Boston is a beautiful City and while a Hop on Hop off bus is a very interesting way to view all the sites of this great place, walking it is much more rewarding. Getting up close and curious to all these storied historical sites is a great way to spend a day in the Capital of Massachusetts. The Freedom Trail is a 4 kilometre walk that passes by some of the most significant locations in the history of the USA. It is difficult to get lost as it is a red brick trail that the visitor follows between each of the sixteen stops. The idea to assist tourists walking the local landmarks was developed by a journalist, William Schofield, in 1951 and after development by the City Council, the Freedom Trail has assisted thousands of visitors each year to see the best of Boston. The trail begins in the centre of Boston at the huge park known as Boston Common.
- Boston Common
The land today known as the Boston Common was purchased off its original owner in 1634 by the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For almost 200 years it was used as common ground for grazing cattle belonging to these early settlers but the grazing was stopped when it was formally banned in 1830. This area of land has been a microcosm of Boston and American history…
- Witches were burnt here in the 17th and 18th century;
- The English soldiers camped here before moving off to the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775;
- In the 1960’s, this was where citizens gathered to protest the Vietnam war
It is the oldest city park in the United States and the city argues that it is the world’s oldest public urban park given its establishment well before the urban parks of Great Britain.
One section of the Boston Common is set aside for the Central Burying Ground. Perhaps the most striking individual buried here is Charles Sprague, a participant in the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War.
The Boston Common is where the locals come to celebrate in great numbers, whether it be to skate on Frog Pond, protest about current social issues, attend Concerts or Shakespearean Plays or simply be part of major events as the photo to the right illustrates of a gathering in 1848 when the citizens gathered to review the new water fountains. (Courtesy Wikipedia)
2. Massachusetts State House
After passing through Boston Common with the Frog Pond on the left, cross Beacon Street and you are now officially in Beacon Hill. The painting on the left below titled ‘Cutting down Beacon Hill’ is from 1811 and gives you an idea of how much the landscape around the Massachusetts State House has changed over the last two centuries. This golden domed, impressive building was completed in 1798, replacing the Old State House which the walker will discover around stop 6 of the trail. It is the oldest continually running state capital building in America and houses the State legislature and the office of the State Governor. The dome was covered in 23k gold in 1802 by the local silversmith and engraver, Paul Revere, the industrious patriot whose house we will find at stop 12.
Check associated blog, ‘Halloween in Boston’ for further details of this area, particularly of the fantastic memorial opposite the State House, the ‘Robert Gould Shaw Memorial’
3. Park Street Church
Turn right off beacon Street and head down Park St to the Park St Church (1809) and its 66 m spire ensured that it was the tallest building in the USA from 1810 to 1828. In 1826 the first Pastor of the Church, Edward Beecher (Brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) gave an address demanding the abolition of slavery in the United States.
4. Granary Burying Ground
Just around the corner from the Park Rd Church is the third oldest cemetery in Boston, developed in 1660. It is really the central memorial to many of the famous figures of the country’s earliest heroes. This is where Paul Revere is buried and it is where victims of the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770) are buried; the incident that largely triggered the locals into beginning the campaign to throw off English Rule in the colony. Three signers of the Declaration of Independence are also buried here; Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Robert Paine.
The photo on the left of the Granary Burying Ground shows a tour group gathered around a monument dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, despite Franklin himself not being buried here. The visitor will hear a lot about Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) when visiting Boston and all of it will be astonishing in terms of the talents and achievements of this one individual, described as many things such as “the most outstanding of the founding fathers of America” as well as my favourite, a ‘Polymath’! A polymath is meant to have knowledge of a broad range of complex subjects involved in solving specific problems; Franklin’s life illustrates this definition. Another aspect of his personality is revealed by the presence in this burying ground of his parent’s graves. He placed a large gravestone over their plots explaining something of their story. The closing lines of this headstone are set out here.
5. King’s Chapel Burying Ground
The visitor then strolls further along Tremont St to the corner of School Street where almost the whole street is part of the Freedom Trail. The first site is the King’s Chapel Burial Ground although the cemetery existed before the King’s Chapel was developed in 1630. It was the first graveyard in Boston. It holds the remains of Bostonian leading citizens of the past including a revolutionary hero, puritan theologians, a Plymouth Pilgrim, a Boston Tea Party member, sailors, pirates and other worthy citizens of Boston.
The sign at the gate exhorts visitors not to engage in ‘gravestone rubbing’ which probably indicates the interesting nature of many of the old gravestones in this burial ground. In the past, those with the curious hobby of copying grave stones by laying paper over them and rubbing the paper with charcoal to gain a copy of the image underneath would have been very excited by this burial ground. Taking photographs of picturesque gravestone images has probably replaced this practice.
6. Site of the Old City Hall
The site next door to the King’s Chapel on School Street is well worth seeing for a number of reasons. First of all, it is the site of one of the original schools in Boston (1645), hosting five alumni who signed the Declaration of Independence; Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine, and William Hooper. Only four of these graduated, the only dropout being Ben Franklin…if it had been a Catholic School, Ben Franklin would have become the patron Saint of School Dropouts. This Boston Latin School was pulled down in 1745 but now stands in the Fenway district of Boston. There must be no other educational site in the USA where a school dropout has a major statue of himself marking the spot where the original school stood. On the four sides of the base, there are four plaques illustrating Franklin’s amazing life. On the front is probably the reason he had to leave school early, Franklin working in his printing shop. The other three illustrate Franklin Experimenting with Electricity, Franklin at Paris Peace Treaty and Franklin at the Declaration of Independence.
The Latin School was removed from this site to make way for an expansion of the King’s Chapel and the eventual building of two city Halls. A plaque on the site explains this chronology.
“This site was the location of two Boston City Halls. Here in 1810, the Suffolk County Court House was erected. In 1841, that courthouse was converted to Boston’s second city hall. In 1865, it was replaced by Boston’s third city hall, the building you see today on School Street. In 1969, Boston built its fourth city hall and vacated this School Street site.
Thirty eight Boston Mayors served their terms of office on School Street at this site over a period of one hundred and twenty eight years. All twenty of the Democratic mayors adopted the donkey as their party’s symbol, while only five of the ten Republican mayors utilised the elephant.”
I have to admit I was quite surprised to see a life-size bronze donkey in the front yard of this stately building and so was very grateful when a handy brass plaque enlightened me as to its meaning. It’s opening sentence reads… “When in 1828, Andrew Jackson established the Democratic party and ran for president using the populist slogan, ‘Let the people rule’, his opponents thought him silly and labelled him a ‘jackass’ .” Jackson picked up on the critique and placed the image of the donkey on his posters. Since then it has become a symbol of the Democratic Party.
7. Old Corner Bookstore
The final Site on School Street for the visitor to examine is the Old Corner Book Store built in 1718 on the corner with City Hall Avenue. Published from this address were some the great books of America’s nineteenth century authors such as Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Alcott’s Little Women, Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was also a gathering place for many famous writers of the 19th century.
In 1960, the building was threatened with demolition for (gasp!) a parking garage but it was rescued by a group of concerned citizens who combined their resources to purchase the building and restore it for commercial purposes.
8. Old South Meeting House
The Freedom Trail continues down School Street towards Washington Street and the next major site on the journey is the Old South Meeting House. However on the way, the red brick pavers take a short cut over a piazza that luckily takes the walker through to its centrepiece, the Boston Irish Famine Memorial. It consists of two separate pieces that contrast a family left in Ireland to perish due to the famine (see photo on right with Old South Meeting House in background) and another family who has escaped to Boston and found health and happiness. The sculptures were unveiled in 1998 to mark the 150 years since the famine of 1845-52. Since then the memorial has suffered from both praise and criticism and it seems that the negative has impacted on the local council’s care for the plaza. One criticism reads, they represent “pious cliches and dead conventions”. Even worse, it was described in 2013 as a “magnet for vagrants and pigeons“. There are four informative plaques placed with this memorial and on the day we visited, we read the plaques, avoided the vagrants and headed over the road to the Old South Meeting House.
This building was initially erected as a Puritan Meeting House in 1729 on the corner of Washington and Milk Streets. A young Benjamin Franklin and his family were part of the colonial congregation. Less than forty years late, this meeting house/church became the centre of the beginning of revolutionary activity in Boston with large numbers of people gathering to discuss the British taxes on goods being imported into Boston as well as the forced impressment of locals into the British Navy. Approximately two blocks down the road from the Old South Meeting House in 1770 occurred the Boston Massacre where five citizens died as a result of British troops shooting into the gathered hostile crowd. This event caused great consternation in the city and for the next five years, people would gather here to discuss these events and possible responses by the new colony. The 1775 memorial meeting gathered 5000 people and led to the famous Boston Tea Party which triggered the events that led to the American Revolution.
Perhaps the most offensive reaction by the British to the reputation of the Old South Meeting Hall as a revolutionary meeting place was to gut the building, fill it with soil and create an indoor arena for the British troops to practice their horse riding. Note the depiction in the cartoon to the right. (Courtesy Wikipedia). Today visitors can visit this very historic building and visit its museum which is one of the oldest in America.
Walking the Freedom Trail of Boston…Part 2