Back Bay Fens
In 1877 the
city council authorized the acquisition of land and lying out of a park in the unimproved
portion of Back Bay.
Before any park work could begin a
severe drainage problem in the Back Bay area would have to be solved. The Back Bay Fens
was a noxious tidal swamp and creek left over from the times when the whole Back Bay was a
shallow body of salt water. The sewage and swamp water that infiltrated the area created a
serious health problem as well as a foul stench. Another problem was the matter of flood
control. Emptying into the Back Bay were two streams, the Stony Brook and Muddy River,
that drained several thousands of surrounding acres and that tended to flood badly, when
heavy rains and high tides backed up the tidal basins of the Charles. The flooding and
tidal fluctuations had to be eliminated before the park could be constructed.
But Olmsted devised a plan that
would solve the drainage problem as well as transform the Back Bay area, or the Fens as he
liked to call it, into a public park. First, he devised a way to control the amount of
water in the Back Bay, by building tidal gates where the Fens flowed into the Charles.
Next, he installed a huge sewage interceptor on the Boston side of the Fens basin. This
conduit reduced health hazards and provided a run-off for one of the two streams. In times
of extremely heavy rains, he anticipated that the Fens would serve as a
temporary storage basin for run-off water. Because of this Olmsted planted vegetation in
the park that would not die as a result of this. His final preliminary work was filing in
the land around this conduit. From six entrances, visitors discovered park drives, paths
for strolling, and the beginning of what was intended to be extensive bridal path system
that Olmsted named the Ride. Since the channels of the waterway were relatively narrow and
winding, water traffic was limited to canoes.
Today the Fenway has changed. No
longer is it a marshy area that was used as a temporary storage basin for run-off water.
The Fenway is now the home of many activities, from Baseball to Education. Much of what
Olmsted designed has been overshadowed by highway's and high-rises.
pictures are of the Beacon Entrance to the Fens. The Parkway runs left to right with
Commonwealth Ave. coming toward the forefront. These pictures illustrate the changes
endured by the Fens.
For more information:
Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System.
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1982.