It is good as we head into Independence Day to spend a little time thinking back on the early days of the American Revolution. It reminds of us of the price paid for the freedoms we enjoy.
A Revolution by Gunfire
Minute Man National Historical Park follows the battles of Lexington and Concord, which are really one running battle along the Bay Road running through the two towns and on to Boston.
For those whose history is a bit rusty, let me summarize for you: 700 British troops, mostly light infantry and grenadiers (assault troops), left Boston in the middle of the night for Concord to seize arms and ammunition being stockpiled there by the colonial militia.
Word spread of the impeding raid and a warning system was set up, leading to Paul Revere and Samuel Prescott making their famous midnight rides, sounding the alarm.
As the troops approached Lexington, 77 members of the Lexington militia formed on the town green. The colonial officer give orders to let the British pass, but the British do not, instead forming up in a firing formation. One of the British troops fires, causing the whole line to volley fire into the colonials, killing eight.
The British continued the march to Concord and begin to search the town. The Concord militia stand their ground on the North Bridge and the British again fire a volley, killing two colonials. The colonials return fire (the shot heard round the world) and the British break ranks and retreat.
More and more colonials had joined with the militia, eventually outnumbering the British and pursued them all they way down the Bay Road back to Charlestown. In the end, 73 British dead and 174 wounded, with 49 colonials killed, 41 wounded.
The park is a a five mile section of the old Bay Road, dubbed Battle Road with several key sites preserved, along with the area around North Bridge in Concord. A walk down the trail will lead you by where Paul Revere was captured, several important sites of the battle and houses dating back to the revolution.
I can’t begin to describe the sense of history that comes with walking the Battle Road trail. It is the birth of our country condensed into a walk.
The town of Concord is pleasantly small and quaint. Following our walk, we stopped in for dinner at the Main Streets Market and Cafe for a sandwich, a flatbread and a couple of drinks. The food was good, the beer cold and the building suitablely old, leading me to wonder if it had been there in olden days.
A Revolution by the Pen
As important as the battle was, just as important is one of the other things preserved at Minute Man NHS: the cradle of American literature.
The Wayside, the home of militia leader Samuel Whitney, was purchased many years later by Bronson and Abby Alcott, the parents of Louisa May Alcott (yes, that Lousia May Alcott!!!) with help from their dear friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson (!!!). The Alcotts, Emerson and Henry David Thoreau(!!!) used to meet often in the house. Later Nathaniel Hawthorne (!!!) lived in the home, writhing his final works, as did Harriet Lothrop (author of the Five Little Peppers series), whose daughter preserved the house.
And then there is the Old Manse, a home right next to the North Bridge, where Emerson wrote the first drafts of Nature and Hawthorne rented the place the following decade (Thoreau planted the Hawthorne couple a vegetable garden when they moved in).
Needless to say, the English teacher in me completely geeked out walking amongst the footsteps of literary legends. At the advice of a park volunteer, we drove into Sleep Hollow Cemetery for Author’s Ridge, a rise at the back of the cemetery where these great authors were buried. I was delighted to see tombstones honored with pens from visitors, an homage to these titans of American literature.
A Revolution by the Factory
The other NPS site nearby is Lowell National Historical Park, an interesting site situated in the revitalized downtown area of Lowell, Mass.
Lowell tells the tale of the birth of the factory town and the cradle of the textile industry in the United States. Designed by merchants from the ground-up as a water-powered textile factory hub, with company houses for the mostly (at least initially) female workforce, Lowell was spearheading the American Industrial Revolution. Founded in 1821, the town grew to 33,000 in 1850 and was the second largest city in the state.
The city later became a hub of immigration, with several ethnic neighborhoods springing up throughout the city.
As innovative as the city was initially, the later owners of the mills were reluctant to change in the face of increasing competition. By the 1960s, most of the mills had shut down or relocated to the South. Interestingly, the exhibits talked about the real cost of clothing, identifying why American-made clothing is so much more expensive: wages and working conditions.
Today, the city is a great example of urban revitalization, with new shops and offices in downtown, including a nice pizzeria, Tremonte, with European-style sidewalk seating.
After a nice lunch and some people watching, we headed to the visitor center of the NHP, which has a video and a brief exhibit. From there, we visited a museum with a weave room with operational looms and a very good exhibit above on the impact of Lowell on American industry and mill towns. There was also a museum about the life of the mill girls in one of the old boarding houses. The park even has a working water turbine!
We finished our visit with a stroll along the canals, engineering wonders themselves.
A brief note on driving this close to Boston: don’t if you can help it. The roads are tight, confusing and the drivers seem to drive with the attitude of “screw you.” Boston does have a very nice mass transit system, which we plan on using when we return to do all of the Boston-area parks.