Walking tours of Boston chock full of history

You can’t swing a cat without hitting a historic landmark in Boston.The city is saturated with them — gathering places, buildings, monuments and graves — all associated with the people we’ve met in our history books. The landmarks tell the story of the American Revolution, but they take on new depth and meaning when you walk Boston’s Freedom Trail with a guide like Kathryn Woods. As an actor impersonating a woman from pre-Revolution Boston, she presents history in a way you may not have heard before.

“I’m a woman, a former slave and a tavern wench, so I can’t get much lower on the social scale,” she jokes in a lusty, lively manner as she begins our tour on Boston Common.

The Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile path marked by a line of red paint or red brick, was the brainchild of Bill Schofield, a Boston newspaper editor and daily columnist. In the early 1950s, he recognized the need for an ordered route that would take visitors past the city’s 16 historic landmarks. Visitors can pick up a free map and guidebook (there are everywhere) and strike out on their own, or take one of five guided tours.

We chose the Walk into History, which begins at Boston Common, formerly a grazing ground for sheep and cattle, and ends at Faneuil Hall. Built in 1741 by a wealthy merchant, Faneuil is where the Sons of Liberty proclaimed their opposition to the British king’s oppression. Today, the first floor of Faneuil serves as the Boston National Historical Park Visitor Center. The second floor, which was not open, once hosted meetings to protest “taxation without representation.”

Woods walks at an energetic clip, weaving around buildings, through lunchtime pedestrians and across busy streets to the various stopping points. Our group of 15 follows like baby ducks during the 90-minute tour. After Boston Common and the State House with its brilliant gold dome, we pause at Park Street Church, with its 217-foot steeple. Founded in 1809, the congregation supported women’s suffrage and the anti-slavery movement. The song “America,” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee”) was first sung here on July 4, 1831. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also was founded here.

Our group next enters the heavily shaded Granary Burial Ground on Tremont Street, where more than 5,000 people share 2,300 grave markers. (Headstones were pricey so families often shared one.) Names that every American recognizes — Hancock, Franklin and Adams — are chiseled in stone, bus so are others like James Otis Jr. He was a respected lawyer and loyalist until King George decreed that British soldiers could enter any colonist’s home uninvited and for no reason. Otis represented, for free, the merchants who opposed this law. Although he lost the case, it galvanized support for the independence movement.

Further down the Trail, we stand in front of the Old State House, its balcony the place where the Declaration of Independence was first read in 1776. Below our feet is the site of the 1770 Boston Massacre. Woods’ version of the event is somewhat different than what I remember from history class. The colonists clearly started the melee, and sadly, five Americans were killed. John Adams, later our second president, was so dedicated to the idea of justice that he defended the British soldiers who were accused of murder. Six of the eight soldiers were acquitted.

After the tour, we walk to Boston’s Italian neighborhood and the Old North Church, the city’s oldest and an American icon. Its steeple was where sexton Robert Newman hung the two lanterns on April 18, 1775, to warn the citizenry that the British were coming by sea and would march to Lexington and Concord to seize colonial ammunition stores.

The church once had strong ties to the British crown, and when Paul Revere was a teen, he and other boys from the neighborhood were paid to ring the church’s bells each week.

We buy a ticket that allows us to ascend the steep, narrow stairs to the belfry where a docent explains how the eight bells work. It’s an ingenious system that requires a lot more skill than just pulling the cords. The bells and the interior and exterior of the church are in pristine condition, perhaps more beautiful than in Paul Revere’s day.

We have a late lunch and I’m delighted to find that I actually have a choice of Italian restaurants that offer gluten-free pasta.

We spend the remainder of the day seeing other historic sites, walking along the Charles River and taking way too many photos.

Boston is wonderfully pedestrian-friendly with excellent public transportation. Hotels are pricey, though, so we stayed in nearby Quincy (more on that later) and frequently used the reasonably priced subway system, known simply as “the T.”

 

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