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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Historic Places: Boston, Massachusetts

Trinity Church, Boston
This spring break destination doesn't have a tropical beach, but it is one of the best places in the United States to be surrounded by accessible history. During my two trips to this city famously filled with hot-headed patriots, I have followed the wonderful Freedom Trail, which makes it easy for anyone to see all the best sights in Boston without dealing with city traffic or parking woes.

Warning: lots of walking on this trip!

The trail begins at Boston Commons, a public park that was established in 1634, long before the United States were, well, united. Instead of hangings and political debates, the Commons is now mostly host to joggers and families with small children. From here, simply follow the path marked out upon the sidewalks with colored bricks to the next destination.

Massachusetts State House
Directly across Beacon Street from Boston Commons is the first stop, the Massachusetts State House which is located on land once owned by the first governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock. (Yes, that John Hancock.) The dome of the State House is gilded in 23 karat gold, replacing the copper that was originally put in place by Paul Revere. (Um, yes, that one.) Completed in 1798, this is one of the oldest and grandest buildings in the US. The interior may also be toured for free. If one chooses to do so, you will see the government at work, displays of the rich history of the area, and even the famous wooden cod that was 'codnapped' in 1933 by Harvard students.

Carrying on from the State House, the Freedom Trail leads to a series of churches and burial grounds, each with its own historical significance. In the Granary Burying Ground, so called due to the grain storage building that formerly resided there, you can find memorials to John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin's parents. Dedicated as a cemetery in 1660, it is estimated that over twice as many people have been laid to rest here than the markers indicate. Many are tilted and crumbling, creating a solemn atmosphere.

King's Chapel
King's Chapel and Burying Ground are the next locations along the trail. The Anglican Church was built in 1688 to promote worship in keeping with the King's wishes. Since marble is a resource not native to the US, wooden pillars were designed to give the appearance of grand marble pillars within and without the chapel. The ancient burying ground is the final resting place of several passengers of the Mayflower and the man who received far less credit for his midnight ride than his famous partner, William Dawes.

The Old Corner Book Store is the oldest commercial building in Boston. However, before one gets too excited about visiting it, I must temper that enthusiasm. While the exterior of the structure is intact with a lovely bookstore sign still affixed, the interior is the home of a Chipotle. I kid you not. This is history in the US. Ah well . . . .

Old South Meeting House
The next point of interest more than makes up for a fast-food restaurant in what should be a historic book store. When one walks through the Old South Meeting House, you can almost hear the voices raised in patriotic fervor still echoing through the air. It was here that men debated the next steps in making freedom a reality. It was here that the plot to dump 30 tons of tea into the bay was put into action. Here, among the plain white walls and wooden pews once designated for Puritan worship, men put the future, which we now enjoy, into motion.

Loads of historic information is presented at each stop along the Freedom Trail, and most of the buildings can be entered and explored for free or a nominal amount. No less impressive than the designated stops are the views enjoyed while strolling through Boston.

The Old State House amid its modern surroundings
The whimsical blend of new and old is especially featured when one views the Old State House. Built to be the largest and most luxurious structure of its kind in the colonies in 1713, it is now dwarfed by the modern skyscrapers that surround it. Yet, it continues to rival those modern wonders with beautiful restoration work that enables visitors to see handmade floors and curved doors that were built to suit the unique round second floor landing. A small balcony off this second floor almost escapes notice, so unremarkable it is by modern standards. Yet it was here that the Declaration of Independence was read to an eager and anxious crowd on July 18, 1776.

That balcony overlooks the location of the Boston Massacre, which took place on March 5, 1770. In an attempt to clarify inaccurate history that is taught in schoolrooms across the nation, the Old State House has on display two paintings of the so-called massacre, demonstrating what really happened compared to the legend that Americans prefer. The fact that future president John Adams was the defense attorney for those British soldiers who were accused of murder attests to the unbalanced view that this event is remembered by.

Paul Revere House
A stroll through Faneuil Hall, where the weary tourist can buy snacks and souvenirs, brings us to the Paul Revere House. Built in 1680, this home was already almost a century old when the famous Bostonian purchased it. Though it was certainly impressive for its time, my teenagers were not impressed with the four rooms within which the Reveres had housed up to a dozen people at a time and been considered blessed to have so much space! Photos are not permitted within the home, but each room is restored to a different era of the structure's existence, giving visitors an idea of what it would have been like to live there. Some pieces are from the Reveres themselves.

Lanterns in the window of Old North Church
The cobblestone street that is scarcely wide enough for one modern vehicle carried us away from the quaint downtown area that was home to Paul Revere. Soon, we found ourselves at Old North Church, where two lanterns had testified to our midnight riders that the British were coming by sea (or rather river) and not by land. On one of my visits, I was allowed to explore the old staircase leading to the bell tower where this small window looks out upon the city. At the top of that tower, I saw the bells that Paul Revere had rung as a small boy. However, this part of the church is generally closed to the public.

Bunker Hill Monument
If you press on to the most distant portion of the Freedom Trail, you will cross the Charles River with its welcome breeze to make your way to Bunker Hill. The monument and museum mark the June 17, 1775 battle. If you still have enough energy, you can climb the steps to the top of the obelisk monument and be rewarded with a wonderful view.

USS Constitution ~ Old Ironsides
Finally, The USS Constitution, or as she is more often remembered Old Ironsides, currently resides at Boston's Charleston Navy Yard. Originally launched from Boston in 1797, the old warship has a comfortable home here after her battles and world travels. You can climb on board to admire the craftsmanship of the oak ship, even as you wonder at the idea of crossing the ocean in a ship that seems incredibly tiny by modern standards. The museum near the ship has wonderful displays and information about the history of the ship, war, and life at sea during the 19th century.

By this time, you will have well earned a stop at Mike's Pastry, Cheers Tavern, or one of the wide variety of fresh seafood restaurants and cafes along the course of the trail. Enjoy!

All photos are the property of Samantha Wilcoxson

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