First in a four-part series.
On a sunny spring day, we hop the one-car Mattapan trolley from Ashmont three stops to Milton to begin our odyssey along the Boston Harborwalk. We’re drawn to cities with great waterfronts, and we’ve undoubtedly bored our friends by recounting romantic strolls along the Seine in Paris or exhilarating walks through the rough-and-tumble seafront in Naples. But, to our chagrin, we’ve never looked at Boston’s harbor through travelers’ eyes. Until now.
Still a work in progress, the Boston Harborwalk is a nearly continuous path from the Neponset River in lower Dorchester through the city and around to Belle Isle Marsh on the East Boston-Winthrop line. Fortunately, the roughly 43-mile length divides easily into four stretches of nearly equal distance, each just right for a day trip.
Before we set out on the first leg, we touched bases with Alice Brown, chief of planning and policy for Boston Harbor Now. ‶We use 1984 as the birth year of the Harborwalk,″ Brown told us. ‶That was the year the first harbor park plan came out. It was the best, most forward thinking that Boston did in the second half of the 20th century.″
That planning turned out to be prescient. During the 1988 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush called Boston’s front door ‶the dirtiest harbor in America.″ But a court-ordered $3.9 billion cleanup was already beginning. Visionaries could see that a clean harbor would create miles of desirable waterfront ripe for development. Rather than let builders wall off the water, state, and city authorities invoked Chapter 91, also known as the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act. The 1866 law codified 17th century colonial ordinances that had asserted the rights of residents to access the shore.
‶The colonial ordinances established the right to fish, fowl, and navigate, and we are applying that to the most contemporary development,″ Brown said.
From the river to the sea
Most of the southernmost leg of the Harborwalk required no invocation of Chapter 91, as it follows public lands. The Milton T stop sits at Dorchester Lower Mills, where early 20th century red brick buildings once served as the headquarters of the Baker Chocolate Company. Now loft apartments, they are a tangible link to the industrial heyday of Lower Mills and to the first chocolate maker in Colonial America.
The Harborwalk begins here by picking up the Neponset River Greenway, a linear state park that follows the river to the sea and changes names frequently to some variant of ‶Neponset River Trail.″ The path follows trolley tracks for a few minutes before emerging amid marshes in full sight of the winding river. It’s spring, courting geese comically waddle two-by-two along the shore. Cardinals and robins chirp their plaintive love calls from trees on the inland side. Even at low tide, the breeze off the water is fresh and sweet and full of sunshine.
The Harborwalk has a rolling, bucolic charm as it passes lovely Cedar Grove Cemetery before crossing Granite Avenue to Neponset Park. The river widens here, flexing its tidal muscles. Cormorants, Canada geese, and mallards patrol the shores of this estuarine environment, alert for children with telltale bags of bread.
At what appears to be a deadend for the trail, a short walk right on Hallet Street crosses beneath the Southeast Expressway to Pope John Paul II Park, a triumph of wasteland reclamation where the Neponset River Trail resumes. We’ve always mused about this park, watching people walk the trails as we sat in inbound traffic. On a day when traffic is moving, there’s an odd disconnect between the road racket and the tranquil parkland.
Green grass and native shrubs now flourish on the gentle domed cover of the former Neponset Dump and well-used paved trails follow the circumference of this small peninsula. The Department of Conservation & Recreation has restored the historic saltmarsh around the edges, providing habitat where wading birds forage — and birdwatchers set up with binoculars. The playground and soccer field are closed for COVID-19 concerns, but rest rooms are available at the Neponset River trailhead.
At the north end of the park, we finally spot blue and white Harborwalk signs with a stylized sailboat in the center. The trail continues along the water, passing under Neponset Avenue and the Red Line to reach Joseph Finnegan Park — another environmental restoration triumph.
The park sprawls over Port Norfolk, where 19th century industrialists built factories and warehouses on piers jutting into the mouth of the Neponset River. The park’s industrial past surfaces only at low tide. A few stubby pilings poke out of the water where A.T. Stearns Lumber once flourished and where the George Lawley & Son boatyard, famous for their yachts, operated through World War II to build landing craft for the invasion of Europe. The transformation of a polluted industrial site into parkland has been extraordinary. By encouraging saltmarsh grasses and upland meadow plants in place of seawalls, piers, and foundations, DCR has reestablished a vibrant saltmarsh estuary that supports all manner of game fish as well as more than 200 species of birds.
North of Finnegan Park, the Harborwalk assumes a much more urban cast, though that has its own compensations. Walking along Walnut Street — as close to the water as we can get — we end up in the big parking lot serving the drinking and dining complex of Boston Winery (bostonwinery.com), Boston Harbor Distillery (shop.bostonharbordistillery.com), and Venezia Restaurant (veneziaboston.com), known for its water views. The winery and restaurant are open Wednesday-Sunday, the distillery on weekends. Check websites to make reservations.
A five-minute walk through a gritty industrial district — Ericsson Street to the end, left onto Lawley Street, then right at the stop sign onto Tenean Street — brings us back to the shore at Tenean Beach. The narrow park here is prone to flooding and the landscaping is a little rough around the edges, but the small sandy beach has a direct view of Corita Kent’s rainbow-splashed 140-foot-tall Dorchester gas tank — one of Boston’s signature landmarks. When we’re driving back from Cape Cod, it’s a sure sign that we’re getting close to home.
The north exit from Tenean Beach on Conley Street is grim — lots of windblown trash in the underpass beneath the Southeast Expressway — and the right turn onto Tenean Street at the stop sign follows behind industrial buildings with no sidewalk. The payoff for this unpleasant but brief stretch is Phillips Chocolates (818 Morrissey Boulevard, phillipschocolate.com). Opened in 1925, Phillips claims to be Boston’s oldest operating chocolatier and still uses its original recipes. The shop is famous for its turtles, though we prefer the morsel-studded chocolate chip cookies. If you’re hungrier than that, DW Brewpub (820 Morrissey Boulevard, bostonbowl.com) next door keeps long hours.
The walk along Morrissey Boulevard to the crosswalk lights at Freeport Street seems interminable, but only takes five minutes. Such discontinuities in the Harborwalk are disappointing and there’s no good face to be put on this stretch of Morrissey unless you’re shopping for a car. Once we’ve safely reached the west side of Morrissey, we cross the 1928 Dorchester Bay Bridge to reach Malibu Beach, one of Boston’s urban strands. Complete with boardwalk and bathhouse, it’s a great place to catch some rays while gazing across the water to the stall-and-crawl traffic on the Southeast Expressway. There’s a lot to be said for traveling on foot.
Near the end of the boardwalk, a road swings through a parking lot and up into the residential neighborhood. The Savin Hill T station is just a five-minute walk left along Savin Hill Avenue.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.
Start: Milton MBTA station (Mattapan Line)
End: Savin Hill MBTA station (Red Line)
Distance: About 5 miles, 3 hours leisurely walking
Interactive Harborwalk map: bostonharborwalk.org
Next: Columbia Point to Fort Point Channel