The Boston Public Garden was established on land that was once tidal marshes. Surrounded by Victorian-era cast iron fencing, the garden sits in the heart of downtown, surrounded by the historic neighborhoods of Beacon Hill and Back Bay.
The Swan Boat story dates back to the 1870s when Robert Paget, whose descendants continue to operate the business, was granted a boat for hire licensed by the City of Boston. Rowing a small boat in the Public Garden lagoon was a favorite summer pastime for city residents during the day and evening.
In 1877, Robert introduced a catamaran-style boat to the lagoon. This boat was designed atop two pontoons and allowed passengers to sit on benches in front of the captain. The boat was foot-propelled like a bicycle attached to a paddle wheel. To cover the apparatus and wrap around the captain, Robert designed a swan.
Robert and his wife Julia were opera fans and the idea for the swan came from the opera Lohengrin. The Richard Wagner opera is based on a medieval German story in which Lohengrin, a knight of the Grail, crosses a river in a boat drawn by a swan to defend the innocence of his heroine, Princess Elsa.
1800s to 1940s
From the late 1800s until the mid-1940s, the Swan Boats and the row boats operated together in the Public Garden.
Robert lived only one year after the first Swan Boats were launched. He died in 1878 at the age of 42 and his wife Julia, a young widow with four children, assumed full management of the new enterprise. For over three decades—and before women had the legal right to vote—Julia managed the family business while raising her children. Since a woman-owned business was so rare, Julia was required for many years to gather signatures of support from local business owners in the Back Bay.
In 1914, Julia’s youngest son John and his wife Ella carried forward the tradition of the Paget family’s Swan Boats. During this period, with increasing popularity for the ride, the boats were expanded in size to five benches that would accommodate 20 passengers per boat.
Make Way for Ducklings is published—a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey, featuring the Swan Boats. The book tells the story of a pair of mallards who raise their new family of ducklings on an island in the Public Garden lagoon.
The current fleet of Swan Boats consists of six boats, the oldest of which was built in 1910. John and Ella raised six children, all of whom spent many summers working on the boats. In 1952, their son Paul and his wife Marilyn followed in the footsteps of Paul’s parents and maintained at the helm of the operation for over 50 years.
The Trumpet of the Swan is published—a children’s novel by E. B. White that tells the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born without a voice who overcomes this difficulty by learning to play a trumpet in order to impress a beautiful swan named Serena. Louis plays his trumpet for passengers on the Swan Boats and resides at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Today, the Swan Boats continue their tradition under the management of Paul and Marilyn’s daughter Lyn and her cousin Phil—both fourth-generation members of the Paget family.
The Paget family has preserved this tradition for almost 150 years, maintaining the charm and integrity of a vision that became a reality for a young boat builder and his wife. They are the only boats of their type in the world and are an important symbol of the wonderful City of Boston.