BOSTON — Imagine all the time and effort Paul Revere could have saved if only he had had a smartphone. Instead of galloping through the dark countryside on his midnight ride, the Boston silversmith simply could have texted the news that the British were on the march to Lexington, tweeted the Committee of Correspondence, and turned in at a decent hour.
Thankfully, the only roaming charges Revere ever needed to worry about were his horse’s oats because although a smartphone would have made his task easier, it also would have deprived us of the drama and romance of the American Revolution, a tale retold every day in this city along the Freedom Trail.
The screens we carry in our pockets and bags today may fulfill the bygone informational role of the town crier and the social network that knitted the patriots together inside Colonial taverns, but they can also transport us back to Revolutionary times thanks to an ever-expanding collection of history-related apps that reveal hidden stories and add context to our surroundings.
On a recent afternoon, I set out to explore 18th-century Boston with my 21st-century smartphone guiding me along the Freedom Trail. The brilliant sun glinted off the State House’s golden dome. My iPhone was fully charged and so was I.
As the Park Street Church’s noontime bells started to peal a dozen times, I popped in my earbuds in front of the Boston Common visitors center and began to walk the line that threads together 16 of the city’s most historic sites. Each step took me further back in time as my ears swelled with the thunder of musket fire and a fife-and-drum serenade of “Yankee Doodle.”
A handful of smartphone apps offer virtual tours of Boston’s red walking path, but after testing various choices, I found the best of the bunch to be Tour Boston’s Freedom Trail. The app produced by Know It All Tours is available on Android and iPhone for $2.99 and features professionally produced video clips and audio snippets along with information on handicap accessibility, restroom availability, and hours of operation of stops along the way.
The app also includes a GPS-enabled map that pinpoints locations, but the feature should be of minimal necessity along the Freedom Trail. After all, a simple bucket of red paint has proven to be the superior navigational technology for guiding locals and tourists alike through the maze of downtown.
At each stop, I watched videos of between two and six minutes in length that featured contemporary views, maps, and historical portraits and paintings that added context to the speaker’s narration. Booming cannons from the USS Constitution and the strains of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” sung for the first time on the steps of Park Street Church on Independence Day in 1831, were among the effects that enliven the soundtrack. The bell tower chimes that rang on the Old North Church video so closely mimicked my ring tone that I mistakenly thought I had an incoming call.
The app includes maps of the three burying grounds along the trail and profiles some of their most famous occupants as well as oddities such as the large circular wrought iron structure in the King’s Chapel Burying Ground that ventilates the subway. Sure enough, within moments of coming upon the vent I heard the familiar screech of the Green Line below and immediately felt sorry for John Welch, who must not be getting much rest in peace inside his vaulted tomb just feet away.
While the app was a budget-friendly option that allowed me to traverse the 2½ miles at my own pace, I found myself at times missing the charm of the Freedom Trail’s Colonial-costumed tour guides — although I’m pretty sure the wireless microphone I saw one wearing was an anachronism — and the ability to ask questions of a live person. Still, the Tour Boston’s Freedom Trail app taught me some new historical tidbits. Did you know that the State House dome was originally covered with wooden shingles? Or that the current Kings Chapel was built in 1754 around a smaller wooden structure that was dismantled and removed through the church windows? I also learned that those seemingly stone columns fronting the portico of Kings Chapel are actually wooden, a revelation confirmed by a quick rap.
The virtual guide also opened my eyes to small pieces of the cityscape that I had previously overlooked, such as the plaque emblazoned with the image of the Old North Church that rests on the Tremont Street sidewalk outside the Omni Parker House hotel. Although I must have stepped on it dozens of times, I had never noticed the marker, which commemorates the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s preservation of an open view of the historic steeple.
As I reached Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall — whose original 1742 gilded grasshopper weather vane weighs 80 pounds, I learned — I took an opportunity for a much-needed privy break and a chance to refuel myself and my phone, whose battery life was waning. Continuing to the North End, I followed the red line through the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and somehow discovered that I can still dredge up the noise and odor of the old passageway underneath the Central Artery that was buried deep inside my sensory memory.
At the Old North Church, I learned from the app that the equestrian statue of Revere that fronts Hanover Street took 16 years to build, or two years longer than the time between the beginning of the American Revolution and the inauguration of George Washington as the country’s first president (1775-89). Heading up Copp’s Hill, the app pointed out Boston’s narrowest house, squeezed into Hull Street. It was one of several points of interest, such as the Irish Famine Memorial and the birthplace of Benjamin Franklin, profiled between the official Freedom Trail stops.
After crossing over into Charlestown and passing the USS Constitution, I reached the Bunker Hill Monument, the Freedom’s Trail final stop. If I was “up for it,” the app promised the reward of a magnificent vista from the top of the granite obelisk. With my energy level running as low as my iPhone’s battery, I craved a lift up those 294 steps. Is there an app for that?