The first public botanical garden in America is a park of many charms. And one of its most charming features is, by acclaim, the swan boats.
The iconic boats have delighted passengers and sightseers in Boston every spring and summer since 1877 — with the exception of 2020, when the season was canceled because of the pandemic.
The drought ends Saturday, when the pedal-powered fleet returns to the lagoon.
Visitors to the Public Garden last week welcomed the news.
“As soon as we see them, we’ll be back,” said Jerome Tomaselli, of Watertown, as his family snapped pictures by the Make Way For Ducklings sculpture.
“Oh, my gosh!” added Courtney Tomaselli. “Our daughter is 2, so this will be her first opportunity to see the swan boats. And it just feels like, particularly coming out of such a restrictive kind of pandemic environment, to be able to be out and about with Boston neighbors again? Such a blessing. For her to be able to explore the world and be a part of this iconic Boston experience is special.”
"For [my daughter] to be able to explore the world and be a part of this iconic Boston experience is special.”Courtney Tomaselli
On a bench by the water, Casel Walker, of Milton, relaxed with her grandson, Harlen Griffin, of Chelsea.
“We’re really looking forward to the swan boats, right?” she asked him.
“Mm-hmm!” he answered.
The first grader says he can’t wait to ride the boats, which, it turns out, he has never seen.
“I’ll give you a hint,“ said Walker. “Why do you think they call them the swan boats?"
“Because you see swans?”
Walker shook her head. “They actually look like swans. They have--
“Wait,” her grandson interrupted. “THEY LOOK LIKE SWANS?”
“They do,” Walker confirmed. “They're pretty incredible.”
The 6-year-old smiled, and started strategizing with his grandmother about how to beat the crowds on swan boat opening day.
A few steps away, Lauren Bass, of Hingham, stood at her easel. Her canvas revealed a painting of the scene by the footbridge that spans the lagoon. Bass said when her children were little they made family pilgrimages to the swan boats, and she considers the boats not only a great tradition but also great subject matter.
“They can be a focal point,” said Bass. “You always try to find a focal point in your painting, and they’re a really nice one. I feel like the swan boats tell a story. You want to have some kind of narrative. There's a bit of a warmth in the story when you put in the swan boats and people enjoying the day. So, it's like the verb of it.”
Now you know: the swan boats are more than a mere destination — they’re also a part of speech. And perhaps true to their nature as verbs, they also tug at some heartstrings.
“The swan boats are special to me,” said Bonnie Houlihan, of Beacon Hill, as her young children chased each other and her husband around trees on the Beacon Street side of the park.
“My mom and I first visited Boston almost 20 years ago now,” said Houlihan. “My mom had lived in Boston, and it was special for her. So we visited them, and left that same day. That was my only day in Boston. Then, 10 years later, my soon-to-be-husband and I ended up moving into a place in Boston — overlooking the swan boats! So they’re very meaningful to me. It will be nice to see them again.”
Her husband, Ivan Houlihan, agreed.
“We love it,” he said. "It's great. It's an institution here in Boston. It's a landmark. So we're delighted to see them come back."
Houlihan also said he takes pride in the swan boat origin story, referencing the launch of the enterprise 144 years ago by Robert Paget.
“They were founded by an Irish immigrant to Boston, you know? And,” said Houlihan with a grin, “I'm actually an Irish immigrant myself!”
Brendah Ross, of Holliston, immigrated to the U.S. from Zambia decades ago. As she watched the ducks around the lagoon with her young son and daughter, she suggested that the swan boats taking to the water again could resonate as a harbinger of hope.
“It's like a return to normalcy,” said Ross. ”Things are slowly starting to open up and a little bit of normalcy is coming back. I think that's important for people to see, for their spirit. For the people who love it, I think it's great. Maybe we'll come back next week.”
There are no maybes about it for Essa, 5, and her nanny Megan Dunnigan, of Boston. They sprawled on the grass with their ice cream cones.
“We live right next door,“ said Dunnigan. “And we’re waiting to see if the swan boats are in action because we're so excited to hop on.”
“I’m so excited!” Essa chimed in. “I can’t wait!”
Dunnigan said some semblance of pre-pandemic life will be a relief.
“Especially for the kids,” said Dunnigan. “This past year has been so inside out. It'll be nice to get some of our favorite memories back. And we'll have the swan boats.”
Essa nodded. This kindergartener knows what she likes, and she likes the swan boats.
“When you're on the boat,” she said, “you can relax. You can see the view and the pond and you can also see all the ducks. You can look at the buildings and see new shapes, and get to see all the water and the people and how it looks so beautiful.”
Essa paused to take another bite of her ice cream cone.
“You can be with your family and sit next to them and feel all the niceness and all the fresh air,” she said. “You can feel all the outsideness.”
And Essa is just getting started with her appreciation of the swan boat passenger experience.
“I also like how you can look around and see the birds looking for food and the birds swimming and see how cute they are,” she said.
She’s also, like so many people who are emerging from a challenging stretch, dreaming big.
“I always wonder what it would be like to be someone driving the boat, pedaling?”
Essa finished her ice cream and set forth her goal.
“Sometimes,” she said, “when I think about what I want to do when I grow up, I say to my parents, ‘I want to be someone who drives the boat!’”
The swan boats open for the 2021 season on Saturday, May 8, at 10 a.m. There will be pandemic-related safety measures in place.
This segment aired on May 8, 2021.