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Boston Harbor: watery site that changed history

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"One If By Land, Two If By Sea." The lantern signal that once warned Boston patriots how the British were attacking might serve as sound advice for present-day visitors to this historic city: While Boston's landmarks merit the first look, her seaside, or harbor, deserves the second.

Boston Harbor's 180 miles of shoreline embraces 50 square miles of water. The more than 30 islands within it total 1,200 acres of land. The harbor and its interconnecting bays have provided a highway between villages, colonies, and nations for centuries.

Trading, shipbuilding, and fishing -- the "sacred cod" was declared a symbol of Massachusetts as early as 1936 -- were the basis of Boston's maritime success for over 200 years. The signal light that gave Beacon Hill its name was established in 1635 to guide ships safely home. From the first simple town dock in 1630, the number of wharves in Boston grew to 78 by 1708. The great Long Wharf built in 1710 could handle the largest ships in the world even 100 years later.

In 1773, Boston Harbor was the site of a tea party, for which Parliament closed the port of Boston in retaliation.During the American Revolution, 365 vessels were commissioned in Boston, and the Massachusetts State and the Continental navies were active out of the port.

Following the war, Boston shipowners ran an almost private trade with China. With the discovery of gold in California in 1848 came the demand for speed at any cost: The chipper ship era was born. More than one-third of all American clippers were built in the Boston area. Boston-built clippers like the Flying Cloud of 1851 hold the records for west and eastbound passages.

The steamboat Massachusetts, operating between Boston and Salem, introduced steam service to the harbor in 1817. Steam cruises of Boston Harbor will be revived this year, with a replica of an 1980 harbor service steam launch being built at the Museum of Transportation.


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