The Freedom Trail

Freedom Trail

(Photo credit: Boston Common Freedom Trail marker, courtesy Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism, Flickr Creative Commons)

I love the Freedom Trail. It’s basically just a red brick path that runs through historic Boston, but its existence transforms the visitor’s experience of that city. It is very cool.

The thing that makes this path so cool is that it takes much of the uncertainty out of getting to grips with the city’s rich history. In my experience, most visitors to cities that contain many historical and cultural sites of interest aren’t looking to be great explorers, venturing into the unknown and beating a fresh path. They don’t have the time or energy for that, and there are kids and sore feet and appetites to worry about. Instead, most want to be assured that what they’re heading out to see is genuinely significant, even as they look for the whole experience to make as much sense as possible. They don’t like the uncertainty that comes with visiting a site and wondering “Is it original?” or “Is this really important?” If they’re visiting multiple sites, especially in a big city, they’d like to have a shorthand way of tying them all together and putting them into some sort of context, preferably with some sort of easy-to-use map. They’d like to do all this as efficiently as possible, so they can plan their day (or days) accordingly. They don’t want to worry about whether they’re “missing something important” during their visit. And in a strange city they’d also like to avoid getting lost.

The Freedom Trail helps immensely with all this. It’s very clear: A continuous line of red bricks (or, along a few spots, a red painted line) running for 2 ½ miles that zigs and zags through the old city but keeps going as it takes you from one historic site to another. It’s linear and like every path leads you along a clearly marked trail that you know everyone else is following—so as long as you follow that trail you won’t get lost and you won’t miss anything important. Free maps of the city mark the trail brightly in red, giving you a contextual overview of historic Boston. The 16 discrete sites marked out along the trail are presented as significant and meaningful waystations, each of which tells a story that is part of a larger whole. Perhaps most importantly, the trail provides a sort of stamp of approval that certifies that every Big Historic Site you find on the trail is significant—if it wasn’t significant it wouldn’t be on the trail.

The Freedom Trail has been around since the early 1950s. The idea of a pedestrian trail linking together city landmarks was dreamed up by a local journalist, William Schofield. He thought it would be a boon for tourism—focusing on Boston’s main claim to fame: its history. After a couple of years the city picked up the idea and ran with it. The trail has been in existence in one form or another for more than 60 years now. The city’s efforts at historic promotion were joined by the National Park Service with the establishment of Boston National Historical Park in 1974. Today the Freedom Trail is still run by the city with the support of the park service and the Freedom Trail Foundation.

The trail starts at Boston Common and winds its way north through the oldest part of Boston, past the Massachusetts State House, various burying grounds, the Old South Meeting House, the Old State House (site of the 1770 Boston Massacre), Faneuil Hall, the Paul Revere House and the Old North Church. Crossing the Charles River the trail takes you over to the Charlestown Navy Yard, one of the nation’s first naval shipyards and home to USS Constitution. Charlestown is also home to the Bunker Hill Monument, commemorating the site of the first major battle of the American Revolution. That site marks the end of the trail, at which point you might want to turn around and head back the way you came.

The trail has shifted a bit over the years, but it’s essentially the same route, and it’s become familiar to generations of Bostonians and visitors. A huge boon to accessibility came in the 2000s with the completion of the Big Dig, which placed 3 ½ miles of I-93 underground. The old route, built in the 1950s, was an ugly long concrete strip of elevated highway that cut off—spiritually if not physically—the North End from the rest of Boston. Visitors following the Freedom Trail north used to have to traverse this eyesore. Now that the surface footprint of the highway has been replaced with public parks the experience of following the trail is incomparably more pleasant and peaceful.

The trail misses one or two significant sites, most notably the location of the Boston Tea Party (which is now on dry land, since the section of the harbor where the dumping of the tea took place in 1773 is now landfill). The trail neglects African-American history—though that’s been partly rectified by the creation of a Black Heritage Trail which winds around the Beacon Hill area. This path links many pre-Civil War sites related to the African-American experience in Boston, including the African Meeting House, supposedly America’s oldest black church still standing.

So the Freedom Trail’s not perfect. But in spite of its minor flaws, it was an inspired idea back in the 1950s and remains a great idea today.

Sources:

Freedom Trail Map. Available at http://www.thefreedomtrail.org/maps/pdfs/boston-nps-map.pdf

Thomas H. O’Connor (1993). Building a new Boston: Politics and urban renewal, 1950-1970. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Alfred F. Young (2004). The Trouble with the Freedom Trail. Boston Globe, March 21. Available at http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2004/03/21/the_trouble_with_the_freedom_trail/

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