The world had its share of problems in 1951. The Korean War was raging in the Far East, while race riots flared in the Midwest. America was testing old atomic bombs in Las Vegas, and detonating new hydrogen ones in the Marshall Islands. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was fired for being a relentless hawk. Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for allegedly hawking atomic secrets. Actor Ronald Reagan co-starred with a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo, and red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy co-starred with a similar crew, in the infamous House Un-American Activities Commitee.
All things considered, it just wasn’t a very good year. Except, perhaps, in Boston. Boston in those days was a much smaller city, slower, more placid. Though the Hub was filled with marvelously well-preserved historic sites—ranging from Paul Revere’s house and the Old North Church to the Old State House and the Old South Meetinghouse—there was no organized route linking these gems together. Veteran newspaperman, Bill Schofield of the Herald Traveler did something that no one had really done before: he invented the Freedom Trail.
Schofield found a kindred spirit in Bob Winn, a member of the North End’s Old North Church who had kept that historic building open and available to the public since 1942. Aware that weekday visitors were always curious about the Old North—especially Paul Revere’s ride and the two warning lanterns that hung in the church belfry—Winn had long been regaling guests with fun and fascinating tales of yore. The two agreed, Boston’s downtown and North End historic sites had to be connected in an organized fashion, preferably with a walking route marked by attractive signs and arrows. After two or three visits with Winn, Schofield fleshed out a trail prototype in his column, in the March 8, 1951 Evening Traveler.
All I’m suggesting is that we mark out a ‘Puritan Path’ or ‘Liberty Loop’ or ‘Freedom’s Way’ or whatever you want to call it, so [visitors and locals will] know where to start and what course to follow. … [Y]ou could do the trick on a budget of just a few dollars and a bucket of paint. Not only would it add to the personality of the city, but also it would please the tourists.
Schofield pounded away in his column over the next two weeks, adding Bunker Hill and Old Ironsides to the list, and embellishing his proposal. Finally, by March 31, victory was at hand. Mayor John B. Hynes brought the news that the city intended to go along with the Freedom Way plan proposed. The Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Junior Chamber of Commerce plugged the plan and hoped to see it set up in time for the year’s first big wave of tourists.
By June of 1951, the Freedom Trail was officially signed, sealed and delivered. (though no one remembers exactly how it was re-named he Freedom Trail.) Over the ensuing years, everyone watched the Freedom Trail evolve. By 1953 the Trail was attracting 40,000 people a year.
In the late 1950s and ‘60s, local businessman and philanthropist Dick Berenson helped guide the Trail to maturity. It was Berenson’s idea, for example, to add the distinctive painted red line in 1958. By 1966, the first Freedom Trail information center was opened on Boston Common, distributing free maps to some half-million visitors a year.
In 1964 the Freedom Trail Foundation was established as a non-profit to help market and preserve the Freedom Trail. Today it promotes the Trail through a series of publications, marketing and advertisting and its signature tours with 18th century costumed guides. Over 80,000 people take Freedom Trail guided tours each year. The Foundation also offers its in-school education program, the Freedom Trail Scholars, which brings the story of the American Revolution into the classroom. The Foundation’s Freedom Trail Preservation Fund is also designed to distribute money to help with capital expenses at the 16 official Trail sites. In 2011 over $125,000 was distributed to the Boston Parks & Recreation department for historic landscape renovation in the Granary Burying Ground.
In 1974, the National Park Service established the Boston National Historical Park which inlcudes eight of the 16 sites. Today there are over 21 million visitors to Boston each year and annual attendance on the entire Trail is 3.2 million people. The Freedom Trail is responsible for generating over $1 billion in annual spending.
Edited and reprinted with permission. By Susan Wilson 3/96