In Boston, visits to a new museum and a nearby island give boring old history lessons the heave-ho.
Standing on the edge of the wharf in Boston Harbor, we hear a warning.
"What you're about to do would be considered treason by many."
Yet we carry on, disguised as American Indians with feathers, and board the brig Beaver to carry out the plan: Dump 342 crates of tea into the harbor as an act of protest again British taxes.
My 3-year-old daughter, Chloe, doesn't seem to care a whit about treason, and eagerly climbs up one tea crate to push another over the edge of the boat into the water, chanting again and again, "Dump the tea into the sea!" Behind her, a boy of about 12 hurls a crate into the harbor with all his might, hollering "huzzah!" with a wild, slightly crazed look in his eye.
"Sure beats standing around listening to someone talk," I hear someone remark.
Boarding a meticulously crafted replica of one of the Boston Tea Party ships, surrounded by role-playing guides, and watching kids (and adults) launch tea chests into Boston Harbor, I can't help but agree. If this isn't bringing history alive for these kids, I don't know what would.
Breathing new life into a 239-year-old event is the goal of the new Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, which opened on June 26 in Boston's Fort Point Channel region.
Of course, patriots in tricorn hats and woolen cloaks have been leading tourists around Boston for decades. As a local school kid on field trips, and later, as a grown-up history geek, I've traipsed across many blocks of the Freedom Trail, over bricks and cobblestones to historic burial grounds, churches, Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill and the deck of the USS Constitution herself. But with the opening of the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, and the revitalization of Boston's waterfront in general, I wanted to explore Boston history from a different perspective: Off the Freedom Trail and out to sea.
I started a few weeks ago, setting out for Georges Island with Chloe and my husband, Brian, on a June day that was unseasonably raw and dreary. We motored away from the city and out into the harbor, passing not only other boats but also hulking cranes and huge shipping containers, reminding me that Boston is still a very active port where steamship carriers and shippers transport cargo to and from every edge of the world.
Since Georges Island has picnic tables, a wide lawn and even charcoal grills, the boat was crowded with people hauling coolers and beach bags packed with supplies for a leisurely lunch. It was so crowded, in fact, that we were forced to the edges of the ferry; every seat was filled. We bundled into sweatshirts, but the whipping wind and sea spray only seemed to enliven Chloe, who gleefully clung to the rails and watched the Boston skyline fade into the distance.
After stopping to drop off some of its passengers at the smaller Spectacle Island (which has a sandy beach for swimming), the ferry docked at Georges Island, the largest of the 34 islands that make up Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.
Seeing Civil War-era fort
With a summer schedule packed with activities like outdoor concerts and vintage baseball games, Georges Island strangely combines seaside family fun with a wartime prison. That's because the island is dominated by Fort Warren, a relatively intact Civil War-era fort that was Boston's main line of defense against an attack from the Confederate navy. Because the island guards a narrow shipping channel through Boston Harbor, it also served as protection against the British in the years following the American Revolution.
Thanks to Fort Warren, there's a lot of history mixed into a visit to Georges Island. Near the shore, a playground version of the fort is covered in rivets, painted battleship gray and embellished with tall, narrow openings that look like the fort's musket windows. Civil War re-enactors often set up encampments on the island, too, and if kids aren't careful, they might get sucked into 19th-century lawn games.
We disembarked the ferry to meet Lawrence Walsh, one of the many rangers who lead free tours in and around Fort Warren. We followed him over a drawbridge and into the fort, where we learned that for all of the garrison's power, it never came under attack. Instead, its primary function during the Civil War was as a prison -- and a pretty posh one, compared with others of the era. Unlike notorious prisons like Andersonville, Fort Warren didn't starve its inmates. Instead, Confederate POWs got the same food rations as Union troops who were stationed there (including coffee), and political prisoners and officers even indulged in cigars, whiskey and oysters shipped from Boston.
"One of the Confederate officers complained that as a prisoner of war here, he gained 13 pounds," Walsh told us.
Inside the fort, the rooms are cavernous and cobwebby, with dusty corners and walls covered with peeling paint. We walked through the prisoners' quarters, the gunpowder room and even the fort's bakery, which is still equipped with brick ovens built into the wall.
As the tour group filed out of the bakery, I lingered behind for a moment to see if I could catch a feeling of the past -- not of ghosts per se, but maybe the energy of the hundreds of prisoners who once lived here. I felt nothing, or at least nothing sinister. Although the fort is said to be haunted by the Lady in Black, a Confederate woman who was supposedly hanged for helping her husband escape from the prison, Walsh told me that he's never found any evidence that such a woman ever existed. That's not to say that he doesn't feel something here, though.
"I don't believe in ghosts," he says. "But I do believe this place has a spirit."
Reliving the Tea Party
A couple of weeks later, Chloe and I are catching the spirit of revolution onboard the brig Beaver, the re-created Tea Party ship that's part of the new Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. After fire forced the original museum to close in 2001, the new version was years in the making. The museum even enlisted the help of master shipwright Leon Poindexter, of Gloucester, Mass., who designed and built the new replica ships with period details that I doubt crazed, tea chest-tossing museum-goers would ever notice. For example, tarry oakum fills the ships' seams and joints instead of modern-day epoxy, and even the copper sheets that line the ships' hulls were manufactured by the same company that Paul Revere himself founded in 1801.
Following a costumed guide, we move swiftly through the multimedia museum -- first getting rabble-roused by an actor playing Samuel Adams, who reminds us that "taxation without representation is tyranny." Then outside onto the brig Beaver to "dump the tea into the sea."
There are high-tech talking portraits, à la Harry Potter, of England's King George III and Sam Adams, who debate the colonists' actions and holograms that appear as colonial apparitions in an indoor re-creation of Griffin's Wharf. Another exhibit features the Robinson Half Chest, one of only two known surviving tea crates of the 342 that were dumped into the harbor on that fateful day, Dec. 16, 1773. The tour ends with a beautifully produced film that re-enacts the first day of the American Revolution, the "shot heard 'round the world," and Paul Revere's ride.
These events are so familiar, so part of our collective American DNA that they play out in our minds and hearts like some kind of creation myth. It's easy to forget that Paul Revere and George Washington were living, breathing, feeling people. That "one if by land, two if by sea" isn't simply a couplet in a Longfellow poem, but was a real warning system against an enemy army. That the "Boston Tea Party" is a silly nickname for what was actually a serious act of protest against unfair taxes.
Maybe I got swept up in Chloe's excitement as she tossed tea crates off of the ship. Maybe I managed to suspend reality for a second and imagined that the red-haired actor in period clothing was really a fiery young Sam Adams, imploring us to stand up against tyranny. Maybe it was the film's image of a solitary Paul Revere riding through the night and history. But whatever the reason, I found myself getting a little choked up, especially with Chloe chanting "dump the tea into the sea" as we walked over the bridge at Fort Point Channel and back to our car.
Alexandra Pecci is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer.