The Walk to the Sea covers four centuries of Boston history. Beginning at the State House on Beacon Hill, overlooking the old Boston Common, the Walk passes historic monuments and skyscrapers. The Walk crosses a terrain that, centuries before, was not land at all, but an active port. The history of Boston is linked to the sea, whose smells and sounds once invaded the city. The walk from the top to the sea, which stretches for a mile and descends a hundred feet, gives life to that story.
Mayor Thomas Menino dedicated the Norman B. Leventhal Walk to the Sea in 2008.
Massachusetts Bay to share his peninsula with its excellent springs. By 1634, hundreds of Puritans had usurped most of Blaxton’s land, leaving him with only 50 acres. He sold most of that land to the growing town for Boston's Common. Here, residents pastured their livestock, punished transgressors, and attended public assemblies.
Also in 1634, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, ordered a beacon placed atop the tallest peak of the original Trimount, giving Beacon Hill its name. He intended the beacon to warn of hostile ships, particularly the ships of King Charles I of England, who wished to reclaim the colony from Puritan control.
After the American Revolution, Beacon Hill became central to Boston’s rapid growth. The hilltop was carted away for fill, smoothing the way for new development. As portrayed at right, an elegant new State House replaced John Hancock’s estate, and wealthy insiders bought up Beacon Hill to sell as house lots. Within a few decades, gracious townhouses lined the new streets of Beacon Hill, and Boston Common became a park.
Around 1750, the present, stone version of King’s Chapel replaced the wooden structure of 1688. King James II had ordered the wooden chapel built. It was the first Anglican church in Boston, erected on the old burying ground over strong Puritan objections. Puritan power had weakened, and James had appointed a royal governor to administer the colonies of Massachusetts.
Behind the wooden chapel was the Boston Latin School. The Boston Latin School is the oldest American public school still operating, though at another Boston location. The school trained many of America’s founders, including Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock.
On the site of the former Latin School now stands the Old City Hall, symbolizing the far more cosmopolitan spirit of Victorian Boston. Completed in 1865, it was an inspired example of the French Second Empire style, with its distinctive copper mansard roof, now a faded blue-green. The handsome building served until 1969, when the new City Hall opened nearby at Government Center.
The Walk to the Sea intersects two other historic trails through Boston, the Freedom Trail and the Black Heritage Trail.
Here, at Tremont Street, the red line of THE FREEDOM TRAIL® passes in front of King’s Chapel on its way to 16 national historic landmarks relating to the American Revolution. The trail begins at the Boston Common, two blocks south on Tremont Street. It passes through the old North End, where legendary patriots such as Paul Revere plotted to foil the British military strategy, and goes on to Bunker Hill and "Old Ironsides," the U.S.S. Constitution.
THE BLACK HERITAGE TRAIL® begins across from the State House at the memorial to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, of Civil War fame. The trail leads to the west side of Beacon Hill, where Boston's vibrant nineteenth-century African-American community thrived. There, fugitive slaves found support and refuge on their way to freedom, and leaders of the black community, such as Lewis Hayden, worked to support the abolitionist cause.
The Scollay Square neighborhood stood here until the 1960s. Its colorful, Victorian buildings, bearing large painted advertisements, originally teemed with shoppers and theatergoers.
By the mid-20th century, however, this warren of 22 streets had become seedy. Scollay Square’s theaters became burlesque houses surrounded by bars and tattoo parlors that attracted sailors on leave.
Eventually, public opinion censured the lively squalor, and Scollay Square became a candidate for urban renewal. Its buildings were razed and replaced by the "superblocks" of Government Center, where, by 1969, a monumental new City Hall anchored a vast 10-acre plaza. Bostonians still debate the consequences of urban renewal, but the bold rebuilding reversed the decline in Boston's fortunes that occurred during the first half of the 20th century.
Mayor John Collins arrived on the scene in 1960. He picked Ed Logue to direct the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Together they reshaped downtown Boston.
Scollay Square was the second Boston neighborhood to be demolished for a modern rebuilding project. Collins and Logue envisioned in its place a new City Hall that would become the centerpiece for a rejuvenated downtown which vaulted Boston into the modern age.
The wooden Town House of 1657 stood here, its ground floor open to merchants, until the Great Fire of 1711. Two years later, the first bricks were laid for new offices for the Massachusetts colonial government.
The Old State House, the oldest public building in Boston, bears on its gables a gilded unicorn and lion. These symbols of English dominion were removed after the Revolution and later replaced by replicas. The building occupied Boston's most prominent intersection. King (now State) Street led from the Old State House to Long Wharf. Washington Street, the only street connecting Boston to the mainland, crossed King Street here.
Settlement and commerce grew around the building. Colonial governors looked down to Long Wharf from the balcony of the State House. Famous scenes of the American Revolution unfolded at its doorstep.
In 1798, Charles Bulfinch’s gold-domed State House opened atop Beacon Hill to begin a proud new era for Boston. The old, colonial State House passed on to other uses and, in 1881, to the protection of The Bostonian Society.
The Old State House appears as the backdrop in Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre. When it was built, the Old State House overlooked bustling wharves. Ships were the source of Boston’s wealth. They also connected Boston politically and commercially to England and other countries and colonies. A different pulse now hums beneath the Old State House. Every day, thousands of commuters emerge from beneath the venerable building, where two of Boston’s busy subway lines intersect in the city's large financial district.
Crowded Boston planned its subway system in the Victorian era, when human and horsedrawn traffic overwhelmed its main streets. Boston was the first American city to build a subway, and the fourth city in the world, after London, Glasgow, and Budapest. The first segment of the subway system, now part of Boston’s Green Line, opened just uphill from here in 1897.
When the great Puritan Migration brought thousands to the coast of Massachusetts between 1630 and 1640, the waters of Boston’s Town Cove lapped the shore here. Early buildings, facing the sea, existed on only one side of Merchants Row.
Bostonians, however, continually added land among the old docks and built new wharves extending farther into the harbor. By 1711, construction on Long Wharf had filled in another block of King Street (now State Street), from which Long Wharf extended.
Merchants Row once led to the Town Dock. Bostonians filled in the dock in 1728 to make the land on which Faneuil Hall was completed in 1742. Ships could unload at the back of the market, as pictured at near right. Upstairs, a meeting hall hosted town business, lectures, and speeches, such as those of Revolutionary firebrand Samuel Adams.
Between 1824 and 1826, Boston added more land and three badly needed, new markets behind Faneuil Hall, including Quincy Market. In the 1970s, Boston renovated all four markets to create the first of America’s "festival marketplaces." Today, the marketplace eateries serve throngs of office workers and tourists. Faneuil Hall still hosts public events, and the shoreline has moved even farther out to sea.
Boston’s Financial District took root here along prominent King Street (now State Street) with the rich flow of goods that arrived at Long Wharf. Merchants located their offices, stores, and warehouses here, close by the wharves and the merchants' exchange.
The name "Merchants Row" still clings to the cross street on your right leading to Faneuil Hall. Gradually, banks, insurance houses, and commercial buildings surrounded the Old State House, giving rise to a formidable financial district.
In 1891, the Boston Stock Exchange opened at the corner of State and Congress streets, evidence of Boston’s importance as a capital of finance. By the late 20th century, the old, twelve-story behemoth was insufficient, as the office towers around it attest. The partial façade of the building still presides at the corner of State and Congress streets, embedded in the base of a modern office tower.
The shipbuilding industry that enlivened Boston’s waterfront for two centuries ended with the advent of steamships around the time of the Civil War. Port operations diminished. Boston’s maritime infrastructure became obsolete.
In the 20th century, the proud Custom House came to dominate a waterfront in decline. Instead of shipped goods, the vacant wharves began to store a different kind of commodity — parked cars for downtown office workers.
Within a generation, however, the bustle at Boston’s waterfront returned. The ships and longshoremen were gone. Great granite warehouses were converted to apartments, and cultural institutions, such as the New England Aquarium, were built. Hotels took choice waterfront locations. Tourist cruises and pleasure boats re-enlivened the docks. Today, the waterfront is once again crowded with activity, its uses re-imagined.
The Walk to the Sea intersects two other historic trails through Boston, the Freedom Trail and the Black Heritage Trail.
The Greek Revival style of the Custom House, completed in 1847, reflected both contemporary fashion and the building’s lofty purpose. The customs offices oversaw the sovereign interests of a young state and nation by supervising and taxing cargo.
The Custom House was built so close to the water that the bowsprits of arriving ships could touch it, though the shoreline has since moved.
Around 1913, the federal government built a 433-foot tower to enlarge the Custom House. For nearly a half century the tower dominated Boston’s skyline, while, ironically, waterfront activity and port services declined.
Finally, in the 1960s, investment returned to Boston and new skyscrapers began to form the modern skyline. Boston’s deserted wharves came back to life. Old warehouses and new buildings along the waterfront accommodated apartments, hotels, and cultural activities.
In 1995, after undergoing other changes of use, the Custom House was converted to timeshare apartments.
Here stood Boston’s "Highway in the Sky," so labeled in the 1950s by local media expressing the official hopes for a new elevated expressway.
Boston’s leaders chose to raze hundreds of homes and commercial buildings for the progressive project. The expressway was to decongest Boston's obsolete and crooked street network and "prune" away decayed portions of the city, inviting new investment downtown.
However, the highway and its supporting structure effectively cut off Boston's North End and waterfront from the rest of the city, and it came to be regarded as an eyesore. When traffic overwhelmed the expressway, Boston sought federal assistance to enlarge and bury the Central Artery, a project known as "The Big Dig."
The Rose Kennedy Greenway, completed in 2008, is a network of gardens and public spaces, named for the mother of long-serving, distinguished Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy and his brothers, President John F. Kennedy and New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
The mile-and-a-half Greenway extends from the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, past the North End and Wharf District, to Chinatown Gate. The Greenway serenely caps the massive traffic flow along the expressway buried beneath it.
The "Big Dig," a reconstruction of three-and-a-half miles of expressway, completed in 2007, became known as America's most expensive public works project. Today, traffic is routed underground, and now parks reconnect downtown Boston to the city's historic North End, wharves, and waterfront.
Like an arrow pointing back to the Old World, Long Wharf, built in 1711, dominated Boston Harbor. It reached well past approximately 80 other wharves bristling out from the Shawmut Peninsula. About a third of a mile long, it extended the town's main commercial street, King Street (now State Street), far into the harbor.
In addition to its prominent commercial role, Long Wharf witnessed the arrival of royal governors, chained pirates, British troops, and other historic spectacles. In 1774, British General Gage and his troops arrived here to quell Boston's rebellious spirit in a scene captured by Paul Revere’s engraving. Gage and his men fled Boston in 1776 from this same wharf.
When fugitive slave Anthony Burns was brought to the wharf in shackles in 1854, to be returned to slavery in Virginia, all of downtown Boston shut down and tens of thousands of people took to the streets in protest.
The sea is Boston’s front door. From the city’s inception, Bostonians relied on the sea for transportation, trade, defense, and the city’s expansion. Though these interests still influence the use of Boston Harbor, its public role as a cultural and recreational asset has received greater prominence since the 1970s.
Modern water transport includes commuter boats, water taxis, a shuttle to the airport, and cruises around the harbor and to several islands. While some goods still arrive in Boston by ship, much of the commerce around Boston’s harbor relates to tourism and recreation. As in colonial days, Boston’s harbor remains an important gateway to the nation
Landfill operations at Boston’s shoreline continued into the 1980s. Three great fill efforts during the 20th century created the land for Logan Airport, visible across the harbor. Modern as it is, the airport continues an important tradition. Even by air, people still arrive in Boston at the harbor.