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How It Works

The Swan Boat is powered by a single driver who pedals the boat while sitting atop a paddle wheel and steering with two ropes connected to a rudder. Each boat holds about 20 passengers and weighs about 6,000 pounds. The trip around the pond is one-quarter mile and a driver can navigate over 7 miles in a day.

Driver seated on a Swan Boat
Driver seated on a Swan Boat

The design of the boat dates back to the 1870s, soon after the first bicycle arrived in the United States and during a time when steam engine boats drove paddle wheels to propel ships along rivers and waterways. Materials to build a Swan Boat included oak to frame the pontoons and construct bench seats for passengers, along with iron to secure benches and floor boards, ornamental brass, and copper to sheath pontoons and to originally create the swans.

Each Swan Boat is unique and as popularity of the ride grew over the decades, new boats were constructed. The current fleet includes boats built between 1910 and 1992. The historic parts of each boat are carefully maintained throughout the seasons. Repairs are made as needed, and when necessary a full reconstruction will occur if age or other factors warrant replacement. Each season oak bench slats are sanded and varnished and the entire fleet is prepped and painted. The signature ornamental brass is polished daily before opening.

Diagram of Swan Boat parts

Preparing for the Season

Every spring the fleet of six Swan Boats is assembled in the Boston Public Garden. Each boat—consisting of roughly twenty custom-made, non-interchangeable parts—is built by hand. These boat parts, including pontoons, paddle boxes, benches, and swans—some weighing close to 1,000 pounds—travel via truck to the park where a dedicated crew meticulously builds each vessel until the entire fleet sits afloat the Public Garden lagoon.

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Swan Boats in winter storage


Moving one of twelve 900-pound pontoons


Markings identify each boat part


1964 moving truck transports parts


Boat benches stacked in Public Garden


Boat building begins


Custom dolly with antique wagon wheels


Boat rudder is secured


Boat parts await on the lawn


Securing cross bar


Lifting one of six 400 lb paddle boxes


Swan lift


Swan mounted on boat


Completed boat glides across lagoon

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In 2018, WGBH shared this news story about the Swan Boats