmen enjoy vistas of the Charles on a daily basis, as the college’s residential houses of Eliot, Winthrop, Leverett and Dunster line Memorial Drive and overlook the water. The houses of Lowell, Quincy and Mather are at but a one-building remove from the River, while structures of the Harvard Business School line the southern shore. A significant percentage of Harvard’s student body and faculty — along with many other citizens of Cambridge and Boston — also frequently partake of the walking and jogging paths, sunny lawns and benches, shaded lanes and overlooks that line the sinuous waterway.
The Charles also provides the initial welcoming panorama to most campus visitors, for the most direct access to Harvard from Boston, the interstate highways and points south and west is by way of Memorial Drive and one of the several bridges spanning the River. The scenic nature of the lower Charles has been improved through more than a century of planning, design and construction. Dams have been implemented to control the River’s flow, as well as to prevent salt intrusion and the infiltration of pollution from Boston Harbor. Both shores of the River have been engineered and re-engineered, with marginal roadways being constructed, and a series of embankment, park and esplanade designs being incorporated. Scenic bridges have been developed to complete the River’s picturesque and refreshingly pastoral appeal.