The Boston Swan Boats have been delighting New Englanders for more than 140 years. Learn more about this iconic and beloved Boston landmark.
By Bethany Bourgault
May 06 2021
Boston’s Swan Boats | A Tradition of Family and Community
In Boston’s big-building, busy-city culture, it sometimes seems hard to find anything with longevity or sentimental value. Generations of the Paget family have been proving that wrong, though, for more than 140 years. That’s how long they’ve watched over one of the city’s most charming traditions– the beloved Boston swan boats, opening for the season on Saturday, May 8, 2021. These beautiful birds have nested themselves right in the heart of the public garden (and the hearts of New Englanders.)
Robert Paget took inspiration from just about everything around him when formulating the idea for the boats back in the 1870s. It was a popular pastime for 19th century Bostonians to float around the man-made pond in the public garden on paddleboats. Paget loved this idea, and since he had just been granted a boating license, he decided to build a boat that could carry passengers around the lagoon.
It was the heyday of the bicycle, thus Paget was inspired to power his boats with foot-pedals. He then built ornamental swans to cover the pedals. Why swans? Paget was a big fan of the German opera Lohengrin, in which the hero rides a swan-drawn boat across a river to save the princess.
The first of the Boston swan boats, with its heavy copper swan and two wooden benches for passengers, took to the water in 1877, fulfilling the dream of Mr. Paget. Unfortunately, he did not get to see his dream blossom more than a year. He met his untimely death in 1878 at the age of 42. His wife took over the budding business, and it has never left the family since.
Nowadays, the boats take passengers on more than just a 15 minute ride around the lagoon. They transport them through time. As Jon Marcus wrote in Yankee’s Mar/Apr 2011 issue, “people who once rode these icons with their grandparents now take their grandchildren.” The Boston Swan Boats are one of few experiences that have changed so little over time, residents can almost totally replicate the beloved rides they took in their own childhoods. Sharing those memories with the young ones makes for an even more special voyage.
Children all over the world are familiar with the boats from another point of view, too. Robert McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings has been a favorite of many since it was published in 1941. It tells the story of a pair of ducks that move their family (complete with adorable ducklings) from the Charles River to the small island in the pond. There is even a statue in the garden commemorating the ducks and their liveliness, charm, and spunk.
After the ride, visitors can spend as long as they’d like wandering the Public Garden (one of our picks for the Best Public Gardens in New England), admiring the vast and varied array of flora and fauna in the area. Beautiful flowers and the friendliest squirrels I’ve ever met made for a peaceful and lovely stroll.
Though the Boston swan boats have a long-lasting legacy of tradition, those who keep them running today have less-known traditions of their own. At the end of every season, all of the workers, many of them high school or college students, toss each other into the pond for laughs.
Perhaps that’s why the Boston swan boats seem to be as popular as ever. They are unique pieces of nostalgic history. Bostonians are proud of them. A quick ride on a swan boat is 15 minutes in a different time – a time that’s quiet, calm and peaceful, even while the rest of the city is not.
Have you ever enjoyed a ride on the Boston Swan Boats?
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.