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Factual Discrepancies Don't Seem to Matter in Historic Boston

August 10, 1986|DICK O'DONNELL | O'Donnell is a Bellevue, Wash., free-lance writer.

BOSTON — A lot of tourist attractions in this historic city don't really exist. But it is still fun to visit them.

Take Bunker Hill Monument, for example. The 221-foot granite tower that dominates the Charlestown section of the city isn't exactly what it is supposed to be.

In the first place, Bunker Hill Monument isn't on Bunker Hill. It is on Breed's Hill. The real Bunker Hill was ground down years ago by the wheels of progress.

Second, despite what the historians claim, there never really was a Battle of Bunker Hill. The Revolutionary War battle was supposed to take place on Bunker Hill, but the place was too large for soldiers of the Continental Army to fortify against the British.

They moved all their ammunition and barricades to nearby Breed's Hill, which was smaller, and fought the enemy in grand and glorious style there. They lost, by the way.

Wrong Hill, Wrong Name

Thus it is that the world-famous historic shrine is on the wrong hill. And the magnificent granite shaft has the wrong name, too. Bunker Hill Monument should be called Breed's Hill Monument.

Nobody cares! Tourists have been visiting the landmark for years, and not one of them has complained that the monument is in the wrong place and doesn't have the right name.

Visitors to Boston will also have trouble finding the wharf where the most famous tea party in American history took place. In fact, they will never find the right spot. Historic old Griffin's Wharf, where the Boston Tea Party was held, is buried under a super highway. Nobody knows exactly where.

For that matter, it is also impossible to find Noddle Island in East Boston where the second battle of the Revolutionary War took place. On May 27, 1775, some American soldiers rowed out to Noddle Island and sank the British schooner Diana, after a battle with British marines. This was America's first naval victory, and it was won by foot soldiers.

Over the years, Noddle Island has been lost as the harbor around it was filled in to provide additional land for the city. City fathers believe the former island is someplace near a busy shopping area known as Maverick Square in East Boston. But no one has been able to pinpoint its exact location.

Another famous Boston tourist attraction that doesn't really exist is John Harvard's grave in the Phipps Street Burial Grounds in Charlestown.

A Grave Mistake

For generations, eager young scholars and old grads have been visiting what they thought to be the final resting place of the principal endower of America's oldest university. Hardly a day goes by that a fresh floral tribute isn't placed at the base of the 15-foot-high monument in memory of John Harvard. The memorial towers above all the other gravestones in Boston's second oldest cemetery.

But the truth of the matter, plain and simple, is that Harvard isn't interred beneath that giant gravestone. He is buried someplace else, and nobody is quite sure where.

Declared Boston historian Richard Creaser: "When I tell people John Harvard is not buried in the Phipps Street Cemetery, they always want to know what his gravestone is doing there, if he's somewhere else.

"John Harvard died in 1638. He was buried close to his home in the Town Hill section of Charlestown. As the years went by, all trace of his grave vanished. New homes were erected on Town Hill, and he is probably buried beneath one of them.

"In 1828 Harvard University students contributed funds for a monument to be erected above the grave of John Harvard. But when they went to Town Hill to pinpoint the grave, they discovered that the grave's location had been lost forever.

Close to Possible Site

"The Harvard students did not give up," concluded historian Creaser. "They decided John Harvard was going to have his giant gravestone, even if it wasn't over his grave. They decided to put the tall marble marker in the cemetery nearest to where John Harvard was believed to be buried.

"The Phipps Street Burial Grounds happened to be the closest. Since then, tourists have been flocking to the old cemetery to visit John Harvard's 'grave.' "

Then there is Plymouth Rock. The most famous hunk of stone in North America may not be the rock it is supposed to be. It may not be the first piece of the New World the Pilgrims stepped upon when they came ashore in 1620.

History records that Plymouth Rock became The Rock back in 1741, when an individual identified only as "Elder Faunce" was taken to the waterfront to point it out to town officials.

Elder Faunce, who was described as being "95 and half blind," had been told many years before by his father about the rock "under the bank of Cole Hills" that the Mayflower Pilgrims stepped upon when they came ashore. Elder Faunce pointed his trembling finger, and a tourist attraction that annually lures a million travelers to Plymouth, just outside of Boston, was born.

The Wrong Rock?

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