Story By: Kelsey Drain
Video By: Karen Morales
A few steps from the Swan Boats dock, legs weary from pedaling, she finds the comfort of stable ground and the serenity of the Public Garden. To the left, the grassy patch before the bridge is lined with Japanese Maples. There is no plaque here to memorialize a loved one, nothing to call visitors’ attention to the maple planted to honor a Boston business owner who survived tuberculosis and returned to get his degree at Harvard in 1906. He was a man with deep historical roots linking him to the Public Garden, his name, John Paget. In this quiet unobtrusive way, his family pays homage to him, and recognizes his contribution to the community each April to September – the season of the swan boats.
“A lot of it has to do with the location of the tree,” said Lyn Paget, John’s granddaughter. “The fact that it’s right across from the dock where we are everyday.” Lyn currently manages the Swan Boats in the Public Garden. She has been a seasonal employee since she was 13, when her dad, Paul, was her boss. Before that, her grandfather John Paget was the boss, and before that her great-grandfather Robert founded the business. Four generations forever linked to the Public Garden and the swan boats that glide by effortlessly across the still lagoon.
Lyn recounted her family history, beginning in 1870 when Robert was granted permission from the city council to have a small fleet of boats in the Public Garden that he could rent out as a rowboat-for-hire business. Seven years later, Robert launched the first Swan Boat. He teamed up with Colonel Albert Pope, who was responsible for bringing bikes to the United States after cycling became popular in Europe. The two collaborated in designing the mechanics of a boat, powered like a bike, which was a little smaller than the boats today.
The inspiration for the swanboats came from Robert’s appreciation for a Wagner Opera called Lohengri featuring a swan. “Apparently my great-grandparents were Opera fans and they actually traveled to New York to see this opera which was a big deal,” said Lyn. In the story, a soldier must rescue a princess by crossing a body of water atop a boat drawn by a swan, which is actually called “swan boat” in the German opera.
After Robert established the Swan Boats in the Public Garden, his son John Paget continued the business. In the 1920’s, 15 years after graduating from Harvard, John bought Nobscot Apple Orchard in Framingham, where he worked full-time selling apples, peaches, and vegetables to local restaurants.
“Since the swan boats run for April to September, and they’re seasonal, so it’s somewhat unpredictable as far as business is concerned. Everyone had a different job, a career job,” said Lyn. She also recounted visits to her grandparent’s house in Brighton, down the street from St. Columbkille Parish. John passed away in 1969, at the age of 91, when Lyn was 9 and her father Paul was running the Swan Boats. Lyn’s memories of the Mapleton Street residence consist of a backyard chocked full of disassembled swans stored for the winter, and of exploring the nooks and crannies of the house.
“I remember [my grandfather] being on the quiet side, but really that older kind and gentle guy who wouldn’t make a big impression on you,” said Lyn. “When I’ve talked to the people who knew him, and they experienced him running the Swan Boats, they talked about that too. He was much more into people than running the business. He was much more oriented towards meeting people, talking to people, taking care of people.”
John Paget had a reputation for bringing strangers to the Mapleton Street house if they were in need of a meal or a place to sleep- he would take care of them before sending them on their way. After suffering from tuberculosis in his late 20’s, John had to take time off from his pre-med studies at Harvard. This experience probably contributed to John’s humanistic traits and the gentle hand with which he ran the family business.
“The experience that you have on the Swan Boats is really so tightly integrated with the environment in which you ride the boat,” said Lyn. “So, when you’re here on a beautiful spring day riding around on the lagoon, there’s times when you can’t even see a building. The fact that you’re in the middle of a city in this really gorgeous oasis, that’s very peaceful and quiet and just remarkably beautiful.”
There are currently fifth-generation family members working on the dock for the summer, passing the tree their grandfather dedicated here to their great-grandfather. For them, there is no need of a plaque, to remind them of the family’s unique ties to this magical place, or of the work ethic and values that, well beyond a century, have helped define the Public Garden.