East Coast Adventures – Boston in February

There were good reasons for why we chose to visit Boston in February. R had a meeting scheduled for the Monday so would have to travel up on his birthday weekend anyway, so I scheduled a research trip at Wellesley, and we booked a flight for the Saturday morning. Then the snow started. While it was pretty obvious both our work events would be cancelled, we felt we had to go anyway, just in case by some miracle they weren’t. And, though it was cold and snowy, and I got stranded there an extra day on my own, we did have some fun.

As I mentioned in one of my introductions to this series, most of our holidays revolve around our main interests of history and food. Boston certainly satisfied both these appetites! When we arrived after an early flight, cold and hungry, we only had to stagger across the road from our hotel to get to the historic Faneuil Hall, which combined Boston’s market-hall with a meeting room above, in which they say America’s first town meeting was held. While originally the people of Boston were suspicious that the market-hall would lead to raised prices and only allowed it to be built because of the promised meeting room, the market is probably now the main draw. As well as housing one of the town’s two bars based on the TV series Cheers, the market is home to stalls selling a wide variety of world cuisines, as well as a number of local delicacies. We stuck to the New England clam chowder because it promised the most warmth. We also tried a Boston cream pie for dessert, but weren’t that struck with them.

Boston makes learning about its revolutionary past very easy. The old part of the town is relatively compact, as is Charlestown across the river, and you can follow the ‘Freedom Trail’ around the historic sites in this area (2.5 miles). There is a bus, but you can also walk it, following a red line on the ground. We decided to walk, as it wasn’t the kind of weather that you want to be standing waiting for a bus in – or sitting still once you’d caught it. We walked it pretty briskly, and the second day we couldn’t look up very much as it was snowing pretty heavily. But actually, walking it in the snow turned out to be maybe more fun than it would be normally – because the red line is on the ground, the snow turned the walk into a bit of a treasure hunt, as we lost the line under snow drifts here and there, and triumphantly found it again where the snow had been cleared for traffic.

Faneuil Hall is one of the sites of the Freedom Trail. Before the British banned assemblies, the hall was used by citizens for meetings protesting the treatment of the colony – Samuel Adams often spoke there. Just behind Faneuil Hall is the Old State House, which, before Independence, housed the royal Governor, the courts, and the Massachusetts Assembly. Just outside was also the site of the Boston Massacre. The guides who work at the Old State House museum do a very good job of explaining this incident. Basically, tensions were running high in Boston after petitions against the importation of foreign goods and the taxes on these. The British governor requested a military presence and regiments of the British army were garrisoned in the city. On the day of the massacre, a large crowd gathered near the Old State House, shouting and throwing things at a small group of British soldiers and taunting them to ‘fire’. At least one of the soldiers was hit. In the confusion, a number of the soldiers fired their weapons into the crowd and at least five citizens were killed. Though the soldiers were all cleared of murder at the trials a year later (John Adams famously defended them), by then Paul Revere and other revolutionaries had turned the event to their advantage. The image that Revere created of the ‘massacre’ for anti-British propaganda was sensationalized in that it shows the British soldiers drawn up in formation against the peaceful citizens of Boston, the senior officer ordering the volley of shots being fired into the crowd.

408px-Boston_Massacre_high-res (2)
“Boston Massacre high-res” by Engrav’d Printed & Sold by Paul Revere Boston. The print was copied by Revere from a design by Henry Pelham for an engraving eventually published under the title “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre,” of which only two impressions could be located by Brigham. Revere’s print appeared on or about March 28, 1770.

Next on the trail was the Old South Meeting House. This was an amazing example of a Puritan meeting hall within what, from the outside, appeared to be a traditional church. Instead of a long central aisle leading to an altar, the room was set out so that a short aisle led to a pulpit, with long lines of closed pews facing it. When public assemblies were banned, citizens continued their meetings in this religious space, so that it was in fact from this meeting hall that the Boston tea party started. It is said that it was here that Samuel Adams spoke the words: ‘This meeting can do nothing more to save the country’, which it is believed was a secret signal to his Sons of Liberty to march to the wharf and throw the newly-arrived tea into the harbor. We got most of this history from the National Parks ranger talk at Faneuil Hall which, like all ranger talks, was excellent and made a fantastic starting point for the walking tour. When we were at the Old South Meeting House it had a small exhibition of the historical and political events in which the meeting house had played a part, and a really helpful timeline. One thing I found interesting, was that it was here that Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for his role in the Salem witch trials.

At this point we decided not to follow the trail up to Boston Common and today’s State House, but to leave that for the next day. Instead we followed the trail through the really old North End district of Boston, visiting Paul Revere’s House, the Paul Revere Mall and the burying ground on our way to Charlestown. [This area is also home to Boston’s Little Italy and where we had an incredible birthday celebration meal of oysters and other seafood, sitting on bar stools, at Neptune Oyster – I’ll write about this another time.] While we might have taken more time about it had it been warmer, the walk was still nice. Paul Revere’s House, however, we didn’t find that interesting. It’s obviously pretty impressive in that it dates from 1680, but it’s a fairly ordinary house of that period. There was plenty of information about his silversmith business, and we learnt that he also printed money for the Massachusetts government. It might be that I’ve been biased against Revere (see my previous post about American history), but I wasn’t that inspired.

Bunker Hill, and the museum, however, I found fascinating. I’m not normally a fan of military history, but the use of a large diorama plus soundtrack and supplemented by a blow by blow account of the British assaults on the hill, made it all pretty exciting. They say that this was the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, and it seems to be a story of mismanagement, hesitation, and ill-preparedness on the British side. Although ‘we’ (the British) ‘won’ the battle, over 1000 British soldiers were killed or wounded compared with only 450 casualties on the American side – all a bit embarrassing. The museum was also keen to make it known that Charlestown had had their own tea-party before Boston; even within the same metropolitan area history is fiercely disputed over here.

Bunker Hill Monument in the snow
Bunker Hill Monument in the snow

After two days of museums and historic sites I really felt like I’d learnt something – so we went to the pub. Because of the snow we didn’t feel like exploring a very large area, but luckily, the Cheers pubs are both on the Freedom Trail and we visited them both. The one in Faneuil Hall is fun, but not that authentic. The one over by Boston Common is marketed as an exact replica. Underground and full of tourists, it was a cosy enough place to spend an hour or so drinking Sam Adams beer, until the blizzard warnings prompted us to make our way back to the hotel.

Overall I was so impressed that Boston kept going through their extreme weather that weekend. The snow was piled so high either side of the roads and pavements that it was hard to get around, and yet people were still going to work, and tourists were still walking the trail. All the museums and bars were open – even the open air fish market was still trading. When the snow storm really hit on Sunday evening we could get across the road to a well-stocked restaurant and there were plenty of taxis still on the roads when we headed back to the hotel that night. It was only the next day that things got difficult. My flight was cancelled and I had to spend the entire day watching the swirling snow storms from my hotel room window. And the next day the metro controversially had to close – though I was still able to get to the airport and fly out pretty easily.

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