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Freedom Trail in Boston, Massachusetts

June 26, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

by Lee Foster

I came to Boston to walk its celebrated Freedom Trail, marching all the way up to Bunker Hill to re-awaken in myself the fervor of the original dream of freedom that sparked the American Revolution.

I did not anticipate that a relatively new monument, the Holocaust Memorial, would express so forcefully the continuing struggle for freedom, something that can never be taken for granted.

A walk on the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail to sites in the Boston National Historical Park can re-create that celebrated time when a ragtag militia of American farmers and merchants stood up to the best professionals in the British Army. The Americans inflicted such losses at Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill) that the British viewed the encounter as a pyrrhic victory. The British suffered 1,054 casualties among their 2,200 soldiers.

The American soldiers were a mixed lot of European nationalities, ethnicities, and religions, who had come together for a common purpose, in the best American tradition, to preserve their freedoms of speech, religion, government and self-determination, which were in danger of being taxed to death or otherwise impinged upon. Actually, the Boston Puritans had already governed themselves for almost 150 years.

However, it was along the Trail on Union Street, at the relatively new (1995) Holocaust Memorial, where the ongoing theme of Freedom became contemporaneously poignant to me. On six rectagular transparent columns, the designers of the Holocaust Monument have etched the hundreds of thousands of numbers that the Germans tattooed on their Jewish prisoners.

Among the verbal thoughts carved into the granite bases of the monument, the post-Holocaust comments of a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoeller, an anti-Semite who later turned against Hitler, says it all. “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

Somehow, the patriots of New England, despite all their differences, managed to speak up with one voice against the British.

ALONG THE FREEDOM TRAIL

What will always be remarkable about the Freedom Trail is that these are the actual places where the notable people of the American Revolution lived and performed their heroic deeds of record. This was the cradle of modern liberty, the incubation place for the most crucial revolution in modern history.

The Trail’s 16 stops wind through the heart of Boston, starting at the Boston Common and ending at Bunker Hill, across the Charles River. The easy-to-follow Trail is marked with an embedded brick path or red line painted on the sidewalks and streets.

Maps are available at most hotels, but the best guide is the official National Park Service map, available free from the Visitor Center at 15 State Street (across from the Old State House). Plan a full day to explore the Trail, allowing for the natural desire to linger at various stops.

The central point on the Trail is where Quincy Market faces Faneuil Hall, the town meeting hall where the colonists first dared to speak publicly against British rule. On this plaza you will find an outdoor cafe, street entertainers, and the crossroads hubbub of Boston life. The Faneuil Hall Markets, as the three long halls are called, have become one of the most popular tourism meccas in America. Boston excels at adapting its historic architecture to modern uses rather than bulldozing the buildings.

Some highpoints of the Trail:

Paul Revere, the noted silversmith, also used his foundry to pour a cannon as needed. Revere’s house, from 1680, is the oldest building in Boston.

Samuel Adams and others debated in the Old Statehouse whether and when to unburden themselves of the English King. It was here the colonist argued against the 1766 Stamp Tax. From the balcony the Declaration of Independence, signed in Philadelphia, was first read to Bostonians in 1776.

The Old North Church is indeed where, in 1775, a sexton hung two lanterns, alerting the colonists that the British were advancing across the Charles River to Lexington to seize a cache of American arms.

In the graveyards, such as Copp’s Hill and The Granary, the headstones record the 17th and 18th century passings of these first American patriots.

The magnificent warship, USS Constitution, also known as “Old Ironsides” because its oak hull seemed impervious to cannonballs, is an icon of the Freedom Trail. This most-famous ship in American naval history was always victorious, humbling some mighty British frigates, especially in the War of 1812. Docked at the Charleston Navy Yard, “Old Ironsides” shows just what firepower a frigate from the post-Revolutionary era could deliver.

From the Old South Meeting Hall, disgruntled Americans, disguised as Mohawk Indians, walked to the harbor and dumped a shipload of highly-taxed tea that the British hoped to sell. The cash-strapped British sought to make the colonies a profit center, but they were not successful. By dumping the 60 tons of tea from chests of the merchant ship Dartmouth, the colonists set America and Britain on an inevitable course of war. The tea load amounted to 24 million cups, worth about a million of today’s dollars.

At different times of the day, the Freedom Trail has a varying appearance. In early morning, on one of my walks, the foggy environment had an introspective feel.

By noon there are clusters of tour groups wending their way, some guided by National Park Rangers and others with commercial guides.

Some Trail walkers are solitary folks who have come well prepared with information. Others don’t have a clue.

Part of the trail passes through the lively Italian neighborhood of North End.

The streets of the Freedom Trail originally followed old cow paths, so there is no logic or direction to them. They are as circuitous as political decisionmaking in a democracy, which was never meant to be an efficient method of governance.

Along the Trail you find yourself weighing the events and pressures that led to the Revolutionary War. If you start the Trail at the Boston Common, the story will unfold at various stops until you reach the final and decisive monument, an obelisk honoring the Battle of Bunker Hill.

As tensions rose in 1775, some 15,000 colonialists camped around Boston, effectively trapping the 4,600 British troops in the city. Both sides were fairly desperate.

The British General Thomas Gage was under pressure to do something. The Americans were impatient to resolve matters so they could return to their farms and businesses.

Gage decided to fortify the hill across the Charles River from Boston to prevent cannons from compromising the harbor or his troops in the city. When the colonists heard of the plan, they acted first and fortified the hills, Bunker and Breeds.

Gage saw this as a blatant affront and attacked somewhat impetuously, overly confident with his superbly-trained British troops. He recalled also the reputation of the undisciplined Americans as indifferent fighters in the recent French and Indian War.

As the orderly British advanced, Colonel William Prescott, commanding the Americans behind their fortifications, gave his cryptic command, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” He wanted to save on ammunition and also break the British advance with a decisive volley.

When the American fusillade of guns unloaded, the British fell in larger numbers than their commanders imagined. The British regrouped and eventually repulsed the Americans, but at a terrible cost. The protracted struggle for separation from Britain had begun.

AMENITIES OF BOSTON

Boston is an enjoyable city to walk, which helps make the Freedom Trail popular. It is a hellish city of chaotic, one-way streets to drive, so resist the temptation to get a rental car. Use the underground, the buses, or a taxi for distances too great to walk.

Boston is big enough to be a great city, but small enough to be of manageable size, still showing compact and intact neighborhoods with a feeling of cozy intimacy. There is a spare, New England demeanor in Boston, plus a touch of learnedness because there are some 40 college and universities in the region. Central Boston draws a mix of age groups and cultures. My cab drivers were Moroccan and Russian. There is a large middle class in central Boston, with no ghettos in the area. A traveler can walk fairly safely and securely.

Besides the historic Freedom Trail, there are other intriguing walks. The Beacon Hill area has stately brownstone homes. The Public Garden adjacent to Boston Common gives the urban area a wide green park. Boston Common is actually America’s oldest public park, established in 1634. Leading from the Public Garden are handsome avenues, such as Boylston, well worth a stroll. The city also boasts, along the waterfront, the New England Aquarium, which has a huge circular tank simulating the open ocean. You circle the tank in a spiral walkway, seeing the ocean creatures at various depths.

The historic place at which to enjoy seafood, especially oysters and lobster, is Ye Old Union Oyster House. This may be the first establishment of your experience that truly deserves the words Ye Olde. It claims to be Boston’s oldest restaurant (started 1826) and the oldest restaurant in continuous operation in the U.S. The dark wood interiors of the upstairs rooms have private booths for an intimate lunch or dinner. The downstairs contains the original half-round oyster bar where Daniel Webster was a frequent patron. It is said that Webster commonly consumed three-dozen oysters and six tumblers of brandy for his repasts. Try the raw Blue Point oysters or the grilled oysters with garlic and lemon, followed by a boiled lobster, served with drawn butter.

Close competition for most historic restaurant comes from Durgin Park in the Faneuil Markets, opposite Faneuil Hall. Durgin Park has been in operation since the 1830s and prime rib is its specialty. You dine family style with whomever comes in at the same time. I happened to be seated next to Ed Devereaux, an Irish Bostonian, now retired, who was born less than a mile away, lived all of his life here, worked in the Faneuil Markets area, and has eaten at Durgin’s throughout his adult life. Devereaux said he never grows tired of walking Boston. He would slip, for my amusement, into the broad vowels that are an unmistakable Boston accent.

Baked beans, corn bread, Boston cream pie, and Indian pudding (molasses, corn meal, milk, and sugar) are other Boston specialties not to miss.

The TV show “Cheers” popularized a bar whose exterior was used in the show, but for a real neighborhood bar of that type try the Samuel Adams Brew House on Boylston. You may be served by Lorraine Kalil, who has been tapping the suds for more than 30 years. Several varieties of Samuel Adams brew can be sampled. The fare is good pub food, such as clam chowder and crab cakes. I happened to dine there when a Boston Red Sox baseball game was on the TV, and there were plenty of fans in the crowd.

Not all the culinary delights in Boston are traditional. Anago, also on Boylston, epitomizes a new style of modern dining in the city. Try the tuna carpaccio or soft-shelled crab as starters, then perhaps the maple-glazed bluefish or birch-smoked rack of lamb as main courses. Anago’s smart style could flourish in San Francisco or any other culinary mecca.

When thinking of hotels, the most centrally located place would be the Regal Bostonian. My room there overlooked Faneuil Hall, where the American Revolution was debated, and the busy plaza in front of the Quincy Market. On another occasion I stayed at the Sonesta along the Charles River. From an elevated room you get a good view of the historic area across the river, with the spire of the Old North Church standing out.

Everyone who walks the Boston Freedom Trail comes away with a personal meditation on the founding of America and what it took. The massive firepower of the notable warship, Old Ironsides, one of the stops on the Trail, was one memory that stays with me. What Old Ironsides was fighting for is the overriding question. And it would be difficult to imagine a more appropriate place for a Holocaust Memorial than here. The length of the Trail disperses the walkers, letting everyone ponder in his or her own private way what the American Revolution meant.

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BOSTON: IF YOU GO

For information on Boston, contact the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, Two Copley Place, Suite 105, Boston, MA 02116-6501, 617/536-4100 or 888/733-2678, www.bostonusa.com. The Bureau maintains a Visitor Center on the Boston Common at the start of the Freedom Trail.

The National Park Service administers the Freedom Trail. For a brochure, write the Superintendent, Boston National Historical Park, Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston, MA 02129-4543, 617/242-5642, www.nps.gov/bost. To interpret the Trail, invest in Charles Bahne’s THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO BOSTON’S FREEDOM TRAIL.

Two dependable hotel options are the Regal Bostonian and the Royal Sonesta. The Regal Bostonian Hotel address is: At Faneuil Hall, Boston, MA 02109-1503, 617/523-3600 or 800/222-8888. The Royal Sonesta Hotel Boston is at 5 Cambridge Parkway, Cambridge, MA 02142-1299, 617/491-3600 or 800/766-3782.

Historic restaurants not to miss are Ye Olde Union Oyster House (41 Union Street, 617/227-2750) and Durgin Park (340 Faneuil Hall Marketplace, 617/227-2038). Anago (65 Exeter, 617/266-6222) offers a contrasting new and trendy cuisine. Samuel Adams Brew House (710 Boylston Street, 617/421-4961) is an authentic “Cheers” type of place.

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