The Swan Boats of Boston—1877 Fun Still at an 1877 Price


There aren’t too many places in this country where something from 1877 is still operational and nearly still at the same price. If you wander through the Public Garden in Boston, this is exactly what you will find. The Swan Boats are as iconic to Boston as Coney Island is to New York City. They are fittingly located in the oldest park in the country, right in the middle of the city.
The boats, shaped like giant swans, are peddle-operated by college kids who know they will have massive calves by the end of the summer. The boats have a few rows of seats and they meander around a giant pond flanked by old, towering willow trees that make you completely forget you are in the middle of the city. If it weren’t for the peaks of a few buildings poking out from above, you would think you were miles away from civilization. The trees sway as families of real swans saunter around, along with countless ducks bobbing about. The sounds of the city fade and all you hear is the peddling and birds floating by. The greenery is broken up only flowers all around. The Swan Boats pass underneath a small bridge with bulb street lights lining the walkway that connects the gardens above. The boats circle around an island that is home to the most famous birds in Boston. The bridge leads to the flower gardens and statues that make the park the most peaceful and bright spot in the city. With onion flowers the size of your head and blooms that fill the city air with sweetness, there really is no better place to wander around and enjoy Italian ice after a day of hitting the pavement and dodging honking cars while touring around the city.
My first trip to these boats was while chaperoning a first grade field trip. The trip re-traced the path of the duck family in Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings award-winning children’s book. My daughter’s class studied the book and we all embarked on the same journey as the duck family. We strolled through Beacon Hill, the historic neighborhood with crisp brownstones and wrought iron gates to gardens and pathways. Beacon Hill is flowing with history as the homes still have boot scrapers near the steps and gas lanterns for street lights. Cobblestone streets lead the way through a maze of pristine homes that are priced in the millions, even for basement apartments in this strip of old Boston. The neighborhood is home to designer boutiques and the homes of the most famous and wealthy families in the country, including John Kerry’s home. We did this tour as he was running for president, which made seeing his home from just a few feet away quite a historic moment for the kids and adults too. Secret Service personnel were stationed in front of the house also.
From Beacon Hill, we followed the path into the garden and came upon the Make Way for Ducklings statues along the sidewalk. It is tradition for the kids to sit on one, then move up to the next, then on to the next until they get a chance to sit on the mother duck. The bronze ducks mimic the exact ones in the book. I took my daughter’s picture on the mother duck and we re-created this scene years later when we last visited Boston, the summer before her freshmen year of high school.
Then, as you make your way under the willows and around trees that have seen much history, you come to the small ‘boat launch’ building where the Swan Boats are lined up awaiting passengers. The boats cost $2.50 for adults and under that for children. The lines are never really long, yet everyone who visits the city takes a ride. They sway slightly and there is always a breeze in Boston. This makes the boats a nice way to cool off as well as escape the noise and traffic of the city. The swaying of the willow branches and isolation of the island as the boat rounds it and heads back to the start can all be hypnotic. You can literally forget you are in the city.
Anytime we rode the boats, it was always at the end of our journey in the city. We would spend our days touring Boston in a wave of excitement taking the subway, blending in on the sidewalks following the red bricks of the freedom trail, eating with the masses at the always packed, always loud, Quincy Market. Then, we would trudge back up to Beacon Street with bags of souvenirs, sweat, and a few tears when the kids were very young and were at the brink of exhaustion. Somehow, we would find ourselves in the Public Garden, in the quiet, the peace, the serenity of it all. Then, on the water, off our feet, with bags of cheap treasures squished between us, we would breathe. We would relax. To ride in to the city in the hot, metal tube filled with the smell of strangers sitting close in the summer and to end the day trying to pinpoint which flower was filling the air and in amazement at how melodic the splashing could be was what made a day in Boston complete. The history of the boats and the fact that these peddle powered floating pieces of heaven were tucked away from the rest of the city made it a true gem to experience. The fact that it still cost so little also makes a true find for anyone looking to get off their feet and take in some nature before stuffing themselves back into the hot subway stations. I’m sure with the success, the calmness, and the endless supply of college kids who want to work those calf muscles, the boats will be there when we move back to New England. I’m equally sure my daughter will once again want to take her picture on the mother duck statue before we take a ride around the pond.

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