Travels & Traditions: Boston, Massachusetts - #401

BURT WOLF: Boston is the second largest port of entry in the United States, right behind Ellis Island. Over 56 million immigrants came into the U.S. through Boston and today, almost one out of every six Americans can trace an ancestor who came here through this town.

The first residents of Boston arrived in 1630, which gave the city an early start in our nation’s history. Accordingly, Boston has been responsible for many firsts. Boston is the site of Harvard University—the first university in America.

Boston designed the country’s first public garden—24 acres of green in the middle of downtown. It opened in 1859. One of its main attractions are the Swan Boats. They paddle their way around a tree-shaded pond. The same family has been operating these foot-propelled boats since they went into service during the 1870s.

Boston is the home of the first church in America built by free blacks. It opened in 1806 and was originally called the African Meeting House. When Massachusetts declared slavery illegal in 1783, the town became a haven for hundreds of slaves that had escaped from the south. 

Boston built the first public library. It opened in 1895 and along with its books it has an interesting collection of paintings, including some by John Singer Sargent who is considered to be the greatest portrait painter of the late 1800s. 

Boston is also home to the world’s oldest annual foot race—the Boston Marathon. It’s been held every year since 1897. Next to winning an Olympic event, winning the Boston Marathon is one of the most important honors in marathon racing.

Boston is also the town where a new form of American music was created. In 1885 the Boston Symphony Orchestra tried to re-create the summer concerts that were being held in the gardens of Vienna. They presented a strait-laced Boston public with a light and humorous program, and the public loved it. Within a century it became a unique American musical institution known as the Boston Pops and it is the most recorded orchestra in the world.

And perhaps in a somewhat less significant category but still important to many people, including me, it has the first Dunkin' Donuts shop.

It opened in 1950 in the town of Quincy, just outside of Boston. The donut is not only my favorite pastry but the most popular pastry in the United States. And as opposed to bagels, which are eaten primarily in restaurants, donuts are eaten primarily in automobiles. Dunkin' has 64 different donuts and they sell over 2 billion of them each year. And if you took 2 billion donuts and placed them end-to-end they would circle the earth five times and if you actually did that you would be put in a mental hospital. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But my favorite Dunkin' Donut at Dunkin' Donuts is the Dunkin' Donut. It’s an old-fashioned donut, but at the side there’s this piece that comes out so you can hold that, dip it into your coffee and not get your fingers wet. Mmm. Good. Want a bite? Does the word “sharing” mean anything to you?

BURT WOLF: Ah, but life in Boston wasn’t always this much fun. During the early 1600s a group of strict Calvinists known as Puritans were living in England and being persecuted by the Anglican Church. In 1630 a fleet of 11 ships set sail from England. They were carrying 750 Puritans bound for Salem, Massachusetts. The King of England had sold them the right to form the Massachusetts Bay Company and to occupy a strip of land.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Old King James I was a great land salesman. His specialty was getting rid of land in America to people in England that he also wanted to get rid of. He was thrilled to lease a little property to the Puritans, or the Pilgrims or the Quakers or anybody else who didn’t see the world exactly the way he did. I’m sure you know people like that.

BURT WOLF: At one point, the Puritans received an invitation from an eccentric minister named William Blackstone. Blackstone invited them to join him on a hill on the Charles River.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A hundred and fifty Puritans accepted Blackstone’s offer and named their new town Boston, which was also the name of their old town in England. So they weren’t the most creative group but they were respectful of their English heritage. On the other hand, nothing lasts forever and a hundred and fifty years later they had lost all respect for England and they wanted to be independent.

BURT WOLF: At the heart of the trouble was a group of agitators known as the Sons of Liberty, which included among its members Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They were totally committed to the idea that they should not be taxed without being honestly represented in government. Their cry was “No taxation without representation”. Now I think that’s a totally valid idea and worthy of being reconsidered today.

BURT WOLF: King George III started announcing new taxes and the colonists started telling him what he could do with his new taxes. Bostonians and British soldiers clashed and the American Revolution got started right here in Boston.

It’s a very important point to the people of Boston and still very much part of the city’s life. Guides dressed in 18th century clothing lead tourists along a 2.5 mile ribbon of red bricks or painted red lines. It leads from Boston Common to Bunker Hill. They visit 16 historic sites where America’s independent spirit was forged and the Revolution was born.

Today Don Watson is playing James Otis, a lawyer of the period. He appears through the courtesy of the Freedom Trail Foundation.

JAMES OTIS (PERFORMED BY DON WATSON) ON CAMERA: Look, Paul Revere house. We’ve come upon it. Now this is the oldest house in Boston. The oldest standing structure in Boston. Paul bought this house in 1770. At that time, it was about 90 years old. Paul Revere, a wealthy man, he was a merchant. In 1770 when he bought it, he lived here with Sarah and it was here at this house that he began in 1775 his midnight ride. Paul Revere lived to be 83 years old, unheard of in the day. He was a merchant, of course, a bell ringer, bell caster, silversmith, coppersmith, goldsmith, dentist, political cartoonist and the father of sixteen children.

BURT WOLF: Revere became famous not so much for what he actually did but for the poem about him —The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: “If the British march by land or sea from the town to-night, hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch of the North Church tower, as a signal light, --One, if by land, and two, if by sea; And I on the opposite shore will be.”



JAMES OTIS (PERFORMED BY DON WATSON) ON CAMERA: One if by land, two if by sea. What sea? It was the Charles River. On the opposite shore will I be. He was not on the opposite shore. Paul was here. Paul asked a friend of his, Robert Newman, to hang those lanterns. Paul then got into a rowboat, got rode over to Charlestown. So that signal wasn’t to Paul Revere. In a sense it was from Paul Revere. That signal went over to Charlestown to the militia.

BURT WOLF: Another example of American resistance to the British is the USS Constitution. It’s the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat and one of the first ships built for the U.S. Navy. It was launched in Boston in 1797 and its overall length is 204 feet. Most of its 44 guns had a range of 1,200 yards and it carried a crew of 450 men. The bolts fastening its timbers and the copper sheathing on the bottom were made by Paul Revere. Since 1934 it has been based at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Request permission to come aboard.

SEAMAN ON CAMERA: Aye aye, sir.

BURT WOLF: Seaman Jack Seleb took me on a tour.

JACK SELEB ON CAMERA: All right Burt. The nickname of the ship is Old Ironsides, but interesting thing about it, there’s no iron in the construction at all. The ship is made of good old Yankee oak. Live oak and white oak. The live oak and the white oak for the original construction was harvested all the way from the Northern coast of Maine down to the Southern part of Georgia where we got our little national secret, our live oak. The British and the French didn’t have it. It’s so dense of a wood that if you put it in water, it sinks like a stone, but when we made an oak sandwich from twenty-two to twenty-seven inches thick on our hull, it repelled canon balls. It bounced off the sides and sent her to victory every time.

Watch your head. It gets low. Nice. Welcome to the gun deck, Burt. Named the gun deck for obvious reasons. This is where we have our main armament. These are our long guns. The ship’s bad boys if you will. They each weigh about three tons and they fire a 24-pound shot accurate to about 1200 yards.


JACK SELEB ON CAMERA: They take about fifteen men per gun to operate under very crowded conditions. The most interesting thing about these cannons I think is the seal on them. That’s the crest of King George III of Britain whom we acquired our original guns from. After the English had abandoned Fort Independence in Boston after the Revolutionary War they had left some of their armament behind. Well as we had spent the majority of our money building the ships, we didn’t have a lot to outfit them so we scrounged up what we could, which happened to be some British guns.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Waste not. Want not.

JACK SELEB ON CAMERA: Roger that. Now it’s time for a little personal grooming. Why don’t you have a seat in our very own salon here, Burt.


JACK SELEB ON CAMERA: This is the barber’s chair. Now when you think of haircuts in the military, you don’t think of men having ponytails. Sailors aboard the Constitution would. And it was practical and fashionable. You had a status symbol. The longer your ponytail was the longer you’d been out to sea, but also it secured your hat when you were working aloft and the wind was blowing. You’d braid your tail of your hat into your ponytail. However, once a month the crew would have to get their bangs cut. To keep it from blowing in their face when they were working aloft. So once a month in this chair the entire crew would line up for a haircut. Hence the word crew cut that we have in the military. The entire crew would line up fore to aft and the cook would come over and chop their bangs off.

All these cannons down here fired more than just the traditional round cannon balls that we think of and here’s a display of a lot of different ones. You had a star shot which would break up in to four bars twirling oblong through the air, tear through sails, masts, and sailors. You had a canister shot which was filled with shrapnel. You got to remember that these guys didn’t have enough money to afford shoes so they were barefoot. When this would hit the deck and all that glass and metal shrapnel would shred everywhere, it would tear their feet up and make each person’s life on the deck difficult.

Your traditional round shot and then my favorite, double-headed shot which one end would be inserted into the galley where the glowing red fire was and it would make that end hot red, almost thousands of degrees if you will and as it twirled through the air, it would tear through sails or deck or sailors igniting everything in its path. A real hot shot.

BURT WOLF: And the USS Constitution is not the only old man-of-war still on duty.


BURT WOLF: As you move around Boston you will notice a fleet of amphibious vehicles that were built during the Second World War. Today they are used to give visitors a unique tour of the city and the Charles River.

SALTY MAGOO ON CAMERA: Okay you guys, have yourself a good trip here. Right. Okay. Oh! Man!

BURT WOLF: Salty Magoo was my “conducktor”.

SALTY MAGOO ON CAMERA: You’d think I’d know where those stairs were after all this time driving. That was pretty scary. Is this seat taken? Oh there it is. Just a little jumpstart gets things going in the morning.

These are not the type of vessels you see in the World War II movies with the soldiers under fire trying to secure a beachfront. That wasn’t the mission of these things though they weren’t in combat with the other guys. Basically what they did with these boats were supply vessels. They brought the ships into the shoreline as close as they could and they off-loaded everything onto ducks: ammunition, food, medical supplies, doctors and nurses, everything was off-loaded on these trucks.

You guys look at the statue over here on the right hand side. There’s a statue of five men on horseback. It’s called the Partisans. It’s dedicated to freedom fighters throughout the world today and if you look at those five men they’re badly beaten up but they’re not defeated. We in Boston renamed those five guys this year the Boston Bruins management team.

You guys look out the left hand side of the Duck. This first red brick building you should be able to see some purple or lavender panes of glass in the windows. That glass was installed prior to 1825. Made with a different kind of sand and once the sunrays hit it turned lavender in color.

Now if you look at the gold dome above the windows right up at the tip pity top, that little tiny piece up at the top everybody assumes that’s a pineapple for hospitality. It’s a pinecone. And the reason it’s up there at one point in history the commonwealth of Massachusetts also included the state of Maine. The pine tree state.

This big tall light blue reflective building on the left hand side is the new John Hancock tower. It stands sixty-three stories high. It’s the tallest building in New England.

Today you saw many ports of call from Trinity Church to Faneuil Hall. Your experience and adventure not just a tour. By land and by water you couldn’t have asked for more. Had the ride of your life aboard a Boston Duck. Taken a trip aboard a half boat half truck. Hope you had fun and learned some things. You see Boston’s a city of firsts where freedom rings. Boston Duck tours and I thank all. Just be a little careful coming down the stairs. There might be moisture, but other than that we can disembark. Glad to have you on board sir. Enjoy Boston while you’re here.



BURT WOLF: While I was in Boston I stayed at The Four Seasons Hotel. It’s right in the heart of the city but it overlooks the Public Gardens, which gives it a nice balance — a quiet oasis in the middle of a busy town and the interior reflects the Victorian residential character of the neighborhood. There’s a grand staircase that leads up to the hotel’s main restaurant, which is where Executive Chef Ed Gannon presents some of Boston’s finest food.

EXECUTIVE CHEF ED GANNON ON CAMERA: Put a little bit of the celery puree in the center of the plate. It’s going to support the diver scallops. Before we put the scallops on we’re going to put on a little bit of the parsley coulis on. Now we’re going to make a little salad. We’re just going to use this as a little light refreshing garnish on top. Right in between the scallops and then to finish it off we’re gonna drizzle a little lemon infused oil around the dish.

BURT WOLF: The restaurant has received a number of awards for both its cooking and its wine list. On Friday and Saturday nights the hotel caters to the after-theater crowd with a buffet of Viennese sweets.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I think I can say, without fear of contradiction that just about everybody who has stayed at a Four Seasons Hotel realizes how extraordinarily comfortable these beds are. What they don’t realize is you can purchase this bed and the bedding and have it sent to your home. Quite a memento of your trip. 

BURT WOLF: And not to be excluded from Boston’s historic aspects, the spot where Four Seasons guests get out of their cars is the very same spot where on the night of April 18th, 1775, the British troops got into their boats and headed across the Charles River to attack Concord.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: If the British had only known that Paul Revere had already begun his ride and was warning everyone of their approach, they wouldn’t have checked out so early.

BURT WOLF: When the first settlers showed up on the coast of Massachusetts, the shores were covered with lobster—so many lobsters that they were despised as too common a food. Prisoners in the public jail would riot at the prospect of yet another meal with lobster. Indentured servants would stipulate in their contracts of employment that they were only to be served lobster twice a week.

Today, however Boston is famous for its lobsters—In Cambridge you will find Jasper White’s Summer Shack, which in defiance of its name is open all year round. Jasper is considered to be the dean of American fish cookery.

In the year 2000, he took over a huge space and filled it with wooden picnic tables, banquettes from the 60s, and dangling strings of lights.

In the center of the restaurant is a 1,500-gallon lobster tank and cooking apparatus that is so unique, it was given a patent by the federal government. There’s the patent on the wall and there’s the cooker.

Live lobsters are held in a giant tank. At the proper moment they are lifted into two huge steam kettles where they’re boiled. Each basket can hold about 100 lobsters which is helpful since Jasper has a couple of nights each week when he runs through more than 1,000.

In addition to lobster, Jasper is well known for his fried clams, old-fashioned cod cakes with beans and his home made pies.

BURT WOLF: When you’re in town, you might also enjoy checking out the East Coast Grill in Cambridge. It belongs to Chris Schlesinger who has a national reputation based on his three books: The Thrill of the Grill, License To Grill and Let The Flames Begin. He also has a pronounced sense of humor. He put a dish on the menu called “The Jerk Duck Leg From Hell”.

WOMAN SERVER ON CAMERA: The duck leg from hell is the hottest thing you’re ever going to taste.

MALE SERVER ON CAMERA: The duck from hell is so hot that I warn people not even to get it.

FEMALE EATER ON CAMERA: It’s hot. It’s hot but it’s great.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The duck is spicy but quite edible. The yellow sauce however is definitely satanic. If you ever eat something where the chili is too hot and it’s burning your mouth, you don’t want to try rinsing it out with water. The stuff’s that burning you will not dissolve in water. It just spreads it around. It will however dissolve in alcohol so get yourself a glass of vodka, rinse your mouth out with it, spit it out and you should be better. Though some people just hate to waste a glass of good vodka.

BURT WOLF: And finally there is finale. A restaurant that started out as a business school project at Harvard and ended up as a local favorite. It’s famous for its desserts.

And speaking of receiving your just desserts this is Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. Fenway opened in 1912 and still has the feel of an old-fashioned ballpark. It has a real grass-playing surface and the scoreboard is manually operated.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Nice touch. The Red Sox are very hospitable but that was not always the case. In 1919 they traded a young man named George Herman Ruth to the New York Yankees because he wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. Bad move. It was Babe Ruth, the greatest ballplayer in the history of the game. Since then the Red Sox have not won a single World Series. The Yanks have turned out to win more World Series than any team in the game. The situation is known as the curse of the Bambino.

BURT WOLF: But you never know when the curse will be lifted and the Sox are practicing in anticipation of that moment.

Boston is also home to the largest and most complex highway construction project ever undertaken in the United States. Officially, its objective is the reconstruction of a confusing elevated highway system that cuts the city off from its historic waterfront. In reality, it is taking the highways and putting them underground, creating high technology tunnels and bridges, reclaiming wasteland, building 200 acres of parks to cover the roads and completing the last piece of the U.S. Interstate Highway System. And at a cost of only 15 billion dollars, hey it’s a deal.

Dan McNichol has written the definitive book on the Big Dig. And on behalf of the Boston Center for Adult Education he takes people on walking or bicycle tours of the Dig.

DAN McNICHOL ON CAMERA: The Big Dig puts Boston back on the map. Boston’s had a long history of some of the largest projects of this type in the world. The very first subway for example was here in Boston. But more importantly, I think the Big Dig proves that to cities around the world you can replace all of your infrastructure and still keep the city moving. Businesses still can operate. Conventions can still take place. People can live in their neighborhoods and live a good life and the city goes on even though the largest project ever in this country’s history is taking place.

The people of Boston have a love-hate relationship with the Big Dig. They love it when things are going well and it’s understandable, kind of like the Red Sox, when things aren’t going well, it’s tough to endure. That crane operator on the large gantry crane, he’s been in the business for thirty-five years and he said, “I’ll probably never see anything like this again in my life. No one probably will. Not in this country. This is probably the last of the great big projects.”

BURT WOLF: Well that’s a brief look at Boston and the surrounding area. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and I hope you will join me next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I’m Burt Wolf.