By David Wilkening, Contributing Writer
BOSTON – The Boston Public Garden’s famous swan boats are back to normal. The Paget family, which owns the venerable attraction, spent its usual four days or so reassembling them after the winter hiatus. The boats began their fairy tale voyages on April 16. Plans are to continue the traditional season through September 5 with their usual lazy, two-mile-an-hour path around the garden’s pond.
Covid pandemic affected last two seasons
“We look forward to having our first full season since 2019. We were unable to open in 2020 and in 2021, our season was shorter than usual,” said owner Lynn Paget. If fairy tales at their simplest are escapes from reality, the single-person, paddle-powered boats have a longstanding history of more than a century and a half as a quiet refuge from a busy, bustling city.
“You can’t beat a ride on the swan boats to take you back to a simpler time in Boston―slow, relaxing, delightful, historical. Riding them brought me back to my childhood,” said one older rider. The swan boat’s 13- to 15-minute journeys have a somewhat pedestrian setting for a fairy tale: an approximately four-acre, shallow, artificial lagoon only three to four feet deep. It’s drained every winter when the boats are retired for the year, and the water is refilled in the spring.
But how it started in 1877 to become one of the area’s most popular attractions — and as common a local icon as Boston cream pie and baked beans — is a sort of an improbable story in itself. Robert Paget launched the first swan boat in 1877. At that time, rowing boats across the Public Garden pond was a favorite activity of residents. The first boats were unadorned, twin-pontooned paddle boats. But the fairy-tale quality of the added swans enclosing the operator came several years later.
They were inspired by Paget’s exposure to an opera composed by Richard Wagner often described as a fairy tale story: “The Lohengrin,” where a knight of the Holy Grail and son of King Percival crosses a river in a boat to rescue his heroine, Princess Elsa. The boat is drawn by…what else?…a swan?
Fifth generation of Pagets still run the boats
The fairy tale reality of the boat operation is that it has continued to be run as a family business for almost a century and a half. Lynn Paget’s grandfather launched the first boat at the age of 44. “After his death one year later, his wife Julia took over the operation and I think we owe much to her for the longevity of this business,” according to Lynn. The boats have fifth generation Pagets working there.
The Boston Public Garden alone is an attraction in itself for boat riders. It’s an “incredible oasis in the middle of the city,” said Lynn. It was the first public botanical garden in the U.S., decorated with statues and flower beds. It’s often described as the most beautiful site in the city.
But visitors have made it a top attraction for other reasons, too. Memories, for example. “My sense of what people find to be special about this experience is often based in a memory they have as a child. Many people will share with us a story that stems back to a time when they first experienced a swan boat ride with someone special in their lives. That may be a parent, grandparent or other person, and now they may be bringing their own grandchildren and reliving the exact same experience,” Paget said.
Famous passengers of the past have included Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Grace Kelly and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The strongman actor and former California governor was impressed by swan boat operators single-handedly pedaling the three-ton boats. Crew members explained to him that the power was designed so that it required a similar effort to riding a bicycle uphill.
As passengers start out, they can see tall Boston buildings in the distance.
Highlights of the trip include the “Make Way for Ducklings” bronze statues near Charles and Beacon Streets, named after the famous Charles McCluskey children’s book (some say the statutes are the most famous in the city).
The ducklings story is fiction (Ma Duckling brought her eight offspring here after hatching them along the bank of the nearby Charles River). But real mallards nest along the route, sometimes swimming along with the boats, and there are swans as well.
If you go
The boats run seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except rainy, windy, or extremely hot days) and you can get tickets at the swan boat dock. No reservations are necessary and no masks are required, either, though they are also available.
Ticket prices are $4 for seniors, $4.50 for adults and $3 for children two to 15 years old. Children under two ride free. The wait for a ride is usually short, less than 15 minutes, according to the site at Swanboats.com.