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East Coast (X): Boston, Day 2

This is the tenth post in a series about my East Coast US trip in March 2013 (see the first part, second part, third part, fourth part, fifth part, sixth part, seventh part, eighth part, and ninth part). It's been a very busy few months for me through the end of 2013 and the first half of 2014; so apologies for the tardiness of this post.

Boston is deeply stepped in the history of the United States. The final day of my East Coast trip was spent exploring some of the rich heritage of the city, and learning a little more about some of the pivotal moments that defined the identity of the country. I rose early, and left Steph's house to track down breakfast, which was to be a pastry at a local cafe. On the way there, I passed by this nondescript looking town house with the proud flag out the front. My host had told me the day before that this was the home of John Kerry, former Senator for Massachusetts and current Secretary of State in the Obama Administration. Kerry is an extremely wealthy man (married to the heiress of the Heinz canned food empire), so I found it somewhat touching that his house was so humble.

My hunger sated, the first order of this day would be walking the Freedom Trail. The Trail is a 4km path red brick-marked path leading from the Boston Common past several historic sites dating mostly from the American Revolution. My friend Jonathan in Berkeley had provided me with a handy podcast that would recount the significance of each site as I strolled by. It took a solid four hours to walk the entire trail: between the history in my ears and the fact that many sites were open to the public, inviting additional attention beyond a mere glance. The podcast painted a fascinating picture of early Boston and the rumblings of revolution, stripping away the modernity and taking me back hundreds of years to the city of yesteryear.

The second stop of the Trail was the Massachusetts State House, now the state capitol and seat of government. The glorious golden dome was originally wood and leaky; it gained a copper waterproofing before finally being covered in gold leaf in 1874, nearly 100 years after the building was first constructed.

Intertwined as its history is with that of the United States, Boston's many graveyards are littered with historic figures. The Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street is just down the road and around the corner from the State House, so named due to the large granary which used to stand on the graveyard site adjacent to the Boston Common. Gravestones small and large lie in densely staggered rows through this relatively small space - it is estimated that around five thousand people are buried here, even though there are just over 2,300 graves. Three signers of the Declaration of Independence (Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Robert Treat Paine) are buried in this cemetery, along with John Phillips, the first mayor of the city of Boston.

The centre of the Granary Burying Ground is dominated by a giant obelisk bearing the name, "Franklin". Whilst Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, was born in Boston, he is buried in Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. Instead, this obelisk marks the graveyard of some members of Franklin's family.

Just a block to the east of the Granary Burying Ground is Boston's oldest cemetery, the King's Chapel Burying Ground. Dating back to 1630, this ground is home to slightly lesser lights than the Granary. I passed quickly through this cemetery, and moved on towards the First Public School site. This was the first public school established in Boston and the United States, all the way back in 1635! It really reminded me that, as much as I like to think the US as a youthful country like Australia, my dear Down Under was colonised over 150 years after the States. Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine and Benjamin Franklin all attended this school (though Franklin dropped out!), and Franklin himself was born just one block away on Milk Street. In the courtyard of the school stands a large statue of Franklin - perhaps one of the largest tributes made in the grounds of a school to a drop-out.

The Old South Meeting House on Milk Street and Washington, is famous as the organising location of the Boston Tea Party. In 1773, the British Parliament passed the infamous Tea Act, which among other things levied a tax on tea exported to the burgeoning American colonies. The colonists objected strongly to this tax as it was collected by a government in which they had no representation. Coining the slogan, "no taxation without representation", anger over the tax grew, and a standoff erupted over the recently arrived tea ships Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver. Protesters prevented the tea from being unloaded as thousands attended a meeting at the Old South Meeting House, resolving to urge the captains of the ship to simply return the cargo to Britain without paying the tax. As the stand off continued, a large group of men disguised themselves as Indians, boarded the three ships, and threw all of the tea into the harbour. The Boston Tea Party would become the spark that would escalate into the American Revolution, and it remains an oft-cited act in political protests to this day. More negatively, it has been embraced by some extremely conservative elements in American politics today, twisting its legacy for political gain.

The Freedom Trail cuts into more modern Boston from the Old South Meeting House, leading past a quaint red-brick building surrounded by tall skyscrapers. This is the Old State House, the predecessor of the current State House, and a critical venue for many of the ideas and events that sparked the American Revolution. In 1770, a patrol of British soldiers were taunted into firing their weapons into a crowd of civilians, killing five and injuring six others. The incident became known as the Boston Massacre, and served to further inflame tensions between the population of the burgeoning American colonies and the British Parliamentary authority, leading to the start of the American revolution five years later.

Winding through the centre of Boston and up to the north of the city leads you to this dashing bronzed fellow on horseback. He is Paul Revere, an American Revolutionary most famous for his midnight ride on April 18th 1775 to warn colonial militias of incoming British forces. By this time, the American Revolutionary War had begun, with the British forces based in Boston, and the Revolutionaries establishing control over the rest of Massachusetts from their base in Concord west of Boston. The British were determined to capture and destroy the military equipment held by the rebels in Concord, and began their deployment by boat on the night of April 18th. Revolutionary forces in Boston - notably Paul Revere - received word of the advance, setting the scene for the Midnight Ride.

Revere instructed that lanterns in the North Church be set to inform allies in Charlestown of the troop movements ('one if by land, two if by sea'), and Revere himself slipped across the Charles River by rowboat under the cover of darkness. Riding west through several small towns, he alerted rebel forces along the way of the British advance, and many of these then set out on horseback to deliver their own warnings. In Lexington, Revere conferred with two other leaders of the Revolution, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, deciphering that the British target was the supplies at Concord. Deciding to continue to Concord, Revere was captured by the British en route and marched back towards Lexington; however, as they drew near the sounds of the town preparing for battle convinced the British soldiers to let their prisoners go and return to warn the advancing troop column. The events of the night were dramatized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1860 poem Paul Revere's Ride, which, despite its many historical inaccuracies, served to establish Revere as a legend.

Crossing the Charles River and heading north up the hill towards Charlestown on the Freedom Trail led me to the Bunker Hill Monument. The obelisk is a tribute to the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, where British forces besieged in Boston attempted to assault Revolutionary positions on the unoccupied hills north of the city. Whilst the British were successful in expelling the rebels, they suffered heavy losses of nearly a third of their deployed forces. You can climb the obelisk if you're so inclined; however, I don't recommend it, as the climb ascends 294 cramped and claustrophobic steps and rewards you with a disappointing view at the top. There are only four small windows to look through, and these have suffered substantial scratches that further mar the view. However, across the road from the monument is the free Bunker Hill Museum, which is well worth a visit to get a background of the Battle and its impact on the Revolutionary War.

Descending from the Bunker Hill Monument and bearing east leads you to the end of the Freedom Trail at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Docked here is the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned navy vessel afloat. She was originally launched in 1797, and is famously said to have 'never lost a battle' at sea. The ship is staffed by active-duty Navy officers who cheerfully and helpfully answer all of your questions and take you on tours for free (though you must pass through a security check before boarding: be careful with what you bring!).

Having finished the Freedom Trail early in the afternoon, I walked back over the Charles River to Boston proper before catching the T (metro train) south to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. These institutions are administered by the US Federal Government to preserve and present the papers and records of each US President in their home state. The library pays homage to Kennedy's life and Presidency, and poignantly memorialises his assassination in 1963. As an amateur fan of US politics, I was fascinated by the displays of Kennedy's military service, his election campaign, and the drama of his extremely brief Presidency: the Cold War, Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, Space Race, and more.

One striking image in the library was this state-by-state breakdown of the 1960 Presidential election won by Kennedy. It's amazing to think of California being a Republican state, or Texas being a Democratic one. How times change.

As darkness fell, I trekked back into the city, and found a noodle-y dinner before heading back to Steph's place for my final night in Boston. I had time for one more visit in the morning before heading to the airport for my trip home. Of course, I had to go to Harvard, scion of the Ivy League and one of the greatest universities in the world. Located in Cambridge just near MIT, Harvard's campus is absolutely beautiful - wide open and sprawling. I took a Crimson Key tour led by an enthusiastic undergraduate student who simply abounded with knowledge and passion about the university; as someone who leads similar tours around my home institution of the University of Sydney, I well appreciated the effort and energy she put into our tour. It's a bit intimidating to walk around the campus and think of the long history of the institution - established in 1636 and the oldest university in the US, it accepts just 6% of applicants today and funds them with the largest endowment in the country.

The most amusing anecdote I heard on the Harvard tour regards this statue of John Harvard, labeled as the founder of Harvard University. It's more correctly known as the Statue of Lies. You see, John Harvard didn't actually found the university; on his deathbed he bequeathed 320 books and £780 for the burgeoning New College in Cambridge established two years earlier. In gratitude, the New College was renamed Harvard College. The statue itself was built in 1884, some 250 years after Harvard's death, and so there were no indications of what he looked like. Instead, the sculptor used a Harvard student who was a descendant of a previous Harvard President as inspiration for the statue's face. Finally, the year 1638 inscribed on the statue is not the date of Harvard's founding, but rather the year that Harvard died and left his gift to Massachusetts and the world. You can also see the worn shine of Harvard's left shoe; tourists are often encouraged to rub (or kiss or lick) this shoe for good luck. I chose to not come into contact with something that so many others have evidently touched and possibly left things on.

My whistle-stop tour of Harvard complete, I collected my things and made my way to Boston's airport for my trip home. Of course, my flight home on JetBlue had to follow the pattern of my earlier flights on this trip. We took off on time and all seemed well, but the toilets malfunctioned halfway through the six hour flight across the continent, necessitating a two hour stopover at Salt Lake City on the way home. We didn't even get to leave the plane during the stop; we sat on the tarmac and waited for the toilets to be fixed, and once they were fixed, we dutifully waited for everyone to relieve themselves before we got going again. I hadn't expected to return to Salt Lake City quite so soon after my previous visit, but thankfully the rest of the flight passed without incident and I returned to Berkeley having had a grand East Coast adventure.

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