Last Updated on June 11, 2021 by Jim Ferri
The Boston Freedom Trail is one of the most popular walks in America. What makes it so interesting – in addition to all of the historic places it takes you to – is that it takes you through a variety of areas in a beautiful city.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
By Jim Ferri
With a few hours to spare in Boston I decided to follow the “Freedom Trail,” a 2.5-mile long route that winds past 16 historic sites, each significant in early American history.
Along the Freedom Trail you move from site to site by following a line of red bricks set in the sidewalk. Some areas along the trail are badly in need of repair, however, and a couple of times I got confused when the bricks disappeared where a sidewalk had been torn up.
I came out of the subway at Park Street, right at Boston Commons. Across the street was Park Church, one of the gathering places of colonial patriots prior to the war of independence from Britain. I crossed the street and entered Park Church. There I walked up the stairs and passed through leather-covered doors into the spacious sanctuary, where long pews and balconies ran across the back and down the sides.
Eavesdropping on a docent speaking with some other visitors, I learned that the church wasn’t from colonial times as I thought, but was built in the early 1800s on the site of an old granary. In fact, the sails of the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” were sewn in the granary.
The church however, is historic in its own right: it became known for supporting Abolitionist causes long before the Civil War. It’s a beautiful church built with clear windows, kept clear said the docent, so one could see the Commons on one side, and the Granary Burial Ground on the opposite.
Graves of John Hancock and Paul Revere
I left the church and walked along the Trail about a hundred yards to the burial ground where I found a mini- Who’s Who of colonial America. Nearest the church was the grave of John Hancock.
Graves of some of those who died in the Boston Massacre were scattered about the cemetery and I discovered Paul Revere’s towards the back. Both the marker next to his grave, as well as the actual gravesite, were covered with pennies and small rocks people had placed there.
It was a very peaceful and beautiful place despite it now being located in a busy part of modern-day Boston. Walking about reading the tombstones made history come alive for me since I could now relate to these patriots as real people, not just some names printed in a high-school textbook.
A Surprise on the Boston Freedom Trail
I next headed to the King’s Chapel Burying Ground, which, it turned out, is actually older than the Granary. There are a few notables interred there including Massachusetts’ first Governor, John Winthrop.
But I had come to see the grave of Mary Chilton, the first woman to step off the Mayflower in the New World. At first I couldn’t find her tombstone until someone pointed it out to me – it was almost hidden in the back of the cemetery turned in the opposite direction of all the others, astonishingly enough.
Old South Meetinghouse – An Important Freedom Trail Stop
The Old South is a national historic site and when I entered I found a woman giving an explanation of the tea tax, which so incensed the colonists and led to the revolution, to a tour group of grammar school children.
I was able to talk with her later and she told me that the South Meeting House is really a private nonprofit organization. In the actual places where the colonists sat in their meetings, they give presentations to schoolchildren who then get to argue the pros and cons of the tax, as if they were there at the time. “It’s not exactly accurate most of the time,” she confided in me, “but the kids really get a sense of the history and the basis for all of the things they’re learning.”
The most interesting exhibit in the place though, was the model of the town of Boston in 1773. Although the kids could care less about the display, most of the adults were mesmerized by it, seeing not only how small many of the buildings were at the time of the American Revolution, but also just how small the actual town of Boston was at the time. It was exceptionally well done; you could read a brief description of a person’s home and then press a button to see where it was located.
A Popular Freedom Trail Stop: Faneuil Hall and Quincy Marketplace
Back out on the trail I began to realize just how many people were doing the same thing I was, many with maps in hand, several others doing tours by listening to a download on their iPod, or following a map on their iPad. A few times I had to ask one of them for directions.
Later on I came to Faneuil Hall and the frenetic Quincy marketplace, the latter always crowded regardless of the season and bursting at the seams with innumerable shops and food stalls. Having been there before I did little more than stick my head in for a quick look and continued to follow the trail up into the city’s Italian North End.
The North End
One of the interesting things about a self-guided tour of the trail is that you have opportunity to step off it whenever you see something of interest along the way.
That’s what happened to me when the trail turned down Richmond Street in Boston’s Italian North End and I saw Solamuria Italiana, flaunting itself as Boston’s best Italian grocery. Ducking inside I could see why: not only did everything crammed into the little grocery look exceptionally appetizing, it was being frequented by a stream of the local old Italians in the area.
Paul Revere’s House
I was tempted to buy a sandwich but didn’t, and after a few minutes instead headed back out the door to search for Paul Revere’s house a few blocks away. Although I was disappointed that you weren’t allowed to take photos inside Revere’s house, it was interesting since you get to see exactly what houses were like in colonial America. Everything inside the house was a period piece, some owned by Revere himself.
Next stop was the Old North Church, which you access on the Freedom train via the Paul Revere Mall across from the church Rose Kennedy used to attend. On the little mall is a statue of Revere on horseback.
The Old North Church on the Freedom Trail
The Old North Church was interesting only in that it gave a sense of how people worshiped at the time. The family pew boxes in the church were an unexpected sight, as was the archaeological dig being done at the 1715 Clough House next door. After the church I visited the nearby mildly interesting Copp’s Hill Burying Ground where I only stayed a few minutes.
I had a similar reaction to Bunker Hill before continuing on to the USS Constitution, the final site on the trail. The walk there seemed much longer than I had anticipated, probably due to the rain that had started to fall as I left Copp’s.
Although the tour of USS Constitution, more often referred to as “Old Ironsides” turned out to be quite interesting, the weather also put a damper on it since we weren’t given an on-deck tour, only below decks.
We were shown around the gun deck by a seaman who told us a lot about the history of the ship and what it was like living aboard it. Among the shared minutiae was that although the ship had a crew of almost 500, it carried only two cooks – one for the Captain, the other for the crew.
If you’re in Boston, the Freedom Trail is worth a leisurely day or a busy half-day tour, especially if you’re an American, since it puts you in touch with our country’s history. Non-Americans will also find it interesting from a cultural and historic perspective.
It’s a long walk, however, and you may want to trim the tour a bit if you’re on foot.
If you go:
The Freedom Trail Foundation
99 Chauncy Street, Suite 401
Boston, MA 02111
Tel: (617) 357-8300
Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau
2 Copley Place, Suite 105
Boston, MA 02116
Tel: (888) 733-2678