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A Walking Tour on Beacon Hill

[Copyright 1999 Mary Lee Cox]


This walk is long and hilly, with few resting places and no public rest rooms.  For this reason, the walking route is divided into two segments, with a rest stop on Cambridge Street.  Both segments might be done in one day, or leisurely walkers can make this two separate walks.

Beacon Hill is strongly associated with women who worked for the abolition of slavery beginning in the 1830’s and then, after the Civil War, joined together and turned their efforts toward suffrage and the rights of women.  Artists and writers, too, lived on the Hill.  Women remembered on this walk upset the status quo often between 1800 and 1959.  They questioned, confronted, often made their living in unconventional ways.  Most had two things in common: an independent income, however small, and a support group of other women.

Beacon Hill evokes lasting associations with the character of the city of Boston: its literature, its politics, its people, and even its reputed insularity.  The Hill was not, however, a chic address until nearly two hundred years after the first English settlers chose the peninsula in the sheltered bay that would become Boston harbor.

Beacon Hill has two sides, with Pinckney Street as the divider.  The South slope of the Hill faces toward Boston Common.  This side is, and has been since it was developed in 1800 by the Mount Vernon Proprietors, an elite address.  The houses on the South slope were almost all built between 1800 and 1840.  Builders and owners did most of the architectural design.  Few changes have been made and restrictive convenants have operated, although not consistenly.  The overall effect of rosy brick decorum and human dimension makes walking these streets feel like a pleasant return to the past.

The North side of Beacon Hill slopes toward the harbor.  In the eighteenth century there were small farms and simple frame dwellings here.  By the early nineteenth century it was a neighborhood important to the free African-American population of Boston.  Elegant town houses belonging to African American professionals had been built.  The African Meeting House was a center of political as well as religious activity, and at one point it housed a school.  In the early twentieth century, small, undistinguised brick apartment buildings replaced much of the older architecture on this side of the Hill.

It is a little colder on the Hill in all seasons, but winter is a tough time to do this walk.  The brick sidewalks can be icy.  The handrails attached to buildings along the steeper streets are useful.  In the spring and summer, when trees and tulips are blossoming, or in the fall when the trees turn red, bring a camera.

Start at the Charles Street/Mass General Hospital T stop.  As you follow the signs and walk down the stairs from the T Station, heading toward Charles Street, look across at the complex of buildings that is Massachusetts General Hospital.  Within this complex is the building where Linda Richards’ training school for nurses, begun in 1874, became the model for hospital-associated nurses’ training throughout the country.

1.  Linda Richards [1841-1930]
An early leader in the professional education of nurses, Richards herself was in the first nursing class to graduate at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, the first formal nurses’ training in the country.  Only a year out of the program, she was asked to head a training school at MGH.  The school had been operating for two years already, but the two previous nursing superintendents had failed.  Most of the medical staff disapproved of the training.  Richards’ tact and personal powers of persuasion succeeded in the face of strong opposition.  Ten years later, Richards designed and opened Japan’s first training school for nurses in Tokyo.

Continue down the stairs, and along Charles Street.  Charles is the principal shopping street of Beacon Hill.  In the nineteenth century it was a residential street, and looking up above the store fronts on the left side you can see the upper stories of older houses, much altered.  Charles Street is lined with antique stores, good browsing (bargains can be found in the group shops), and there are many places to eat.   The cafe in the Charles Street Meeting House at the corner of Mt. Vernon Street, has tables outside in good weather.

At the head of Charles Street, where there is now a parking garage, Annie Fields lived at number 149.

2.  Annie Adams Fields.  [1834-1915].  Annie and her husband, editor James Fields of Ticknor and Fields, entertained virtually every important American and British author of their times at their house here.  Fields was also a successful fund raiser for the issues that interested her: child care, women’s education, women’s working conditions.  She was one of the founders of the New England Women’s Club.  The garden in back of the house, left to the city of Boston in her will, exists in a nearly unrecognizable form as part of the apartment complex.

2.  Sara Orne Jewett [1849-1909].  An author with her roots in Maine, Jewett spent half of each year here at the Charles Street house with her close friend Annie Fields after James Fields died in 1881.  Some contemporaries called it a “Boston marriage.”  Sara and Annie were frequent traveling companions.  Jewett’s stories and novels, once considered good “local color,” but not important, have reclaimed their place as significant American literature.

Cross Charles Street, and continue a few houses down to 103 Charles, once the home of Josephine Ruffin.  The site is marked now with a plaque.

3.  Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin [1842-1924].  The founder of the New Era Club in 1893, and editor and founder of the influential journal The Women's Era, Josephine Ruffin was the leader of the first of the African-|American women’s civic associations in the United States.  She organized the conference to form the National Federation of Afro-American Women.  Julia Howe, Ednah Cheney, and neighbor Annie Fields were among her friends and colleagues. Her former house has been marked with a plaque.

A little further down, in the building at 127 Charles Street, Lucretia Hale lived in a small apartment in the 1870’s.
4.  Lucretia Hale [1820-1900].  Hale was a popular author of books and stories for young people.  Her Peterkin Papers family told the stories of  a Brady Bunch of the nineteenth century.  Each installment appearing in a children’s magazine was eagerly awaited, and the comic and silly doings of the Peterkins were read and loved for many years.

Continue on down Charles Street and turn left up the hill on Pinckney Street.  In the late nineteenth century, and well into the present, Pinckney was the center of Bohemian life in Boston, attracting writers, poets, artists, architects and a somewhat radical fringe to its rooming houses and then-inexpensive lodgings (no longer inexpensive).  Stop first in front of Number 11.

5.  Alice Brown [1856-1948).   A writer of short stories and on the editorial staff of Youths’ Companion, Brown’s use of New England local color, accurate, if now hard to read, dialect and sentimental plots made her works much-loved throughout the country at the turn of the century.  With her friend Louise Guiney, Brown took a rather daring ten week walking tour in Shropshire and Devon, and with Louise founded the Women’s Rest Tour Association as well as a short-lived journal called Pilgrim \scrip.  They hoped to inspire women to travel by themselves, “to take their vacations with pack and stick, in foreign lands.”  Along with the disappearance of dialect stories, Alice’s fame as a writer disappeared also.

A little further on, at 15 Pinckney Street, Elizabeth Peabody opened the second of her kindergartens in 1862.  [The original house is no longer standing].  Julia Howe’s daughter Maud was one of her pupils.  Louise Imogene Guiney lived at both Number 16 and later at Number 42 Pinckney, before she moved to England to live permanently.

6.  Louise Imogene Guiney [1861-1920].  A poet, short-story writer and literary critic, Guiney was part of the aesthetic revival in Boston at the turn of the century.  An Irish Catholic, she has been called an “ambassador between the two Boston cultures” - the Brahmin intelligentsia and the Irish.  Her friends lived nearby, including Ralph Adams Cram, the architect, and F. Holland Day, the early and brilliant photographer, as well as her traveling companion and friend Alice Brown.  Guiney spent the last decades of her life in Oxford, England.

Continue up the Pinckney Street hill to Louisberg Square.  This small square, and the cobbled streets surrounding it, are private, belonging not to the city but to the owners of the houses that face it.  Walk around the square.  Stop at Number 10, where Louisa May Alcott lived for a short time.

7.  Louisa May Alcott [1832-1888].  After years of writing low-paid thrillers published under a male pseudonym, Alcott’s Little Women became a best seller, and to date has never been out of print.  The closeness and the tensions among the four sisters, and the independent heroine Jo, closely modeled on Louisa, speak to a hundred years of readers.  There have been four film versions.  Alcott bought Number 10 for her father, after her mother’s death, with proceeds from Little Women and her other successful sequels.  She died shortly after the house was bought, possibly of mercury poisoning from medications taken to combat the illness she contracted as a nurse after the Civil War.

Continue up Pinckney street to Number 20, marked with a plaque.

8.. At 20 Pinckney Street the Alcotts rented rooms when Louisa Alcott was ten years old, and her father, Bronson Alcott, had opened his progressive school in Boston.  The Alcotts moved from this location to a far out farm, Fruitlands, the Transcendentalists’ ill-fated agricultural experiment.  Later they moved to Concord, Massachusetts, the setting for Little Women.    The Alcott house there is now open as a museum, and Concord is reachable by commuter train.

 Further up Pinckney Street is an intersection with Joy Street; turn left.

 Walk down Joy Street.  Much of the original architecture has been replaced, but a good eye can see, interspersed with apartment buildings, the stables-turned-garages-turned-living space which were once the principal business of the street.  Toward the end of the street, in a small court just off Joy, is the African Meeting House.  Mariah Stewart was married here, and Ellen Craft and her husband spoke to large crowds here.

 9,  Mariah Stewart [1803-1879].  An African-American woman widowed and done out of her husband’s ship chandlery business - it appears that a local judge awarded the business to a male employee, despite the terms of the will - she was married to Stewart in 1826 in the Meeting House.  In the 1830’s she wrote for the antislavery publication The Abolitionist.  She was the first American-born woman to speak publicly on politics.  In 1832 she drew crowds at Franklin Hall and the African Masonic Hall.  In one of her speeches, later published, she said, “O ye daughters of Africa, awake! Show forth to the world that you are endowed with noble and exalted faculties.”  Her dramatic statements, which drew  parallels of the African-American condition in the United States with that of the colonists and the English government in the American Revolution - a message of confrontation rather than dutiful obedience - were too much for the rather conservative professional leaders of the African Meeting House.  Mariah Stewart left Boston for New York city and taught in the public schools there for the rest of her career.

Many Abolitionists spoke at the African Meeting House in the first years of the movement.  Among the most dramatic and the most popular speaker they sponsored was Ellen Craft

9.  Ellen Craft [1826-1897].  Ellen and her husband, both slaves, made a daring run for freedom from their Georgia owners in 1847.  Ellen, light skinned, posed as a white man who could not speak; her husband traveled with her as her servant.  Boston abolitionists published the exciting story, and the Crafts spoke here at the African Meeting House while living in Boston.  The publicity caught up with them; pursued by slave catchers in 1850, they fled to Canada and then to London.
Across Joy Street, a short way down from Smith Court, there is a blue plaque commemorating Rebecca Lee Crumpler on the wall of a building.

10.  Rebecca Lee Crumpler [1831- 1895]  67 Joy.  Crumpler may well have been the first African American woman to earn a medical degree. In 1864 she graduated from the New England Female Medical College (absorbed later by Boston University School of Medicine) with a “Doctress of Medicine.”  After she served as a doctor to Civil War wounded, she married and returned to practice medicine in Boston.  There is a  plaque here on the site of their first home. The original building has been replaced..

Continue to the foot of Joy Street, where it meets busy Cambridge Street, for rest and refreshment.  Note: the only rest rooms in this area are in restaurants, and are reserved for patrons of those restaurants.  Your choice of a place for refreshments should take this into consideration.

Part II of the Beacon Hill walk continues from here.