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History of the Esplanade

The Esplanade as we know it today is a relatively recent creation. Filling of Boston’s Back Bay occurred during the second half of the nineteenth century, with Back Street and the adjacent seawall forming most of the northern edge by the 1870s. At that time the river was still tidal and was considered a distinct liability because it was so foul smelling. Damning of the Charles River basin in 1910 changed the odiferous mud flats into a wide basin with a constant water level. Initially there was only a narrow strip of parkland.

The area was transformed again in the 1930s by landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff with the parkland nearly doubled. This was the foundation of the park as we know it today. Trees were planted, the water’s edge redesigned, canoe ways added, and docks, pathways and monuments included. Construction of Storrow Drive in the early 1950s brought further changes and the creation of additional features including the islands and lagoons to make up for parkland lost to the new road.

While no major projects have been undertaken since the addition of Storrow Drive the park continues to evolve as a public recreation space. Since 2001 the Esplanade Association has worked in partnership with the DCR to invest over $28M in park improvements including restoring historic landmarks, adding park programs and amenities, and revitalizing key gathering areas.

Today the Esplanade is considered the focal point of the Charles River Reservation and remains a vital green space for the city of Boston. With the support of the community the Esplanade will continue to transform and evolve to serve future generations.

Additional reading about the Esplanade:
Charles River Study Report
Esplanade Cultural Landscape Report by Sherry Page Berg
The Charles River Esplanade Our Boston Treasure by Linda M. Cox provides a historical overview of the Esplanade’s changing landscape as well as existing conditions and analysis.

  • Charlesbank playground, Boston, MA, 1889 – Library of Congress

    1-Charlesbank-playground-1889
  • Charlesbank, children playing in sandboxes, Boston, MA, 1889 – Library of Congress

    2-Charlesbank-sand-box-1889
  • Charlesbank, men’s gymnasium, Boston, MA, 1889 – Library of Congress

    3-Charlesbank-men's-gym-1889
  • Charles River Embankment, general view along river, Boston, MA, 1895 – Library of Congress

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  • Esplanade, c. 1910
    (EN4-04 1326 Box16 no1089 rev-c1910)

    5-Esplanade-c1910
  • Swimming carnival at Esplanade, 1923

    6-Esplanade-Swim-carnival-1923
  • Esplanade Hatch Music Shell, 1938

    Esplanade MusicShell 1938
  • Dedication of the James Jackson Storrow and Helen Osborn Storrow Memorial, Gloucester Street, Storrow Memorial embankment, J. J. Storrow, unveiling plaque, July 27, 1949

    Esplanade Dedication Storrow Memorial
  • Sailing toy boats in Charles River Lagoon, Boston, 1969

    Esplanade Activities