Downtown

Note: a separate walking tour of the Freedom Trail includes select sites in this area.

In the English Colonies in America, governors ruled with the absolute authority bestowed by the King’s Charter. Returning to London in 1674 after eight years in the Crown Colony, John Josselyn reported that Boston was “the Metropolis of this Colony, or rather of the whole Countrey…Their streets are many and large, paved with pebble stone….”

Outside Boston, the Colony’s roads were rugged footpaths at best until 1700. Worse, the only land approach to the city was through windy tidal marshes. Arriving at the town gate weary and drenched with salt spray, the grim welcome was a gallows. Beyond it the fortified stone and brick gate sat on a rammed earth parapet. Once admitted inside the gate, the aspect changed to an engaging array of shops and homes, closely built. The farmer with a land dispute, a merchant seeking a charter, or the wife of a convicted felon seeking reduction of his penance still had a mile to rehearse their petition, but they might easily have been distracted by amazing displays on all sides.

The ancient thoroughfare linking Province House with the town gate at the neck of the Shawmut peninsula survives as Washington Street, which is still lined with historic landmarks. Though the stocks and whipping post of Puritan Boston are gone, the Old State House survives. Inns and taverns that lined the lane in early Boston have disappeared, but housing is returning in the form of luxury towers.

While Washington Street has always been a busy commercial street, nearby Tremont Street was more ceremonial, with the Royal Custom House, the King’s Chapel, and the Old Granary Burial Ground. In Victorian times Tremont became the center for entertainments including lecture halls, concert halls, and theaters. The Boston Museum, a gaudy multimedia display of curiosities, attracted throngs of people—including the awestruck young P. T. Barnum—to its building on Tremont Street between Court and School streets. From 1837 until 1899 Lorenzo Papanti taught Bostonians to waltz in his dance hall, famous as America’s first spring-floored ballroom.