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A healthy dose of American history

A writer explores historic landmarks in Boston, Philadelphia and New York by foot, bike and kayak.

July 10, 2011|By Terry Gardner | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Jesse McDonough, right, leads riders on a several-hour-long Bike the Big Apple tour, which includes a spin through Times Square.
Jesse McDonough, right, leads riders on a several-hour-long Bike the Big… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Boston, Philadelphia and New York — Paul Revere was captured on April 18, 1775, before he could warn the residents of Concord, Mass., that the British were coming. (He did make it to Lexington, Mass.)

No Revolutionary War battle was ever fought at Valley Forge, Pa., even though Gen. George Washington and his troops were there for nine months, including during a horrific winter.

Gustave Eiffel — he of tower fame — gave our Statue of Liberty her backbone.

In Boston, Philadelphia and New York last spring, I exercised my way through decades of U.S. history that I never seemed to have learned in school. Maybe all the movement activated my brain and made me more receptive as I walked, biked and kayaked my way through these lessons. As my knowledge increased, my weight decreased by about 3 pounds. Does it get any better than that?


During four days in Boston, by kayak and by foot, I got the skinny on a diverse range of topics, from canoe courtship to Revere's incomplete ride.

Paddling a two-person kayak with Daniel Smith from Charles River Canoe & Kayak, I learned that in the 1890s unchaperoned couples could court in a canoe, but if they were caught kissing, they would be deemed "not in control of their vessel" and could be fined. We paddled round trip from Kendall Square in Cambridge across the Charles River and around the Esplanade park. As I took in the skyline and attempted to do at least 30% of the paddling (with several short breaks), Smith pointed out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Museum of Science and the back of the Boston Pops Hatch band shell that I'd known only from televised Fourth of July concerts.

Boston is a walking kind of town (I averaged 20,000 steps a day, or about five miles with my stride), so the next day, I accompanied a patriot guide from the Freedom Trail Foundation on two walking tours along the 21/2-mile Freedom Trail.

The guide was dressed as William Dawes, who helped Revere spread the alarm that famous April night. It's said that the statue of Revere on horseback doesn't face the Old North Church, where the one-if-by-land-two-if-by-sea lanterns were hung, because the parishioners of St. Stephen's Catholic Church (at 401 Hanover St.) didn't want a horse's behind facing their church. Revere allegedly cast the bell in St. Stephen's, which began life as a Congregational church but became St. Stephen's in 1862. It was the family church of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the matriarch of the Kennedy clan. Her funeral was here in 1995.

On a Freedom Trail historic pub crawl (a crawl counts as exercise, I told myself) that evening, we borrowed a toast attributed, probably incorrectly, to Ben Franklin: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." So I exercised my elbow and raised my glass to Ben.

The next day, a short train ride from Boston took me to Concord. Here, Sue Merlino of Concord Bike Tours and I pedaled four miles through Minute Man National Historical Park (which encompasses the battle road from Concord to Lexington on which British regulars and American militia and Minutemen fought in 1775) from the North Bridge to Paul Revere's capture site in Lincoln, Mass., just outside of Concord. We also stopped at the Concord house of Dr. Samuel Prescott, who joined Dawes and Revere on their ride. Revere was captured, and Dawes fell off his horse, which ended his evening. Prescott was the only one who made it all the way to Concord.

I wrapped up my visit to Boston with a guided bike ride to and a walking tour of Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. Fenway, which opened in 1912, is the oldest ballpark still in use the U.S., followed by Chicago's Wrigley Field, which opened in 1914.


If Boston was the cradle of liberty, Philadelphia was the nursery. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Liberty Bell were born here, and Valley Forge is but 20 miles away.

I biked 6.6 miles along the rolling hills of Valley Forge National Historical Park, which boasts more than 3,500 acres of opportunities to picnic, fly kites and bird watch, and even, when it snows, cross-country ski. Park rangers guide tours, and reenactors interpret how soldiers and the families who followed them lived. Martha Washington, who could have lived comfortably at Mount Vernon, chose to join George at Valley Forge.

I saw no trace of the miserable encampment of the winter of 1777-78. Instead, I discovered a tree-lined Eden for birders, bicyclists and dog walkers. No such leisure, of course, for the soldiers who, under the tutelage of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben, a Prussian soldier, became the well-trained Continental Army. Von Steuben wrote "regulations for the order and discipline of the troops of the United States." His transformation of Washington's ragtag militia helped the new country prevail in the 81/2 -year-long Revolutionary War.

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