56. Massachusetts: Witchcraft and Revolution
17 September 2012
We raised the anchor just as the sun was lifting above the horizon on a crisp, clear and chilly morning. We motor-sailed away from the islands of Maine in amazing visibility - what a contrast to the foggy day on which we had arrived! We rounded Cape Elizabeth and headed south-west out into the open sea. Each time we rose to the top of the long swell created far away by Hurricane Leslie, we caught sight of the next Cape, fifty miles ahead. By early afternoon the wind had got up enough to sail the rest of the way to Gosport Harbour, where we picked up a mooring for the night. This isn't quite the Gosport we know back home - it is a remote spot amongst the sparsely inhabited Isles of Shoals - but the nearest city on the mainland is called Portsmouth, in New Hampshire.
Dawn arrived with a pink sky as we slipped the mooring and motored away from the Isles of Shoals. We rounded Cape Ann as the day warmed up under a hazy sun, continued past Gloucester and, in the early afternoon, anchored in Salem Harbour. It was a long dinghy ride through the mooring field to the town and when we got there we found no public landing to get ashore, but fortunately a friendly marina let us tie up our dinghy for the day. Salem had been one of the wealthiest ports in America in the 18th century through privateering and trade, particularly with the East Indies. The town has many fine old buildings, including the imposing Customs House, the "House of Seven Gables", and dozens of elegant homes lining the streets. The Peabody Essex Museum organises tours of some of these, which are all furnished in their original style. The Museum has a particularly fine maritime art section, and at the time of our visit had an exhibition of stunning photographs by Ansel Adams entitled "At the Water's Edge". The local tourist industry, unfortunately, has focussed more on the town's infamous witch trials of 1692. A few young girls had accused nearly two hundred people of witchcraft, resulting in mass hysteria and some extraordinary trials at which twenty men and women were sentenced to death.
Next morning, we took the dinghy round the headland to Marblehead, home to the prestigious Boston Yacht Club. Its harbour is crammed with yachts on moorings and, with its busy, narrow streets and yachty designer stores the small town reminded us rather of Hamble in Hampshire. Its most historic building is the three-storey mansion built by ship owner Jeremiah Lee in 1768. Although built of timber, the exterior facing was cut, bevelled and painted to imitate stone ashlar blocks to give the impression of it being a grand house in the English style. The interior has survived remarkably intact, with original mahogany panelling and British hand-painted wallpaper.
In the afternoon a fresh breeze carried us round to Boston, where we arrived just before dark. We found a place to anchor opposite the city between some derelict quays and the Hyatt airport hotel. Whilst not ideal as it was quite exposed to passing river traffic and the noise of aircraft, it was reasonably accessible and gave us a stunning view of the city. We could watch the giant sculpture of skyscrapers change in mood from early morning, through the day into dusk and darkness. We even managed to find a small public landing stage near the city centre where we could secure the dinghy. Over the course of two days we walked the length of the "Freedom Trail". Marked by a line of red bricks in the pavement, this connects sixteen sites that were significant in the American Revolutionary story. These include the old corner book store, several churches and cemeteries, the home of Paul Revere, a silversmith, bell founder and leading revolutionary, and the Old South Meeting House, where 5,000 colonists gathered in 1773 to protest about the British tax on tea which led to them dumping 342 crates into the harbour: the event that became known as the Boston Tea Party.
At the far end of the trail is the 67m high granite obelisk which commemorates the Battle of Bunker Hill, the first major conflict of the American Revolution. We joined the line of tourists winding their way slowly up the staircase to the top to get the views across Boston and its harbour. Finally, we visited the 1797 frigate USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship afloat. She was nicknamed "Old Ironsides" during the War of 1812 after a sailor commented on how shot bounced off her oak hull as if it were made of iron. The ship is maintained in immaculate condition, and tours are given by enthusiastic young naval personnel. Boston had one other surprise: it was the first place in America that we found a butcher's shop. There was also a large fruit and vegetable street market, so we were able to replenish our supplies for the next leg of our journey south.