Thursday, February 20, 2003

Hiking History IV
The Boston World Explorers' Foundation gathered this past Sunday for its second expedition. On the coldest day of the winter to date, on the 80th anniversary of the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb, and the day before the Blizzard of 2003, foundation members delved into the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston.

The Intrepid Explorers:
  • David Belson
  • Hiromi Hiraoka
  • Shannon Okey
  • Michael Reed
  • Heath Row

    Here are some architectural, cultural, and historical highlights we explored in Beacon Hill.

  • Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who introduced kindergartens to Boston, operated a bookstore at 13-15 West St. The site, next door to the modern-day Brattle Book Store, is now a parking lot. Margaret Fuller, edior of The Dial, held discussion salons in the shop. And Peabody, an active feminist, was the model for Henry James' character Miss Birdseye in The Bostonians.

  • The Boston Alms House, one of the country's earliest poor houses, was located at the corner of Beacon and Park streets.

  • Between 1848 and 1888, there was a reservoir complex located in the block delineated by Hancock, Derne, Bowdoin, and Mount Vernon streets, directly behind the State House. Water stored there was piped in 15 miles from Lake Cochituate in Natick. Today, nothing remains of the squat, imposing, fort-like structure.

  • Much of Boston Common and Beacon Hill covers land purchased from William Blackstone, one of Boston's earliest settlers. After one of the early colonies failed, Blackstone remained behind with his library of 200 books, making a wilderness home near a spring supposedly where Louisburg Square is now. A plaque at the corner of Beacon and Spruce streets also supposedly marks the location of Blackstone's house. Louisburg Square is the site of the first home owners' association in America. The precursor to the condo associations of today, residents ringing the square share upkeep costs to maintain the fenced park area. And each parking space is deeded to a resident.

  • William Dean Howells, editor of The Atlantic, lived at 4 Louisburg Square. He also hosted the Saturday Club discussion salon.

  • Lucy Stone, an abolitionist and suffragette, edited the Women's Journal out of 5 Park St.

  • Julia Ward Howe, writer of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" lived at 32 Mount Vernon St. She wrote the hymn at 24 West Cedar, the former home of abolitionist Wendell Phillips. She also held meetings of the Radical Club at 13 Chestnut.

  • Edwin Booth, the actor brother of assassin John Wilkes Booth, lived at 29A Chestnut. He was performing in a play in Boston at the time of Lincoln's killing. Upon hearing news of the shooting, he skipped town.

  • Robert Frost lived at 88 Mount Vernon. Henry James' father and sister lived at 131 Mount Vernon. The view of Beacon Hill, the Charles River, and Cambridge detailed in chapter 20 of The Bostonians may have been the view from their home. Mount Vernon was once called "Mount Whoredom" because of Beacon Hill's former reputation as a red-light district.

  • Not far from the Charles Street Meeting House at the corner of Mount Vernon and Charles is the converted fire station that housed the cast of Real World Boston.

  • Acorn Street is a cobbled, privately owned street. It's arguably Boston's most photographed street -- sure enough, when we approached it, some British tourists were taking pictures! -- and among the city's narrowest.

  • Pinckney Street traditional separated black from white Beacon Hill. (When the wealthy moved into the North End, they pushed out the previous black residents. Then, after the Beacon Hill neighborhood was filled in using soil from Trimountaine, the wealthy followed the blacks there, too. Henry David Thoreau lived at 4 Pinckney. Louisa May Alcott lived at No. 20. The House of Odd Windows at No. 24 has no two windows the same on the side facing the street. Workers renovating 62 Pinckney in the '20s discovered hidden chambers that were used to house slaves along the Underground Railroad.

  • Phillips Street also features Underground Railroad stops. Fugitive slaves stayed in boarding houses paid for by members of the Committee of Vigilance, an abolitionist group organized by Julia Ward Howe's husband. Samuel Gridley Howe also founded the Perkins Institute for the Blind.

  • Rollins Square, a cul de sac that opens off of Revere Street, dead ends at a fake house. The fa├žade, complete with pillars, window shutters, and a rocking chair, blocks a 20-foot drop to the street on the other side.

  • Lastly, even though Buzzy's is gone, part of the former Charles Street Jail remains near the Charles/MGH T stop and Mass General. Its central building, which will be incorporated into a new hospital/hotel complex, was built in 1849 at the end of Boston's Granite Age. It was crowded and miserable for inmates and closed in the '80s.

    Thanks to everyone who participated! "We may not know where we're going, but we've read a lot about it."

    Sources: Philip Bergen, Old Boston in Early Photographs, 1850-1918; William Corbett, Literary New England; Fodor's Boston '96; Walt Kellley, What They Never Told You About Boston; Greg and Katherine Letterman, Walking Boston; and A. McVoy McIntyre, Beacon Hill: A Walking Tour
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