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Boston’s Freedom Trail: Simultaneously Genius and Frustrating

Paul Revere

I was recently in Boston as part of a trip to New England – this was an opportunity to, first, strengthen my case for having visited Massachusetts (It’s no longer the state that I have spent the least amount of time in; that is now Arkansas) and, second, to walk the Freedom Trail.

The Freedom Trail, which links together a number of important Revolutionary War sites, including Paul Revere’s home and Bunker Hill, came highly recommended by a number of friends and family members. As such, it was my top priority for Boston – and I completed it over the course of two days, breaking about halfway through after the Old State House.

Overall, I am very happy that I have walked the Freedom Trail, but I was disappointed with a number of aspects of it, to the point where I would happily argue that the Freedom Trail Foundation needs to take a serious re-think of it and make some major modifications to it.

One of the most frustrating aspects was the Freedom Trail Audio Guide, which, as described on the website,

Download this MP3 file to take a walk into history. Listen to the tales of the lively and historic characters who fomented Revolution in 18th-century Boston. Walk at your own pace and visit the 16 original Freedom Trail sites and stroll into museums, burying grounds, churches, marketplaces, restaurants and pubs where brave Americans made plans to take on the world’s mightiest country. Hear the arguments for freedom, representation, fair taxes and the principles that formed the backbone of our democracy.

It’s a great way to walk the Freedom Trail on your own. It’s a great way to listen to history in your car, at home or in school. Tour includes a scavenger hunt for children. Tour is 2 hours in length.

You will receive an e-mail confirmation with instructions. Please check your bulk/junk mail as sometimes the eConfirmation gets sent to the wrong folder. There are two downloads included; the audio tour mp3 and an accompanying PDF map of the Freedom Trail. Please download both files.

Several bits of commentary here: (1) The download consisted only of 48 audio files thatwere a nightmare to get onto my mobile phone. Some of the nightmare is because I just switched to an android device and do not know how to do it easily, while some of it was because the audio files were poorly named (the first 9 files lacked leading zeros) and lacked internal information like an album name and track numbering that mp3 programs could use to sort the files. (2) I did not get the “accompanying PDF map.” I did not realize it at the time, but the lack of a map ended up being annoying later. (3) Having started at the Freedom Trail information center, I then paid $3 for a poor (paper) quality map that barely withstood my wander; this subsequently purchased map lacked information that was needed to complete the audio guided walk completely. I felt gypped by the Freedom Trail Foundation and would never recommend any of their products – there are plenty of sources for free maps, including the National Park Service, that are also of higher quality.

I’ll try not to complain too much about the audio guide – but given my levels of frustration with it (and the Freedom Trail in general), I imagine you’ve not read the end of it.

So after arriving in Boston on Thursday, I trucked on down to the Boston Common – stopping only to mail something at a post office on Milk Street (not named after Harvey Milk) and to locate a CharlieCard (something I was grateful I did much later on when it allowed me through a turnstile that was not accepting CharlieTickets).

Massachusetts State House

Stained Glass at the Massachusetts State House

Once at the Boston Common, I found the Freedom Trail visitor’s center, paid $3 for the aforementioned shitty quality map, and started following the brick trail, which first led me to the Massachusetts State House. Once in the State House, I took a tour Nick, who was one of a plethora of young (e.g. high school aged), very polite, men giving tours — and now that I think about it, I do not recall having seen any female tour guides waiting to give tours; surely there must have been one or two out of the 25 people waiting to give tours! Although not a professional, Nick gave a very nice tour and was able to answer my questions about how Massachusetts is governed. He certainly gave a far better tour than the last state capitol tour I’ve taken (the one with Reagan in Georgia).

Massachusetts State House

From there, I continued listening to the audio files and made my way to the Granary Burying Ground, where I realized that the map I had purchased for $3 was not set up for the audio guide I was listening to (Among, ultimately, many other things, it lacked the inset for the Granary Burial Ground showing where specific people were buried).

I kept plowing ahead, listening to the audio guide while walking the streets – sometimes I was way ahead of the audio guide (didn’t have the inset for the burial ground, wasn’t going to hunt for each specific grave), other times way behind – crossing the Charlestown Bridge, I was listening to chatter about Bunker Hill. I would rate the content of the audio guide at 4 out of 5 stars; but everything else related to the audio guide gets a big fat zero: I did not get the map, the file names were ill conceived, and the files themselves lacked internal flagging (so I had to manually sort the files to get them to play in the right order).

(Oh god, I’ve complained about the audio guide, again.)

I enjoyed the sites and the walk – it is actually a very nice walk, especially on summer day when the high is about 26° and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. I passed the Park Street Church, The King’s Chapel and Burying Ground, looked at the site of the first public school, saw the Franklin Statue, and passed the Chipotle Old Corner Bookstore, into the Old South Meeting House, out the basement of the Old South Meeting House, and down the street to the Old State House.

After the Old State House, I looked at the site of the Boston Massacre and decided that it was time to head to Fenway Park for the first of two Red Sox games.

It was by this point that I had started to become annoyed with one aspect of the Freedom Trail: each of the sites individually wanted money – which, in principle, is not a bad thing, but it is very annoying. The Freedom Trail should make an arrangement with each one of the sites that charge an entrance fee to charge one entrance fee for all of the sites. I would have happily paid $30 or $40 for a “universal” ticket (good for 48-72 hours) to visit all of the sites. It would have been a heck of a lot easier than having to pay $4 here or $5 there, etc (I forget the prices, but I started to get annoyed). They could probably even profit because most people will not actually make it to all the site. For example, I never went in the Park Street Church. I also actively decided against going to the USS Constitution Museum ($18!!!!!), but had it been wrapped into a larger “Freedom Trail Ticket,” I probably would have.

Anyhow, the Red Sox won, Fenway Park had too many vendors, and I slept like a baby.

Friday morning, I back on the Freedom Trail, this time starting just after the Boston Massacre Site, which is Faneuil Hall – where I encountered an unbelievable thing: it. was. closed.

WTF!

There was an EMS graduation ceremony going on at Faneuil Hall. This isn’t to complain about EMS graduation ceremonies, the women and men who become EMS are doing a great thing, but Boston has hundreds of places where this ceremony could take place, but only one Faneuil Hall, which is a key historic site on Boston’s Freedom Trail.

This would be like Berlin closing down Brandenburg Tor because of a soccer match or Paris blockading the Eifel Tower for a tennis match: NO NO NO.

Major historic sites along major tourist paths should always – and by always, I mean ALWAYS – be open for their primary touristic reasons.

The Freedom Trail people and the US Park Service should work together to ensure that tourists can always get to the key sites during open business hours, every single day of the year, with the possible exceptions of Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Paul Revere's House

Print of the Paul Revere StatueSo I left Faneuil Hall a little pissed off, but listening to the audio guide, walking past the Union Oyster House, past Hanover Street, around some corners and over to Paul Revere’s House — which was much more charming that I had expected, but was missing his horse’s stable (sorry, obscure reference to Mr. Revere and I, a lovely children’s book by Robert Lawson that I had not read in years). The house, independently run, therefore with its own entrance fee, was charming – and a nice man upstairs clarified what we were looking at (while the person downstairs remained silent).

The rest of the Freedom trail was a nice meander – including passing a statue of Paul Revere, which had a nice view of the Old North Church behind it.

I was happy to visit the Battle of Bunker Hill (crossing the Charlestown Bridge involved walking over a steel span that wasn’t solid; one of my least favorite things to do) and then to the USS Constitution where I had to show my id before going through security – not sure why because showing ID proves nothing, it really is only security that matters.

USS Constitution

On a side note, I was able to visit Faneuil Hall Saturday afternoon, while wandering Boston, waiting to meet friends for dinner at the Union Oyster House – so while I was cheated out of it in the moment I should have seen it, I did, ultimately, get to see it. That doesn’t change my anger with the people who let it be closed for something like an EMS graduation ceremony.

So, in summary: the idea of the Freedom Trail is outstanding and the sites it connects are amazing, but the way in which it is executed and administrated is a disaster.

PS: What is the “Black Heritage Trail”? It’s route is outlined on the Freedom Trail map, but there precisely ZERO other information about it. Another thing that the Freedom Trail should work on improving.

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