The Malden River is currently flanked by the towns of Malden, Medford, and Everett. Though now dammed, the river used to be a tidal, bordered on its banks by salt marshes and tidal flats. The 2.3-mile long river meandered over the land, and was often fished for Alewife and Blueback Herring. The river landscape appeared significantly different than it does today.
Until 1845, the river had remained underdeveloped. It was then that the construction of the Boston and Maine Railroad sparked industrial development along the river. Heavy industry settled along the banks of the Malden River. The Malden River industries that settled along the river became instrumental in supporting nearly every war effort that the United States engaged in at that time. Rubber boots and bullets made along the Malden River were manufactured in the thousands for the military. Additional industries along the river included tanneries, chemical manufacturers, metal refineries, and textile manufacturers. Over the course of the industrial era along the river, the river was dredged, straightened, and filled three times in order to facilitate transport of barges.
The industrial facilities along the Malden River produced large volumes of wastes, which were disposed of in the river. Without environmental regulations to prohibit pollution, the Malden River became a dumping ground and polluted with heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. By 1920, most of the heavy industry along the river had closed down or moved elsewhere.
Current Context: Environmental and Community Challenges and Opportunities
Today, the Malden River sediments and riverbanks are contaminated with legacy pollutants from
its industrial past. Empty lots and light industry line its banks and it has largely become absent from the public conscience. Studies of contaminant levels have been conducted, but it is not well
understood what kind of health risks the contaminants truly pose to the public. In addition to the existing pollution, the lack of public access to the Malden River is one of the main challenges in enjoying the Malden River as a public amenity. Chapter 91 of the Massachusetts Waterfront Act requires public access to former tidal water bodies. As a former tidal river, all parcels along the banks of the Malden River are subject to Chapter 91. By law, the public is allowed access to the Malden River waterfront, however, Chapter 91 is severely underenforced, allowing landowners to make decisions that prohibit or discourage citizens from accessing their waterfront property.
There are several proposed developments that could challenge (or improve) public access to the Malden River:
• A casino is proposed to be built on the lower east banks of the Malden, over what was formerly a parcel owned by the Monsanto corporation. If built, river advocates hope that the casino developer, Steve Wynn, would take responsibility for cleaning up a portion of the river and remediating the toxic sediments remaining on the Monsanto site and under the riverbed. Community encouragement will help to persuade the developer to dedicate sufficient funds for this much-needed remediation.
• A minor league baseball stadium is on the agenda for Malden center, just at the north end of the short portion of the river now “daylighted” (that is, visible). Given the close proximity between the proposed stadium and the river, development plans and how they may affect the river should be closely monitored. Depending on design decisions, the river may be a highlighted feature of the stadium, or it may be further impaired. If the latter, the damage would last for several generations.
• The planned Route 16 bridge replacement over the Malden will most likely include a bike bath, improving the trail network along the Malden River corridor. This project also needs close citizen monitoring.
• The current owners of former General Electric (GE) parcel in Everett are proposing to maintain (and add to) an 8-foot-high chain link fence along the waterfront portion of the property. In some cases this fence would be far back from the river and essentially obscure public access and even viewing. If this happens, it would raise questions about the scope and value of the state’s Public Waterfront Act, Chapter 91, which is supposed to provide for public access to formerly tidal rivers like the Malden.
Click here to find out more about a book recently published by Suffolk University scholar and local resident Richard H. Beinecke, The Mystic River: A Natural and Human History and Recreation Guide, which provides a detailed, deeper look into the historical past of the Malden River and the Mystic River Watershed.