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Boston’s Swan Boats Rich in History

By Jiao Wang

Today, scientists and engineers alike perceive Boston as one of the foremost cities pioneering research, the home of numerous laboratories and companies, and the site of some of the world’s premier colleges and universities. MIT’s mission statement to educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century fits nicely into the young person’s view of Boston as a leader in the pragmatic and practical aspects of life and as a place where a better tomorrow can come true.

There is, however, another side of Boston, a side that may elude the MIT student’s problem-solving mind. In the same way that Boston satisfies our appetite for careers in science, engineering, technology, and management, it also satiates the historian’s love for the past. Boston was the home of Paul Revere. It is here that we find the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum, Boston Common, Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and the Old State House, just to name a few.

Boston summers inevitably attract tourists. We yield the right of way to “conDUCKtors” of Boston Duck Tours, drivers of Old Town Trolleys, and passengers on Odyssey cruises. While some companies eagerly approach Boston’s universities to court their students, other businesses are just as enthusiastically striving to preserve glimpses of bygone times, making sure that the events at Bunker Hill, the Battle of Beacon Hill, the USS Constitution, and Boston’s Little Italy at the North End are not forgotten. The operators of Swan Boats of Boston are doing just that.

The small yet intricately designed man-made lagoon where the boats reside is famous from the children’s book “Make Way for Ducklings.” Its concrete boundaries twist and turn, creating ample room for the long braids of weeping willows that sweep the water surface. Dug in the early 1800s, it serves as a peaceful oasis in the midst of a rapidly commercialized district. In spring, flowers cradle the pond: tulips, daffodils, and wild flowers of many arrays of color. In summer, the clear waters reflect the healthy greens of willows, oaks, and pines.

The lagoon, although small, is quite busy. Mallard ducks and occasional swans teem the waters, every once in a while plunging their heads into the depths below so their tail feathers pivot toward the sky. Seven days a week from April through September, swan boats cycle the lagoon, their drivers pedaling just fast enough to keep up with possible trails of newly-hatched ducklings. Children gaze eagerly at the wildlife beneath their feet, hoping to spot Mr. and Mrs. Mallard.

In the 1870s, Robert Paget had a boat for hire license and rented row boats on the Public Garden Lagoon. He created the first swan boats in 1877 by combining two slender row boats side by side to serve as pontoons of a much larger pedal boat. Inspired by the Wagner opera “Lohengrin,” Paget covered the driver in the pedal box with a swan. He made the first swan designs and sent his rowboats to a local artisan to have the swan boats built. The design was copyrighted and trademarked in the 1980s. Since their initial creation, the swan boats have maintained their popularity, gradually incorporating themselves into the hallmarks of Boston scenery.

The Paget family currently owns six boats. Each has five to six benches and can seat 15 to 20 people. Four boats are usually in use on weekdays. The two oldest ones, built in 1910 and 1920, are tied to shore. On a busy day, each boat cycles around the lagoon up to 30 times in a cruise that lasts 15 minutes. In conditions of high winds, heat, or rainfall, the boats are shut down. Phil Paget, current manger of Swan Boats in Boston and great grandson of Robert Paget, says no accidents have occurred in the boats’ 120 year history.

Depending on the season, the business employs between 20 and 25 people. Workers in gray shirts and navy blue shorts and caps with the registered logo of Swan Boats Boston push the boats to and from the dock and maneuver the boats in the shallow water. During the summer, most are high school or college students. Charlie Ryan, a rising sophomore at Syracuse College, is working at the swan boats this summer for the third time. Both of his grandparents are friends of the Paget family. Charlie trains new employees until they get their wings.

During the off season, the boats are dismantled and stored in a Boston boatyard. Phil comes in a few days a week to do the necessary repair work and to refinish the benches. His father Paul, the owner, drops down to check on the business from time to time. When asked about whether his children will continue the business, Phil says they will pedal here. He waves his hands in a generic manner as if to encompass all of time: they will all keep pedaling.

Swans were present in the lagoon in the 1950s and 1960s and disappeared in the 1970s, says Phil. They were brought back by a local businessman in the 1990s. Now, the city maintains a pair of swans and Bostonians have affectionately named them Romeo and Juliet. However, the current lovebirds were recently discovered to both be female and thus named Juliet and Juliet.

According to the Boston Globe, while some liberal Bostonians have observed that Juliet and Juliet seem happy together and will thus remain so, others maintain that the two swans deserve a true Romeo. So perhaps something as conservative and peaceful as the swans in Boston is not completely a part of the past; perhaps our Boston is not occupied by two distinct realms of past and present. The two spheres collide, conspire, and intertwine until they shape what we see, what we feel, and what we experience as students and transitional Bostonians.