Paddling Through Elm Bank and Charles River Village

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We started our kayaking trek on a glorious Fourth of July day with bright sunshine, high humidity, and average river levels. The starting point was the end point for our paddling trip through Rocky Narrows and Broadmoor: the South Natick Dam.

A gentle push got us going in the moderate flow over the scratchy, rock-strewn run just after the dam. A little way downstream, we came across the beautiful Cheney Bridge spanning the river.

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The Cheney bridge provides access to Elm Bank: 182 acres of woodlands, fields, and an old estate property surrounded on three sides by the Charles River. Elm Bank was given its name in 1740, when Colonel John Jones acquired the land and planted elms along the banks of the Charles River. The site was eventually sold in 1874 to Benjamin Pierce Cheney. The Olmsted Brothers, were hired to design and improve the gardens.  The entire site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and is currently owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and leased to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

There is a marshy area on the left where Waban Brook enters the Charles River. If you peek over your shoulder as you pass, you can catch a glimpse of the Waban Arches. If the water is high enough you can paddle up Waban Brook to the structure. It was and we did.

Waban Arches
Waban Arches

The Waban Arches support the Sudbury Aqueduct which carried water from a reservoir in Framingham to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston. The kids thought it looked like Echo Bridge in Newton. It does. That’s because Echo Bridge is another part of the Sudbury Aquaduct.

The Bays Region Stretches three miles to the Cochrane Dam. It’s pocked with backwaters that lead back up the course of the river, but are abandoned channels. They were formed as the river changed course as it flooded and re-formed in the flat-bottomed valley between Needham and Dover.

The river is broad and flat through this section, meandering back and forth. The lazy river is further slowed by the impoundment from the Cochrane Dam downstream.

A key landmark is the South Street Bridge.

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Just beyond this bridge is the Cochrane Dam. It can sneak up on you if you are not paying attention. Beyond its precipice is a significant drop onto boulder strewn waters.

The place was first dammed in 1675 and used to power Fisher’s gristmill. The dam site evolved over the years and was used to power a paper mill in 1796. There is a raceway on the left side that was used for power. Today, there is no industry here. You can find several foundations and walls on both sides.

There is a take-out on the left just beyond the bridge. But it is a steep climb. Then it’s a long portage over the bridge and down Mill Street to a launch site. There is a better takeout on Fisher Street before the bridge. But you are left with a much longer portage.

Downstream from the dam is some swiftwater. It’s rocky and can be scratchy in low water. We were able to bounce through the rapids.

Then downstream is what looks like an old low dam. If you look off to the right bank you can see a water level gauge. This is the USGS guaging station in Dover. (The water level was at 1.5 feet.) The station measures both the water level height and the discharge in cubic feet per second.

Eventually, the river returns to the slow pace and meandering that you expect from the Charles River. We did not expect to see two big snapping turtles.

snapping turtles on the Charles River

You can see snapping turtles occasionally on the river. But I’ve never seen two together. I’ve definitely not seen two turtles engage in what we saw next.

turtle wrestling

We could not tell if it was two males battling for territory as they wrestled with each other. Or if it was a male and female that were …. um…. making baby turtles.

There is a good exit just after the Dedham Avenue bridge, off South Street in Needham. But we missed it and ended up at the Lyons Bridge, just before the I-95 bridges. It’s a terrible place to exit the river. Construction debris and mud line the river banks, held back by a dam of hay bales. You need to trudge through that sticky, gloopy mess to get up to road.

Paddling the Dedham Loop

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If you want to take a long paddling trip on the Charles River and don’t own a canoe or kayak, this is a great choice. Charles River Canoe and Kayak will shuttle you up to Charles River Park on South Street in Needham and let you paddle back to Nahanton Park.

The Boy

The entrance is great, with a small amount of parking. Then, it’s a lazy cruise down the river, largely free of obstructions with lots of wildlife. The first notable landmark is a school on the left bank. The tennis courts and skating rink back up to the river.

Then you quickly come up to the Lyons Street bridge. The original bridge at this location was built prior to 1741 and has been rebuilt several times since. Below this bridge, the Charles crosses under Route 128 (I-95 for you latecomers to Boston) for the first of three crossings.

After that crossing we began the long loop around the marshes of Dedham. You can bypass the loop during high water by cutting across the Long Ditch. This was an early flood control measure on the Charles River. It was dug in 1654 to reduce flooding and improve the meadow grasslands. As you might expect, this too is part of the Natural Valley Storage Project on the Charles River, helping to alleviate flooding further downriver.

Another flood control measure is the Mother Brook diversion.

Entrance to the Mother Brook diversion.
Entrance to the Mother Brook diversion.

This outlet sends high water over to the Neponset River. Apparently, it can take the extra flow. Mother Brook is manmade. The 4000 foot ditch was dug in 1639 from the Charles River to East Brook to provide water flow to a new mill, then another, and another. The mills are long gone, but a flood gate now helps control the diversion.

This section of the river passes along the VFW Parkway with the Dedham Mall on the far side of the highway. Harvey Beach, the long discarded swimming spot on the Charles, is here.

High on the right bank is a treeless hill. This is the capped Gardner Street landfill, a major Boston dump from the 1930s to the 1970s. The river is wide in this section. It narrows to squeeze through a railroad bridge. If you time it just right, you can pass under as a commuter rail passes roars overhead.

The river widens again and eventually leads you to the dock at Nahanton Park.

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Paddling in Elm Bank and the Bays Region of the Charles River

It was another beautifully warm and sunny October day, so I went back to the Charles River. I put in just downstream from the South Natick Dam.

South Natick Dam
South Natick Dam

A little way downstream, I came across the beautiful Cheney Bridge spanning the river.

Cheney Bridge to Elm Bank
Cheney Bridge to Elm Bank

The Cheney bridge provides access to Elm Bank, a state-owned property with two miles of frontage on the river. The 182 acres of woodlands, fields, and old estate property is surrounded on three sides by the Charles River. Elm Bank was given its name in 1740, when Colonel John Jones acquired the land and planted elms along the banks of the Charles River. The site was later occupied by the Loring, Broad, and Otis families before being sold in 1874 to Benjamin Pierce Cheney. At the time of Cheney’s death in 1895, the property contained over 200 acres (80 hectares), and passed to his eldest daughter Alice in 1905. In 1907, Alice and her husband, Dr. William Hewson Baltzell, engaged an architectural firm to build a neo-Georgian manor house, and the most prominent landscapers of the day, the Olmsted Brothers, were hired to design and improve the gardens.  The entire site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and is currently owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and leased to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Waban Arches
Waban Arches

When I came to the confluence with Waban Brook, I paddled upstream to the Waban Arches. These support the Sudbury Aqueduct which carried water from a reservoir in Framingham to Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston.

The Bays Region Stretches three miles from Charles River Street to the Cochrane Dam. These backwaters are abandoned channels formed as the river changed course as it flooded and re-formed in the flat-bottomed valley between Needham and Dover. The river is broad and flat through this section, meandering back and forth. There were numerous bays to duck into.

I ran into a few swans and a blue heron grazing in the marshy sides of the river.

Also along this stretch of the river was a diverse assortment of houses. There were simple houses and there were mansions, and everything in between. In particular, there was a striking contemporary with floor to ceiling walls of windows in every room.

A common theme for all the houses was their connection to the river. Almost every house had steps down to the river and many had boats visible in their yard.

The section of the river ended at the Cochrane Dam. Then I had a bike ride up the beautiful Claybrook Road through Dover to fetch the truck.

Cochrane Dam
Cochrane Dam

You can the rest of my paddling trips laid out on a map: Paddling Trips.

Paddling in Hemlock Gorge

Unlike the rather pristine Stop River Confluence area of the Charles River, the Hemlock Gorge section is more urban, passing houses, factories and highways.

I launched from Nahanton Park in Newton. There was plenty of parking here. There was a dock at the park which made the launch very easy. This park is where the Charles River Wheelmen start and finish their Saturday fitness rides. The Needham radio and television towers are visible in the distance once you enter this section of the river. At one point I had represented clients who had bought, sold or leased space on most of the towers. So they served as a visual reminder in front of me for the job I had just left behind.

There are significant industrial buildings along the river. If you remember your history of the industrial revolution in the northeast, this means there are dams along the river. I knew I had a few portages ahead on the river.

There is a modern railroad bridge abutting older stone abutments which mark the location of an older bridge.  This bridge was for the Charles River branch of the Boston and Worcester Railroad. Built in 1850, this rail line was built to bring stone and gravel from Needham to fill Boston’s Back Bay. During its peak, forty car trains of fill ran every 45 minutes.

The Elliot Street Bridge is made of three stone arches and appears just before the Silk Mill Dam. I am glad I remembered this landmark because the dam was not marked. I noticed an old industrial building on the right bank and noted that it looked like an old mill building. Then I noticed that the river seemed to disappear and there was an increasing roar. I had found the first dam. I quickly turned around and paddled upstream to good spot to take the kayak out of the river and start the portage. It was fairly long walk of about 200 yards through Hemlock Gorge Reservation , leading down into Hemlock Gorge between Newton’s Upper Falls and the Echo Bridge.

Just downstream of the Silk Mill Dam is Echo Bridge. It is famous for the wonderful echoes that can resonate back and forth between the arches. Yes, I did holler out as I went under. The echo was very impressive.

Echo Bridge
Echo Bridge

Echo Bridge carries the Sudbury Aqueduct. In 1878, the mainstream of the Sudbury River was diverted via the Sudbury Aqueduct to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir to supply water for the City of Boston. The bridge was built in 1876, spanning 130 feet across the Charles River.

The fall of water at Hemlock Gorge was an attractive power supply for industry. In 1688 John Clark built a sawmill. His sons expanded by adding a fulling mill and a grist mill. In 1788 Simon Elliot bought part of the site and put in a snuff mill.  In 1824 a cotton mill was added, which was later converted to a silk mill. The dam is often called the Silk Mill Dam because of this long running use of the dam.

Horseshoe Dam
Horseshoe Dam

Next on the river was the Circular Dam or Horseshoe Dam. Again, the dam was not marked and was harder to hear because it was right next to the overpass for Route 9. This is also the site of a portage under Route 9 on the Ellis Street underpass, down to Turtle Island. A millrace was put in place here in 1782 for a sawmill. 1792 Newton Iron Works took over and rolled iron bars for 50 years. The millrace is to the right of the dam and is the landing spot for the portage. I certainly looked strange carrying a bright yellow kayak across a busy intersection. (You in the Volvo.  Thanks for yakking on your cell phone and not noticing the guy with a yellow kayak his shoulder.) As expected, this portage was the most dangerous part of the day.

Road Signs on 128
Road Signs on 128

The Charles then follows Route 128/ Interstate 95 for a few miles. Even the road signs on Route 128 are visible from the river. The right bank of the river in this section follows Quinobequin Road in Newton. I was surprised that Route 128 was not more intrusive. Of course you could hear the traffic. But visually you only see an occasional car and those road signs. There are plans to put sound barrier in this area. They will reduce the road noise, but I think they will be much more visually intrusive,

After passing under Route 128, I passed under the Cochituate Aqueduct crossing the river and under 128 on a three-arched bridge. The Cochituate Aqueduct was built in 1848 to carry water from Lake Cochituate in Framingham to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. It serves a similar purpose to the Sudbury Aqueduct that runs through Echo Bridge.

Cordingly Dam
Cordingly Dam

Just below Water Street in Wellesly is the Cordingly Dam. An experienced paddler would tell you that given the level of the Charles, the water under the dam is very shallow and rock-strewn, making it likely that you could get your kayak stuck on a rock and get swamped. I am not an experienced kayaker.  I got stuck on a rock, the river poured over the side of the kayak into the cockpit and swamped it. This left me flapping in the river like one of the herring in the dam’s fish ladder. Since the river was shallow here I was able to walk with the kayak over to the river bank and empty most of the water out. All of this was a source of great amusement to the people sitting along the river enjoying their lunches. I was nearly at the end of this stretch of the river and it was a warm sunny day so I quickly warmed up.

Newton Lower Falls
Newton Lower Falls

I ended this stretch of the river at Washington Street / Route 16 in Wellesley at the top of Newton Lower Falls. I dried myself off, changed into my biking gear to pedal back to the truck and bring it back for my water-logged gear.

You can the rest of my paddling trips laid out on a map: Paddling Trips.