I've been hearing about the Millers River for years, but until the summer of 2007 I had never seen it. The story told was that there was almost nothing left of it unfilled. That it was a dirty little ditch that formed the border between East Cambridge and Charlestown. That description is not too far off, but there is a fair amount of life present, and there is not another place like it that I know of in the area.
Before filling began, the stream extended more than a mile inland passing south of Prospect Hill through what is now Union Square and on in into Somerville. You can see this on a 1777 map reproduced on page 185 of David Cobb and Alex Krieger's book "Mapping Boston". The Harvard Map Collection at the Pusey Library has a copy of this map. You can view it on line at this link. 1777 Pelham Map . It is labeled Willis Creek on this map. At that time the area that remains today was open water and part of Boston Harbor. In the 1800's, the Millers River was used as a sewer and dumping ground for local industry. Most notoriously by John P. Squires & Company, a large slaughterhouse located by what is now Twin Cities Plaza on Route 28. According to Karl Haglund in his book "Inventing The Charles River", the smell and health effects were so extreme that they led to the enactment of Chapter 91 of the Massachusetts general laws. Chapter 91 gives the Commonwealth the power to regulate uses of tidal waterways and is one of our most powerful tools to protect the public welfare concerning filled and flowing tidelands today.
Today what is left of the Millers River is pretty well hidden from view. If you have driven south on Rutheford Ave. and taken the right turn to get on to the Tobin Bridge, you may have noticed a series of fanciful light poles painted in stripes of bright colors. These light a pathway constructed as part of the big dig that travels along the Charlestown side of the ever so slightly restored Millers. It is one of my favorite places. It's kind of an odd area to be so fond of, but there is nowhere else like it.
As you begin to stroll down this path the first thing that you notice is these candy cane light poles. Next you will see a series of numbers molded into the sidewalk. 17.4. 15.2. 13.5. Later on you will find a plaque that says that these numbers represent the original depth of the water at those locations taken from old charts. There are galvanized metal ginkgo and maple leaf shapes arranged on the fencing between you and the road. There is a potato memorial. Really. Walking on you go beneath the Zakim Bridge and along the bank of the Millers River. There has been some planting of native wetland vegetation on the banks and you are likely to see ducks, geese and other birds. Overhead is a tangle of elevated highways and ramps. Across the water is Boston Sand and Gravel and the Commuter rail tracks and draw bridge leading into North Station. The noise is intense. So is the geometry of the bridges, ramps, columns and drainage structures. There are views down there that you will not see elsewhere.
The path cantilevers over the water for a ways then curves back on land and ends abruptly at the confluence with the Charles. The long term plan is to extend the path to Paul Revere Park and the pedestrian way over the new Charles River Dam. A bike path connection is also planned to North Point park in Cambridge. This will tie in with bike paths to be built in conjunction with the extended Green Line, eventually connecting with the Minuteman Trail. Don't hold your breath though.
The best way to see the Millers River is by canoe or kayak though. What are you waiting for?