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Boston’s famous Swan Boats

The Swan Boats, one of Boston’s most famous icons, usually come back from vacation in April on Patriot’s Day weekend. But, not this year…they are practicing social distancing until they receive the all-clear to set sail again in the Public Garden, the oldest botanical garden in America since 1837.

The story behind the Swan Boats began with a German opera. Robert Paget was a boat builder and an opera fan. In 1871 he traveled to New York City to see Richard Wagner’s Lohegrin. In one of the grand finale scenes, the main character crosses a river in a boat pulled by a white swan. That image gave Robert inspiration to create swan-shaped boats peddled bicycle-style by the driver who would also steer the vessel with a rope attached to the rudder.

The Swan Boats have operated on the lagoon since 1877. A year later, Robert Paget died at the age of 42. His widow Julia took over the business and raised four children alone. For years Julia was required to collect signatures from Back Bay business owners to vouch for her ability to operate a female-owned venture. She was at the helm for 36 years.

In 1914, Julia’s youngest son John took over the family business that became a very popular attraction in the Boston Public Garden. John created larger boats to keep up with demand. Today there is a “flock” of six Swan Boats that carry 20 passengers and still powered by bicycle pedals and a rope for steering. The oldest boat was built under John’s supervision in 1910. The Swan Boats are still owned and operated by the 4th generation Paget family.

There are endless opportunities for taking pictures of the Swan Boats in the Public Garden—whether they are sailing or resting peacefully on the water after a long day of providing numerous leisurely 15-minute rides around the lagoon for locals and visitors.

(The Public Garden is one of the stops on the PhotoWalks Highlights of Boston tour. Click here for more info.)