Mystic River

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Mystic River
Mystic River in Medford MA 2014.tif
Mystic River as seen from the Cradock Bridge in Medford
Interactive map of the Mystic River
Etymologyfrom Wampanoag Muhs-uhtuq meaning "big river"
CountryUnited States
DistrictMiddlesex County
Physical characteristics
SourceLower Mystic Lake
MouthBoston Harbor
Length7 mi (11 km), roughly east-west
Basin size76 sq mi (200 km2)
Basin features
 • leftAlewife Brook
 • rightChelsea Creek, Malden River

The Mystic River is a 7.0-mile-long (11.3 km) river[1] in Massachusetts. In the Massachusett language, missi-tuk means "large estuary," alluding to the tidal nature of the Mystic River. The resemblance to the English word mystic is a coincidence, which the colonists followed.

The Mystic River lies to the north of Boston and flows approximately parallel to the lower portions of the Charles River, encompassing 76 square miles (200 km2) of watershed. The river flows from the Lower Mystic Lake and travels through East Boston, Chelsea, Charlestown, Everett, Medford, Somerville, and Arlington. The river joins the Charles River to form inner Boston Harbor. Its watershed contains 44 lakes and ponds, the largest of which is Spot Pond in the Middlesex Fells, with an area of 307 acres (124 ha). Significant portions of the river's shores are within the Mystic River Reservation and are administered by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which include a variety of recreation areas.

The Mystic River has a long history of industrial use and a continuing water quality problem. Some sections are undergoing an extensive cleanup as part of the construction of Everett's new Encore Boston Harbor casino.[2][3]


Engraving of the Mystic River and environs in 1790

American Indians and colonists used weirs to catch alewives and fertilize their crops. In 1631, the first ship built in Massachusetts was the Blessing of the Bay, launched from the river's shores. The first bridge was built in 1637; neighboring towns squabbled about the costs for more than a hundred years.

The Mystic River played a role in the American Revolution on September 1, 1774 when a force of roughly 260 British regulars rowed from Boston up the river to a landing point near Winter Hill. From there, they marched about a mile (1.6 km) to the Powder House where a large supply of American gunpowder was kept; they removed all the powder, sparking a popular uprising known as the Powder Alarm. The Battle of Chelsea Creek took place in the river's watershed in May 1775, and the British attacked via the river's beach in the Battle of Bunker Hill in June.

In 1805, the Middlesex Canal linked the Charles and Mystic Rivers to the Merrimack River in Lowell. Ten shipyards along the Mystic River built more than 500 clipper ships during the 19th Century. Shipbuilding peaked in the 1840s, as schooners and sloops transported timber and molasses for rum distilleries between Medford and the West Indies.

Extensive salt marshes lined the banks of the Mystic River until 1909, when the first Craddock Locks was built across the river, converting salt marsh to freshwater marsh and enabling development. The Amelia Earhart Dam was built in 1966, named for Amelia Earhart. In 1950, construction was completed on the Maurice J. Tobin Bridge which spans the Mystic River, joining Charlestown and Chelsea.


At one time, the Mystic River was home to many species of fish, including salmon, alewife, blueback herring, striped bass, bluefish, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, bluegill, carp and more. Although most of these species still live in the Mystic River, pollution and dam building have severely damaged the populations. Pollution came from various mills and a small ship building yard in the past. The main source of pollution in the 20th century and into the present is from drainage from cities and towns in the watershed. Many of the records of nearby drainage pipes have been lost, or have undocumented changes and diversions. Once described as having so many herring that one could cross the river on their backs, the Mystic River herring run is much smaller than it was in historic times. Pollution has raised bacteria levels and turbidity, making it unfavorable for fish to live in.

In popular culture[edit]

In 1844, Medford abolitionist and writer Lydia Maria Child described her journey across the Mystic to her grandfather's house in the poem "Over the River and Through the Wood." (Grandfather's House, restored by Tufts University in 1976, still stands near the river on South Street in Medford.)

John Townsend Trowbridge's popular 1882 novel, The Tinkham Brothers' Tide-Mill, had its setting along the river at a time when saltwater still reached the Mystic Lakes.

In Dennis Lehane's novel of the same name, Boston-area Mystic River holds a pivotal narrative development in the mystery. Later, Clint Eastwood directed the acclaimed film adaptation.

In the 1861 poem "Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Paul Revere rides along the banks of the Mystic River.


A 1903 USGS map of the Mystic River and environs
Crossing Carries Location Built Coordinates
Tobin Bridge US 1.svg Northeast Expressway Charlestown to Chelsea 1950 42°23′05″N 71°02′51″W / 42.38483°N 71.04755°W / 42.38483; -71.04755
Malden Bridge MA Route 99.svg Alford Street Charlestown to Everett 1963[4] (restored 2010–2014) 42°23′20″N 71°04′17″W / 42.38900°N 71.07139°W / 42.38900; -71.07139
MBTA.svg MBTA Newburyport/Rockport
Commuter Rail
Somerville to Everett Original 1849 by Grand Junction Railroad? 42°23′35″N 71°04′28″W / 42.392976°N 71.074402°W / 42.392976; -71.074402
Amelia Earhart Dam No public access Somerville to Everett 1966 42°23′42″N 71°04′30″W / 42.394881°N 71.075054°W / 42.394881; -71.075054
MBTA.svg MBTA Haverhill/Reading
Commuter Rail

and MBTA Orange Line
Somerville to Medford Replaced in 1975 when Orange Line was constructed? 42°23′48″N 71°04′38″W / 42.396631°N 71.077236°W / 42.396631; -71.077236
Wellington Bridge MA Route 28.svg Fellsway Somerville to Medford 1935, reconstructed 1979[5] 42°23′59″N 71°05′01″W / 42.39981°N 71.08356°W / 42.39981; -71.08356
MA Route 16.svg Mystic Valley Parkway Medford 1988[6] 42°24′21″N 71°05′47″W / 42.40582°N 71.09646°W / 42.40582; -71.09646
I-93.svg Interstate 93 Medford 42°24′53″N 71°06′14″W / 42.41472°N 71.10391°W / 42.41472; -71.10391
Cradock Bridge Main St Medford 42°25′03″N 71°06′37″W / 42.417602°N 71.110164°W / 42.417602; -71.110164
Medford Pipe Bridge Pedestrians, piped water Medford 1897 42°25′6″N 71°6′44″W / 42.41833°N 71.11222°W / 42.41833; -71.11222
MA Route 16.svg MA Route 38.svg Mystic Valley Parkway Medford 1906 (functionally obsolete)[7] 42°25′05″N 71°06′45″W / 42.418019°N 71.112588°W / 42.418019; -71.112588
Winthrop Street Medford 42°25′04″N 71°07′05″W / 42.417717°N 71.117941°W / 42.417717; -71.117941
MA Route 16.svg Mystic Valley Parkway Medford 1906 [8] 42°25′05″N 71°07′36″W / 42.418100°N 71.126741°W / 42.418100; -71.126741
MBTA.svg MBTA Lowell Commuter Rail Somerville to Medford Original in 1835? (Boston and Lowell Railroad) 42°25′04″N 71°07′43″W / 42.417835°N 71.128519°W / 42.417835; -71.128519
Boston Avenue Somerville to Medford Former site of Middlesex Canal crossing 42°25′02″N 71°07′49″W / 42.417238°N 71.130416°W / 42.417238; -71.130416
River Street / Harvard Avenue Arlington to Medford 42°24′56″N 71°08′18″W / 42.415490°N 71.138361°W / 42.415490; -71.138361
MA Route 60.svg Medford Street / High Street Arlington to Medford 42°25′14″N 71°08′34″W / 42.42054°N 71.14289°W / 42.42054; -71.14289

See also[edit]


  1. ^ U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map, accessed April 1, 2011
  2. ^ "Wynn Casino riding beside Mystic River," The Boston Globe, 10/17/17
  3. ^ " Cleanup for Wynn casino includes polluted Mystic River," 1/15/18
  4. ^ National Bridge Inventory Database entry B16029388MUNNBI
  5. ^ National Bridge Inventory Database entry M120014DXDOTNBI
  6. ^ National Bridge Inventory Database entry M120194DYDOTNBI
  7. ^ National Bridge Inventory Database entry M120034DTDOTNBI
  8. ^ National Bridge Inventory Database entry M120054DUDOTNBI
  • "History of the Mystic". About the Mystic River Watershed. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
  • Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. "Paul Revere's Ride". Retrieved 2008-01-03.

External links[edit]