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Boston Guide - Panorama Magazine : Go Green

date published: March 27, 2006

Boston's historic pubs are the subject of a new walking tour; by Josh B. Wardrop; photography by Derek Kouyoumjian

Normally, when a man wearing a cloak promises to lead you down a dark alley for a night of "organized debauchery," it's best to call 911 or test out that little can of pepper spray your mother bought you for Christmas. But to do so to costumed actor Kim Carrell-or any of his fellow thespians with the Freedom Trail Foundation Players-would cause you to miss out on one of the most intellectually stimulating nights you're ever likely to spend hopping from tavern to tavern.

Since January, the Foundation has explored the Hub's hallowed history in the places where so much of early American culture thrived via their successful new guided tour, the Boston Historic Pub Crawl . For a cost of $39 per participant, a costumed interpreter like Carrell (who adopts the guise of "privateer" Silas Talbot) leads those with a thirst for knowledge-as well as beer-on a 90-minute journey through some of Boston's oldest taverns. Visitors get a chance to hear stories of historical figures like Paul Revere and John Hancock while also sampling some of the fare served today in these still-popular watering holes.

Fittingly enough, Freedom Trail Foundation Creative Director Sam Jones got the idea for the Historic Pub Crawl from the nation that Massachusetts owes its cultural history to: England. "I'd read about pub crawls in the U.K., where they're quite popular," says Jones. "And with Boston being the most European city in America-and having a tavern scene much like Great Britain-it seemed a good fit."

A Night on the Town, Circa 1826
A recent journey into Boston's pub history began with a short jaunt past Faneuil Hall toward an unassuming metal gate. Beyond the gate-likely unnoticed by 99 percent of the young revelers that generally stagger past it on the weekends-is cobblestone-lined Scott Alley, which Carrell explained is "the first alley to be named on a map."

The two dozen or so assembled pub crawlers emerged from Scott Alley in an area of Boston historically known as the "Blackstone Block," where Carrell said sailors "looking to indulge their various appetites" liked to venture because of the large number of taverns found there.

The order of the four pubs on the tour changes-easily done, as all four are within steps of each other. That particular evening, things kicked off at the Union Oyster House (41 Union St., 617-227-2750), the oldest continually operating restaurant in the U.S. (established in 1826). Pub crawlers admired traditional New England d├ęcor, and heard stories about the seditious Colonial-era newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy, formerly printed on the premises.

As patrons sipped Sam Adams beer (the locally-based brewer acts as a sponsor of the pub crawl) and sampled oysters from the raw bar, Carrell shared the somewhat nauseating tidbit that Daniel Webster-a regular patron-was known for consuming three dozen oysters and six brandies at a sitting.

Next up was The Bell in Hand (45 Union St., 617-227-2098), an establishment that dates back to 1795 and was a popular stop for sailors because of its "picture sign," featuring (what else?) a bell in hand. "Picture signs were very important," Carrell told the group, "because illiteracy was common among sailors-in fact, it practically seemed to be a prerequisite."

At the bar, Carrell told the group about Bell in Hand founder Jimmy Wilson, a town crier for 50 years prior to becoming a pubkeeper. The assembled crowd sampled Bell in Hand ale (a special beer brewed by Sam Adams and available only at the Bell), as Carrell saluted patrons' health with one of several humorous Revolutionary-era toasts he'd favor the group with that night.

"I've drunk your health in company, I've drunk your health alone," said Carrell. "I've drunk your health so often, I've damn near ruined my own!"


A thirst for History
If the Freedom Trail Pub Crawl leaves you thirsty for even more historic bars, here's a few more places to explore:

> The Chart House, 60 Long Wharf, 617-227-1576. This 240-year-old oceanside bar/restaurant (pictured above) was once patriot John Hancock's counting house. Now it serves premium seafood and steaks, but Hancock's safe can still be found upstairs.

> Hampshire House, 84 Beacon St., 617-227-9600. The original Cheers downstairs is more famous, but the historic Victorian mansion upstairs has been home to gala celebrations since 1910. Generally reserved for private functions, Hampshire hosts a "Movies and Martinis" night April 1 at 8 p.m., screening James Stewart in Harvey.

> Jacob Wirth, 37 Stuart St., 617-338-8586. Boston's second-oldest restaurant (est. 1868) serves authentic German cuisine, and still resembles a vintage saloon-complete with mahogany bar and Friday night piano sing-alongs.

> Warren Tavern, 2 Pleasant St., Charlestown, 617-227-1576. Famous patrons include Paul Revere and George Washington, but the tavern is named for Dr. Joseph Warren, a revolution-era hero who died at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Point (147 Hanover St., 617-523-7020) was the third stop on the tour, and the bar that looked most modern on the inside. But history in Boston really is everywhere if you know where to look for it. And at The Point, the place to look is, well.in the lavatory, which is where the "Boston Stone"-a large stone that marked the alleged center point of the City of Boston-can be found jutting out of the wall.

The crawl ended at The Green Dragon Tavern (11 Marshall St., 617-367-0055), a bar that earned its reputation as the "headquarters of the American revolution" by serving as a frequent meeting place for conspirators, as well as the Committee of Correspondents-a group of patriots that funneled information about the rebellion to colonies outside of Boston. Carrell bade the group farewell with a final toast, and participants pondered the possibility of crawling back to a favorite bar to explore the present of Boston nightlife.

Toast of the Town
Jones freely admits that the success of the Historic Pub Crawl has been more than he'd expected. What was initially intended to be a bi-weekly diversion during the winter months has caught fire and will now continue indefinitely as a weekly tour, on Tuesdays rather than Thursdays. The almost "universally positive" response has drowned out the murmurings of what Jones calls "the P.C. crowd," who might look down their noses at the historical value of a journey through Boston's historic bar scene.

"There are people who want to excise that part of Boston's history, but the truth is you can't divorce the American Revolution from tavern life-when you take an indepth look at Boston's history, the names of these pubs come up over and over again," he says. "After all, Paul Revere stopped at a tavern for a beer during his Midnight Ride! It's intricately woven into the history of the period, and I think that's what's made the pub crawl such a big success."

Contact the Freedom Trail Foundation at 617-357-8300 for reservations for future tours.

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