I’ve been back home long enough to recuperate from two weeks of sightseeing, so it’s time for that most venerable of all end-of-vacation traditions: forcing a captive audience to look at your photos.
We’ll start with some highlights from the Boston Freedom Trail. As I said a few days ago, it’s a remarkable experience for any enthusiast of early American history. I don’t think there’s any other place where you can see so many important American Revolution sites in such close proximity to each other, except maybe Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. (I’ll be posting some stuff about INHP eventually, too; it was a long trip.)
My friend Ryan and I set out on the Freedom Trail about 2:00 in the afternoon. Because there’s so much to see between the starting point on Boston Common and the end point at Bunker Hill, and because it was already so late in the day, I had told Ryan that we’d never be able to do the whole thing that afternoon, and that we should plan on picking up where we left off the next day. Thing is, Ryan played basketball and tennis in high school and has never lost his competitive streak. Apparently in an effort to set some sort of record, he announced that we were going to stand on Bunker Hill that very day, come hell or high water.
One of the first things you see on the trail relates to the Civil War rather than the Revolutionary one. It’s one of my favorite works of commemorative sculpture, the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts on Boston Common, right across from the State House.
Boston seems to be embracing the history of abolitionism pretty enthusiastically. I’m not familiar enough with abolitionism to know how widespread serious anti-slavery sentiment in the city actually was, but I suppose it’s a handy way to embrace the legacy of the Civil War when most of the actual fighting took place hundreds of miles away.
And speaking of the history of abolitionism, just a stone’s throw from the Shaw Monument is Park Street Church, where William Lloyd Garrison gave his first major anti-slavery speech in 1829.
Step over to the other side of the church, and you’re also stepping back in time—two hundred years before the outbreak of the Civil War, in fact. Granary Burying Ground dates all the way back to 1660. Its age is apparent from the winged skulls carved on some of the tombstones, a very old motif that’s characteristic of early American grave markers. Again, bear in mind that I’m used to touring regions where “old” means 1790-ish.
There are more important figures from early American history buried here than you can shake a stick at: Benjamin Franklin’s parents…
…and the victims of the Boston Massacre. All in the same graveyard!
The Old South Meeting House is probably best known as the launching pad for the Boston Tea Party, but that was just one of many highlights in this building’s long history of playing host to protest and dissent. An exhibit inside the sanctuary details this history, from the imperial controversy to abolitionism, female suffrage, and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.
British troops used the church as a riding stable during the occupation of Boston, but it doesn’t look any worse for wear.
To me, a big highlight of the trail is the Old State House, seat of government in Massachusetts from 1713 to 1798 and now home to a museum that explores politics and public life in the Bay State from the colonial era through the nineteenth century.
You can’t beat the Old State House exhibit for fantastic artifacts, including a coat and other items belonging to John Hancock…
some Stamp Act material…
…and the cane Preston Brooks used to wallop Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.
You’ll also find Indian treaty belts, rare documents, and artifacts from Bunker Hill on display here. Great stuff. If you’re rushed for time on the Freedom Trail and you’ve only got time to tour one building interior, my personal opinion is that you should do this one.
Right outside the State House is a circle of bricks marking the site of the Boston Massacre. This seems to be the popular spot for tourists to take their “Look-Ma-we’re-doing-the-Freedom-Trail” photos, with their arms spread wide and big grins on their faces. I’m not sure how I feel about this; 1770 was a long time ago, but geez, five guys did die here.
Next stop is Faneuil Hall, a most appropriate place for a statue of Sam Adams. The marketplace in and around this site is a great place to pick up souvenirs.
Paul Revere’s house would be a neat thing to see anyway, but it’s of significant architectural interest even without the celebrity name recognition. Built around 1680 on the site of Increase Mather’s parsonage, it was already old by the time Revere bought it. It’s pretty small, so the self-guided tour doesn’t take very long.
Not far from the house is another structure inextricably linked to Revere: Old North Church.
There are quite a few historic churches on the trail, and in fact I haven’t even included them all here, but I think Old North has the most beautiful interior of all of them. (Sorry about the lousy picture focus; I was trying not to use a flash.)
Among those buried in the crypt is Maj. John Pitcairn, who received a mortal wound at Bunker Hill.
There’s an equestrian statue of Revere in a kind of courtyard outside the church. I highly recommend making an effort to visit this spot at night, with the courtyard dark and the steeple illuminated behind it.
The cemetery on Copp’s Hill doesn’t have as many notable residents as Old Granary, but it’s still worth a visit. Increase and Cotton Mather are both buried here.
Most of the sites on the trail are in pretty close proximity to each other, but getting to Bunker Hill (or Breed’s Hill, if you insist on geographical precision) requires a good bit of walking. I hadn’t been to many urbanized battlefields before this one, and it was hard to orient myself with all the buildings around. The monument is a lot more impressive in person than I’d expected; you can see it from quite a distance.
Here’s one final recommendation. If you’re going to do the Freedom Trail, you should grab something to eat at the Green Dragon Tavern in the North End, not far from Revere’s house. Despite what their advertising implies, it’s not the same place where Joseph Warren, Paul Revere, and their buddies used to hang out, but the steak tips are still pretty darn good.
Long story short, you can do the Freedom Trail in half a day, but you’d better be ready to do some serious huffing and puffing. The Constitution was closed that day, too, so that helped us shave off some time. There are a number of guidebooks and audio tours available; we used the Freedom Trail Foundation’s official guide, which was excellent. A lot of the sites along the way are either free or accept donations, but you can get a combination ticket for Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, and Paul Revere’s house at the small visitor center on Boston Common.