Learn about history

Pieces of Boston's rich maritime history can be found all along the Harborwalk. Spend the day in Charlestown exploring the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship in the world; relive the famous Boston Tea Party at the Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum on the Fort Point Channel; or, seek out some of Harborwalk's many other hidden historical sites.

East Boston

  • Piers Park
  • Condor Street Urban Wild
  • Carlton Wharf
  • Charlestown

  • Shipyard Park
  • Boston National Historic Park / Charlestown Navy Yard
    Though U.S.S. Constitution is the Navy's oldest commissioned warship, when it was built it boasted an innovative design. The first three warships ordered for the infant United States Navy in 1794 -- one of them the Boston-built Constitution -- were frigates unlike any others. Naval strategists knew the nation could afford to build only a few vessels, so they had to be formidable warships. They were inspired by French "razees," ships-of-the-line that had one gun deck removed, transforming them into large, heavily armed frigates. The sharp lines of Constitution's hull gave it a frigate's speed, but in size and stoutness it was comparable to a small ship-of-the-line. Its heavy oak frames, spaced close together and sheathed with thick planking, proved virtually impenetrable in battle -- hence the name, "Old Ironsides."

    The theory was that Constitution would be powerful enough to fight any frigate, and quick enough to flee anything bigger than itself. The British scorned the new style of frigates, asserting that they lacked the tactical strengths of either frigates or ships-of-the-line: too slow to engage the former, too weak to stand up to the latter. But the Constitution more than lived up to U.S. expectations in the War of 1812 when it bested two British frigates in separate battles, escaped two more, and captured a frigate and a sloop-of-war in a third engagement. Following the war, the Constitution fought no more battles, but served honorably for another 40 years.

    Throughout its career the Constitution has been closely associated with the Charlestown Navy Yard, undergoing several overhauls there. The first was in 1833, when the frigate inaugurated the yard's dry dock. From 1992 to 1995, it was serviced in the same dock. Since 1897, the Yard has been the homeport for the Constitution. Today it is one of Boston's most popular tourist attractions.

  • Tudor Wharf
  • Building 114
  • North Washington Street (Charlestown) Bridge / Charles River Dam and Locks
    The Freedom Trail
  • Paul Revere Park
  • Harborview
  • Dorchester

  • Old Harbor Park
  • John F. Kennedy Library and Museum
  • South Boston

  • Vent Building #6
  • Castle Island / Pleasure Bay
    Fort Independence dominates the grassy point at the eastern terminus of South Boston known as Castle Island. Joined to the mainland by infill in the 1920s and 30s, the former island has been the site of a fort that has guarded Boston Harbor ever since Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor Dudley ordered the construction of earthworks there in 1634. From that point until the fort was put into caretaker status in 1879, Castle Island was the site of the oldest continuously operating military installation in America. The five-bastioned pentagon that exists today was built between 1836 and 1851, with granite coming from nearby Cape Ann.

    Castle Island has witnessed events both historic and mysterious. When the British fled Boston in 1776, they destroyed much of the fort on their way out. Lieutenant Paul Revere was assigned the job of repairing it. Following America's victory, the moniker "Fort William" was dropped when President John Adams visited the island on July 29, 1799, and named the U.S. Army fort to be built on Castle Island "Fort Independence." Island "ghosts" were quite active in the nineteenth century. When writer Edgar Allen Poe was stationed there in 1827, he reportedly heard tales of a brutal act of revenge where a former soldier bricked up his enemy alive in the bowels of the fort. This was supposedly the inspiration for his hair-raising tale, "The Cask of Amondillado." Just a few years earlier, soldiers reported spotting sea serpents from their lookout stations, raising the alarm of many Bostonians. No "ghost walk" of Boston is complete without a visit to the fort.

    Castle Island ceased to be an island when the Federal Government, which owned the South Boston mud flats just to the island's north and west, decided to deepen the Harbor Reserved Channel and dry dock and dump the excess land into the water separating the island from the mainland. In 1890 the Federal Government gave permission to the City of Boston to use Castle Island as a park, and in 1892 the city built a bridge from Marine Park to the island for pedestrians. By 1934, this newly claimed land connected the island to the mainland, allowing pedestrian and vehicular traffic access to the area. The City of Boston maintained the island as a park, except for wartime periods, until 1962 when the Massachusetts District Commission (MDC) purchased the fort and island from the federal government. The MDC rehabilitated the fort in 1976-1978 after which Fort Independence could be opened up to the public. Fort Independence and Castle Island both qualified for the National Registrer of Historic Places in 1970, and today the area is a popular destination for walkers, bikers, swimmers, and sunbathers. The volunteers from the Castle Island Association provide free tours of Fort Independence on weekends from noon to 3:30 pm from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

  • John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse
    Interpretive panels tell about the history of Fan Pier in the 1800s, 1900s and 21st century.

    All of the land between the downtown waterfront and the residential neighborhood of South Boston was once under water. Today's South Boston Waterfront district, therefore, is entirely man-made, and this stretch of Boston boasts the largest acreage of filled-in land in the entire city (with the exception of Logan Airport). Fan Pier, the section closest to the downtown waterfront, serves today as the entry point for this fast-growing area.

    Over the course of the nineteenth century, South Boston gradually grew northward over the mud flats separating it from downtown, even as the downtown area spread into what was once the South Cove, today's South Station area. In the 1860s, a group of federally appointed commissioners drew up a plan for Harbor improvements, which included a proposal to build a seawall at the boundary of today's Fan Pier. The pierís distinctive curve made it an ideal location for a rail yard, and its name in fact refers to its unique shape. Radiating out like prongs on a fan, several railroad lines ended at the edge of the pier, allowing for an efficient transfer point for shipping cargo. For much of the twentieth century, Fan Pier therefore served as an important component to South Boston's shipping infrastructure.

    By the 1980s, new port facilities had rendered Fan Pier obsolete and it became dilapidated. New life came to the Pier when the Federal government purchased Fan Pier from restaurateur Anthony Athanas as the site for its courthouse. U.S. Representative Joseph Moakley, who was instrumental in providing federal resources to revitalize the area, predicted that the new courthouse would "serve as a catalyst for economic development" for what he claimed would soon be "the hottest place in Boston." The Moakley Courthouse that now dominates Fan Pier not only brings many more people to the formerly neglected area, but also provides an excellent pedestrian experience along the Harborwalk, with nearby restaurants, historic markers, and stunning views of the downtown waterfront.

  • Downtown/North End

  • Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park
  • Long Wharf / Marriott Hotel
    Entrepreneur Capt. Oliver Noyes and his associates began construction of Long Wharf, perhaps Boston's best known waterfront structure, in 1711. It thrust considerably farther than other wharves into deep water, allowing larger ships to tie up and unload directly to new warehouses and store. It was a brash political and economic statement, extending the view corridor of King Street (now State Street) from the Town House right out to the end of the wharf. The 1760's Gardiner Building, home to John Hancock's counting house, is its oldest surviving structure.

    Long Wharf has witnessed several important historic events. The notorious pirate William Fly was brought up the wharf in chains in 1726, and after his trial and execution, his body was hung above the wharf for all to see. British troops under General Gage landed at Long Wharf in 1768 to enforce the tax acts, and he later retreated from the same wharf in 1776, establishing the first independent part of the US. In 1854, the fugitive slave Anthony Burns was brought down Long Wharf to a steamer taking him back to slavery in Virginia. His case was so infamous that the entire downtown of the city shut down, as tens of thousands protested. Some say the Civil War began that day. The United Fruit Company introduced America to bananas in 1870, first unloading the yellow bunches onto Long Wharf.

    Long Wharf was originally a third of a mile long, and was the longest wharf in North America when it was built. Over time most of Long Wharf was subsumed into landfill for Boston's growing working waterfront. Visionary Uriah Cotting carried out the first major infill of streets and warehouses in the early 1800's. Subsequent infill projects saw construction of Quincy Market and the U.S. Customs House. The final surge came in the late 1860's with the creation of Atlantic Avenue, which unceremoniously cut through numerous wharves, changing the face of the waterfront. The construction of the elevated Central Artery added insult to injury in the 1950's, effectively separating Long Wharf from Boston's business district. Today, however, that connection and the half-mile golden corridor from the Old State House to the tip of Long Wharf are being reclaimed with the depression of the Central Artery. Over the last twenty years, Long Wharf has been transformed from a failing commercial waterfront area into a recreational and cultural center with a hotel, boat landings, restaurants, shops, offices, and residences.

  • Lewis Wharf / Pilot House / Sargent's Wharf
  • India Wharf / Harbor Towers
    When Boston merchants established trade with China and the East Indies in the late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth centuries, the port of Boston boomed with commerce. Merchants loaded their great ships with manufactured goods, and sailed around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, where they traded these goods for otter pelts in the Pacific Northwest. Carrying the pelts to China and India, the ships returned to Boston heavily laden with exotics from the Far East. The result was a boom in Boston waterfront commerce, and demand increased for new commercial infrastructure. Finished in 1804, India Wharf was the first of a series of wharves built to accommodate the boom.

    Financed by a trio of Boston investors, including prominent developer Uriah Cotting, India Wharf provided deep-water anchorage and warehouse space in the downtown waterfront area just south of Long Wharf. It quickly became a bustling center of commerce, overflowing with rum, sugar, and spices. Charles Bulfinch, Boston architectural and town-planning giant, provided the specifications for the warehouses that lined the wharf, calling for an orderly brick row of four-story buildings. In 1869, the construction of Atlantic Avenue severely truncated the length of India Wharf and demolished many of its buildings. The motivations behind the avenue's construction were twofold: to provide a rail link between the northern and southern rail yards, and to provide a dumping ground for the dirt and gravel generated by the leveling of nearby Fort Hill. As shipping commerce gradually outgrew the downtown piers, their maintenance gradually deteriorated. By the middle of the twentieth century, the once-proud India Wharf was being used as a parking lot.

    India Wharf's regeneration took place in the 1970s as part of the Boston Redevelopment Authority's plan for the New Boston. Consistent with that plan, which introduced the desirability of waterfront living, investors planned a luxury residential development along the Wharf. Famous architect I.M. Pei designed the concrete Harbor Towers. The planned third tower was never built. Though derided for their banality (Boston Redevelopment Authority director Stephen Coyle once joked that the U.S. Navy should use the towers for "target practice."), the development offers excellent public access to the Harbor, and today it serves as an important link in Harborwalk.

  • Rowes Wharf / Boston Harbor Hotel
    Known today best for the iconic "archway to the sea" building, Rowes Wharf began its life as a defensive battery: a fortified bastion with canon meant to protect the Harbor. The Puritans erected these batteries when they first settled Boston in 1630, since they were under constant threat from invasion by England's enemies. Since their small settlement was vulnerable to French, Dutch, and Spanish marauders, the Puritans constructed their batteries at Castle Island, Fort Hill, the North End, and today's Rowes Wharf. At the time, this area marked the southern edge of what was known as the Town Cove: a half-moon cove that subsequent land-making projects eventually filled in. The South Battery was strengthened over the next hundred or so years, but by the middle of the eighteenth century, it was largely obsolete. In 1764, developer and merchant John Rowe purchased the land and built a wharf of modest length extending east into the Harbor. An entrepreneur dealing in a variety of commercial activities, John Rowe's most famous cargo was dumped by American patriots dressed up as Indians at nearby Griffin Wharf during the Boston Tea Party.

    Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, shipping commerce continued to dominate the Rowes Wharf area. In addition, the Wharf served as a Harbor access point for public ferry service, a role it continues to play today. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, outdated shipping infrastructure and a stagnant economy contributed to Rowes Wharf's dilapidation. This all changed, however, with the construction of a large mixed-use development in the mid-1980s. Providing both commercial and residential space, the Rowes Wharf Building is an example of successful urban renewal. Its giant domed arch helps connect downtown Boston to the waterfront, especially now with the depression of the Central Artery. Its beautiful and accessible public promenades make it one of the most elegant waterfront areas of Boston.

  • Central Wharf / New England Aquarium
  • Battery Wharf/Fairmont Battery Wharf
  • Fort Point Channel

  • 470 Atlantic Ave / Independence Wharf
  • Federal Reserve Building and Grounds
  • Boston Children's Museum
  • Fort Point HarborWalk and Parks
  • Deer Island

  • Deer Island HarborWalk
    Exhibits along the trails (installed Summer 2004) interpret Deer Island's colorful past with its use by Native Americans, colonists, immigrants, social agencies, and the military. Other exhibits explain the workings of the island's extensive wastewater treatment facilities built and operated by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

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