For more than 125 years, the Paget family has operated the famous Swan Boats in
Boston’s Public Garden Lagoon—a Hub institution that’s as much
a harbinger of spring as catching a ball game at Fenway Park or strolling along
Newbury Street. The serenely graceful boats date to 1877 when Robert Paget, whose
descendants continue to run the business, opened a rowboat for hire business on
the Public Garden Lagoon. Here, we talk to Swan Boats scion Lyn Paget about how
her great-grandfather began this tradition and how it endures today.
Q: What was your great-grandfather’s inspiration for the Swan Boats?
A: In the 1870s, the popularity of the bicycle was beginning to take off in urban areas like Boston, so my great-grandfather developed a catamaran-style boat that was propelled by a paddle-wheel. He was an opera fan, so the idea of covering the paddle wheel mechanism, which is an unattractive part of the boat, came to him from the opera Lohengrin, which he had just seen in New York. In it, the princess is saved by a brave knight who crosses a river in a boat pulled by a swan.
Q: It’s pretty remarkable that the business has stayed in the family for 125 years.
A: Yes, my great-grandfather passed away very early into the Swan Boat legacy. He lived for only about a year after starting it up. But his wife Julia, who had four small children, ran the business for several years until her son John took over. My father, Paul Paget, is the current owner. It’s a family business, so everyone in my immediate and extended family is involved—from aunts and uncles to cousins. On any given day, there are a number of Pagets working on the boats.
Q: What happens on a Swan Boat ride? Is there a guided tour?
A: No, it’s completely silent. I think that’s one of its great appeals. It’s a very quiet ride for being in the middle of the city. Oftentimes you just hear the sound of the paddle wheel splashing against the water. The Public Garden is such a spectacular place. The boat ride is very relaxing. We had one regular customer, a jeweler named Bernie, who would come down every single day on his lunch hour with a small transistor radio. He would put his earplugs in and just sit in the back of the boat listening to music. I guess that was his way of dealing with the stress of his business. He has since moved to Florida, but still comes back every year to ride the boats.
Q: The Swan Boats are up there with Fenway Park and Faneuil Hall as “must see” Boston attractions. How do they maintain their appeal?
A: As you get older, you begin to appreciate things that don’t change, things you can count on from year to year. When people return to the city or town they grew up in, it’s quite different from the way they remember. The Swan Boats are an enduring Boston tradition that has remained relatively unchanged. People remember coming here with their parents or grandparents, and they want to bring their own children or grandchildren to share in that experience.