The Mystic River (in Massachusetts-there's another one in Connecticut) is the one that we cross when we sing "over the river and through the woods" on our way to grandmother's house. It has as its source the Upper and Lower Mystic Lakes, which are connected by groundwater. From there it carves a southeasterly path through about ten kilometers of land, passing through and helping to form the borders of Medford, Arlington, Somerville, Everett, Chelsea and Charlestown. Even as rivers go, this one is particularly curvaceous, although human activities have straightened it out somewhat. It widens significantly near the Medford/Somerville/Everett border, where it joins the Malden River, before meeting up with the Chelsea Creek and the Charles River where it drains into Boston Harbor.

In the language of the Massachusetts, Menotomet and Pawtucket Indians (Algonquin) it was called the Missi-Tuk, meaning a great river whose waters are driven by waves, and most historians believe that its present name stems from a bastardization of this term. At high tide, flows of salt water used to rush in from the harbor, and at times the current even flowed in both directions at once, which really makes either name appropriate. The Amelia Earhart dam, built in the late 1950s and situated downstream of the conjunction of the Mystic and Malden rivers, now blocks the ocean water inflows, but most anyone who's visited its banks will tell you that it's retained a suspiciously eerie quality. On Rt. 16, around where it intersects with 38 and 28, you'll find absolutely the best view of the Boston skyline, and the best view of any skyline at all that I am privy to.


Prior to the colonization of Massachusetts Bay, the Missi-Tuk, along with other rivers in the waterlogged region, provided the chief means of transportation and food for the three tribes mentioned above. At first, the European settlers used the Mystic in much the same way, but by the mid-1600s they had started to exploit its resources for commercial purposes, including large scale fishing, timber production and agriculture. Shipbuilding soon became the dominant industry, since the river was surrounded by dense forests and provided easy access to Boston Harbor. Once the land was cleared, the surrounding areas were more fully devoted to commercial agriculture. Red clay hills were flattened and reshaped into the buildings, regal and mundane, that dot the area today. Other industries, including meat-packing, tanneries, rope-spinning, soap-making, and pickling factories, automobile plants, and textile mills moved into the area as the Industrial Revolution gathered steam, depositing industrial waste into the current.


In the late 20th century, many of the manufacturing industries that so heavily influenced the area's character moved their operations to lesser-developed countries in the third world, to take advantage of cheaper labor. This allowed for a sort of environmental reclamation that feeds on peoples' desire for open space. The river is used for fishing and boating, and surrounding areas feature parks and even some hiking trails. Unfortunately, merely opening space up does not clean it up. A recent meeting of a planning commission for the area addressed a conflict between environmentalists, who want a high biodiversity rate in open spaces, and residents who want more soccer fields. And the effects of heavy industry have not been entirely addressed, or even ceased to accumulate. Some plants, including one run by Kraft, continue to pollute the area, and there are 14 Superfund and TRI (Toxics Release Inventory) sites on the riverbanks. According to the EPA, Mystic River water is still unsafe for fishing or swimming.