Where Pier 5 probes the Water

Where Pier 5 probes the Water

Writing on behalf of pier 5.org, I have used the iconic pier 5 location at the confluence of the Charles and Mystic Rivers to reflect on our nation’s history, the flourishing aquatic life, the role of the pier in our national defense and also consider  comparative approaches to restoration of this structure that might reasonable for consideration. This is a public asset, and it provides the view corridor that makes the Harbor Walk along the center of the Navy Yard unique for its expansive views and “big sky”. As a public asset and also an important historical site that is visibly neglected, how can this small piece of overwater space be best serve the needs of our city, our urban population, and our visitors  while enhancing  access to the water for all. This small parcel has the potential to be an economic engine, an environmental cornerstone, an educational demonstration project and a destination all at the same time. The opportunity is now.

One feature of the location that is rarely appreciated by casual observers is the current that flows beneath the pier and  aggressively scours the Boston harbor twice daily. It is useful to reflect on the Boston Harbor in its original configuration in early colonial times to better appreciate the currents significance. The daily ocean tide on the north side of Cape Cod and extending northward through the Gulf of Maine to the western side of Novia Scotia at the Bay of Fundy is much larger than the ocean tides farther south. The tidal range in the Bay of Fundy is a full 40 feet and at Boston it is approximately 10 feet. By comparison tides south of Cape Cod are less than 3 feet. The geography of the continental shelf and shoreline is responsibility for the magnitude of this range.

Boston Harbor is scattered with bedrock “islands”  such as Bunker, Breeds and Beacon Hill! In colonial time there was an immense tidal wetland surrounding these heights of land. Offshore, the harbor Islands are an extension of this geography and include a mixed collection of bedrock outcroppings and glacial deposits that form the islands and shoals of the outer harbor Islands. The Boston inner harbor is formed by confluence of a series of estuaries including the Fort Point channel, the Charles and  Mystic Rivers and Chelsea Creek. The tidal wetlands with marshes, mud flats, and open water stretched west toward Watertown and Winchester and these estuaries absorbed large quantities of tidal flow with each ocean cycle. The outward flow from the estuaries converged at the inner harbor and scoured a natural channel in the sediment that allowed the inner harbor of Boston to serve as the biggest and best protected deep water harbor for merchant shipping in early America. 

The harbor’s location just west of the Gulf Stream but well east of harbors farther south made it an ideal stopping point for vessels involved in the early triangular trading loops between Europe & North Africa, the Caribbean, and the American Colonies. Sailing from Europe to the New World is best accomplished following the North East trade winds off the coast of Africa, running westward to the West Indies, then following the South West breezes and currents up the east coast of North America, and finally the North west westerlies and currents across the North Atlantic back to the UK and European ports.  One can argue that the social and political evolution of western societies and how renaissance Europe transformed into the modern world is a by-product of this geography. That is to say, the economic opportunity, its wonders and its cruelty alike, were a product of this geography,  the wind, the current and the climate. The molasses disaster in the north end, the ice warehouses at Tudor wharf, and the canal network to the Mills of interior New England all are a products of this natural geography.

Ship building into the 19thCentury occurred not on industrial piers but on the banks of estuaries, and the size of the ship constructed in any location was limited by the height of the of the tide. If one could not float ones constructed hull out into navigable water at high tide, ones newly constructed ship would never launch. Thus estuaries of eastern New England with large tides were favored locations for early pre-industrial ship construction. The Navy Yard in Charlestown was an ideal location for the construction of the largest ships in our founding Navy with a pool of talented labor and  access to navigable water immediately at hand.

In the late 19thcentury, flood control was introduced to both the Mystic and Charles Rivers and extensive tidal lands were filled for residential and industrial uses. To this day the outgoing tides from the Charles and the Mystic River are dampened by the dams and locks on both rivers at the corners of Charlestown. The sluices in the dams gate the inward and outward movement of water and both Charles River and Mystic River basins retain water at low tide but prevent flooding at high  tide.  Water levels of both rivers are maintained a few feet below mean high tide level in the ocean.  If the sluices are fully opened the currents of either river can increase rushing by in both ebb or flood directions. 

The construction of pier 5 as a densely packed collection of steel piles extends 650 feet outward from the southernmost extent of land in Charlestown. For currents moving along the shore must pass through this steel grid which dampens the current near the shore and deflects the strongest currents to mid channel where the tankers and freighters that serve the industrial waterfronts in Chelsea Creek and the lower Mystic River pass by regularly. No other piers on the Charlestown shorefront share this feature. 

An open question for those who favor the complete demolition and removal of pier 5 is the effect the removal of the “steel grid buffer” might have on the shoreline currents that already move rapidly to the left or the right depending on the tide as one looks out towards the harbor. Will these currents increase and produce a hazard to navigation for the small boats that are harbored in the marinas along this shore? Would this effect ability navigate under sail into the dock at Courageous Sailing Center? Would this effect the sailing experience the center provides free to all children of the city of Boston? The Courageous sits immediately adjacent to pier 5 on its western side.  I am quite sure no one can answer that question with full authority but having navigated these waters for more than 30 years in all conditions, it would truly be unfortunate if the answer is a resounding yes. The currents are tricky enough already and depending on the sluice flows and tidal depth, they can vary substantially from expectation.

Pier 5 deserves recognition and restoration. Perhaps partial demolition will be necessary because of the mass of the slab concrete, but the barrier steel reef below should be preserved and before the pier is transferred to any one developer’s expedient solutions, the subject of possible impacts  requires diligent scrutiny. As an iconic part of the city’s historic infrastructure, a public solution that serves the city and its residents may be available in the post covid recovery programs. Let us not lose the public option though hasty decision making. But let us not stand by either. The community risks losing the opportunity to seek the substantial funds that will be required to restore this pier to a better future in honor of its historic past and memory of all who worked here.