On a recent family trip to Concord, my third-grader taught me something: Visiting a historic place, especially one your kids have studied in school, is like dropping them into a real-life diorama. This summer, why not jump off the textbook page and into history itself? You don’t have to mention learning to your kids. Instead, promise family adventures: sky-high views, boat rides, picnics, cannons – even a sleepover on a haunted ship!
Boston is crammed with American history, so here are five “summer samplers.” Since four are part of the National Park Service, be sure to look into Junior Ranger and passport programs.
1 The North Bridge, Concord
The gigantic trees and rolling fields surrounding the North Bridge in Minute Man National Historic Park in Concord provide a perfect picnic setting but make it hard to imagine this bucolic scene as the stage for the official start of the American Revolution on April 19, 1775. After beginning their march in Lexington, the British, or “Regulars,” were met by minutemen in Concord, standing strong on one side of the bridge and preventing the British from proceeding up to the nearby farm of Col. James Barrett. The British suspected Barrett of harboring the Concord militia’s weapons, including a pair of prized cannons.
Kid’s Take-Away: It’s shocking to discover the short length of the bridge and to realize just how close the British were to the Colonists. Challenge your family to recite Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Concord Hymn,” which was sung at the completion of the Concord Monument, an obelisk at the foot of the bridge, on July 4, 1837. (Need help? The hymn ends with the famous words “Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world.”)
Minute Man National Historic Park, North Bridge and North Bridge Visitor Center, 174 Liberty St., Concord, 978-318-7810; www.nps.gov/mima; Hours: Open daily, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is free.
2 Bunker Hill Monument, Charlestown
If you’ve only driven past this 221-foot granite obelisk, visible from I-93 or Route 1, make a point to stop and visit. The attraction for kids? Climbing the stairs to the top of the monument – all 294 of them. (Make the kids count out loud!) There’s also an interesting exhibit and visitor’s lodge at ground-level; climb first and visit the exhibits when you get back down.
From this bird’s-eye view of Boston and Charlestown, it’s hard to picture the raging fire set by the British on nearby Breed’s Hill on June 17, 1775 – one of the first major battles of the American Revolution. In 1843, the Bunker Hill Monument was dedicated to honor all the men who fought and sacrificed their lives on Breed’s Hill. Bunker Hill itself was only peripherally involved in the actual fighting.
Kids’ Take-Away: Ask your children what famous line was uttered at Bunker Hill? (“Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” After your visit, head over to Warren’s Tavern in Charlestown, where Paul Revere and George Washington both imbibed in the late 18th century. Today, it’s a family-friendly restaurant, and kids will love to regale their friends and teachers with stories of having a beer – root beer, that is – and a bite to eat at Massachusetts’ oldest tavern.
Bunker Hill Monument, Monument Square, Charlestown, 617-242-5641; www.nps.gov/bost/historyculture/bhm or www.thefreedomtrail.org/visitor/bunkerhill. Open daily: Monument, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.; visitor lodge and exhibits, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is free.
Warren’s Tavern, 2 Pleasant St., Charlestown, 617-241-8142; www.warrentavern.com. Hours: weekdays, 11:30 a.m. – 1 a.m.; weekends, 10:30 a.m. – 1 a.m.
3 Boston Light, Boston
Aug. 7 is National Lighthouse Day. Why not visit Boston Light, America’s first lighthouse?
Coast Guard Civilian Keeper Sally Snowman is one of 52 trained volunteers who will greet you as you disembark from a 45-minute narrated boat tour from Boston Harbor out to Little Brewster Island, one of the Boston Harbor Islands.
Originally built in 1716, Boston Light helped ships navigate through rocky channels – the scene of many a shipwreck– to Boston’s harbor entrance. In 1775, American colonists reluctantly burned its interior to prevent the invading British from using it. When the British retreated in 1776, they blew up the tower. Reconstructed in 1783, Boston Light’s beam still shines – visible for 27 miles on a clear night. Though automated, it’s currently the only human-operated lighthouse in the country.
Kids’ Take-Away: Climb the 76 steep steps (and two narrow ladders) to see Boston Light’s Fresnel lens. (Note: Climbers must be 8 years old or 50 inches tall. For safety, no flip flops.) Snap photographs, through a porthole, of Boston’s skyline. Learn the “green” way that lighthouse keepers created the fog signal and the surprising use for the cannon on the property. After exploring the lighthouse, have an island picnic on the grounds.
Boston Light, Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area, Boston, 617-223-8666; www.bostonharborislands.org. Depart from Boston’s Moakley Courthouse Dock aboard a vessel operated by UMass Boston. The boats run until Sept. 4: Friday – Sunday, two trips daily at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
4 Mill Girl and Immigrant Exhibit, Lowell
Whether or not you’ve toured some of the grander national parks in this country, don’t forget the one in our own back yard – Lowell National Historic Park.
This 19th-century center of the Industrial Revolution is considered the birthplace of today’s modern textile corporations and working classes. This year, Lowell celebrates its 175th anniversary.
Learn what life was like for the children who worked long hours in grueling conditions during the Industrial Revolution. See the Mill Girl and Immigrant Exhibit, with reproductions of an 1830s boardinghouse bedroom, kitchen and dining room.
Stroll (or take a boat tour) along a portion of Lowell’s five and a half miles of canals that weave throughout the city and its historic neighborhoods. Lowell once had the reputation as the “Venice of the United States.”
Kids’ Take-Away: My daughters (ages 9 and 13) were shocked to see what life during the Industrial Revolution meant for young girls like them. After seeing how the Lowell “mill girls” and immigrants lived, sharing a room with one (or two) siblings suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.
Lowell National Historic Park, Mill Girl and Immigrant Exhibit, 40 French St., Lowell, 978-970-5000; www.nps.gov/lowell. Open daily through Aug. 21, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Aug. 22 – Sept. 5, 1-5 p.m. Admission: free.
Reservations required for seasonal boat tours of the canals, offered by the Lowell National Historic Park: Working the Water Canal Boat Tour, daily at 11 a.m. Engineering Innovation Boat Tour, daily at noon. Fees: Adults $8; students/seniors $7; ages 6-16), $6; under age 5, free.
5 The USS Salem, Quincy
Located in the former Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, the 700-foot long USS Salem CA-139 is the world’s only preserved Heavy Cruiser. Built in Quincy and named after the city of Salem, Mass., she was launched in 1947.
Hands-on exploration is encouraged by an all-volunteer staff. Follow the wide yellow line that runs all over the ship for self-guided tours. Peer into a periscope; climb into the gun rooms. Everyone’s invited to explore from the top of the bridge to the lower third deck.
On Aug. 20, the ship hosts a Family Overnight for up to 342 people. Enjoy meals, movies, a scavenger hunt, six different 30-minute “classes” in subjects like First Aid and Cold Water Survival, and, oh yes, ghosts. In 2009, stars of television’s Discovery Sci-Fi show Ghosthunters declared that this ship is haunted!
Kids’ Take-Away: Children and teens will be awed by how sailors once lived in this floatable city; there’s an electronic shop, print shop (still used), communications and radar rooms, a barber shop, medical rooms and the Brig (jail).
The USS Salem, U. S. Naval Shipbuilding Museum, 739 Washington St., Quincy, 617-479-7900; www.uss-salem.org. Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Admission: adults, $8; kids ages 4-12, $6; Sr. citizens and kids under age 4, free; family overnight, $45 per person.
Kathy Shiels Tully is a freelance writer and mother of two in Melrose.