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Boston Freedom Trail goes high-tech with audio tour

A "Hear Freedom!" audio tour guide is now for rent from The Freedom Trail Foundation in Boston. The device can be used with earphones or held to the ear like a cell phone and offers two hours of narrative about Boston.
A "Hear Freedom!" audio tour guide is now for rent from The Freedom Trail Foundation in Boston. The device can be used with earphones or held to the ear like a cell phone and offers two hours of narrative about Boston.
Patricia Mcdonnell, Associated Press

BOSTON — After spending the morning walking the streets of Boston, following the red line that marks the famous Freedom Trail, tourist John Koch couldn't help but exclaim how easy a new audio guide of the city's historic walking tour is to understand.

"For an outsider who is totally uninitiated, it was just great. This guy is right in my ear. He's clear, he doesn't have a Boston accent," Koch said over a beer at Boston's Union Oyster House across from Faneuil Hall, one of the stops on the Freedom Trail.

The trail is a 2 1/2-mile tour that links 16 historic sites. Visitors can follow a red line emblazoned through city streets, linking the sites that stretch between Boston Common and the Charlestown waterfront.

Using a lightweight, hand-held digital device, visitors can guide themselves along the trail while listening to "Hear Freedom!" It was introduced earlier this year to liberate the Boston sightseer from traditional structured sightseeing groups.

"What they'll get out of this is their independence," said Linda McConchie, executive director of The Freedom Trail Foundation. "It's a big step for us because what we are always trying to do is to get people to come back to the Freedom Trail, make our story accessible, make it easy to understand why the story of the Revolution is meaningful to us and also to make it fun."

Featuring the voices of Sen. Edward Kennedy, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, actors from the Freedom Trail Players, and others, the device can be held up to the ear like a cell phone or can be used with headphones.

Sightseers can punch a number into the audio box corresponding to each site and hear its history. The tour is designed so sightseers can go at their own pace in any order they choose.

Koch, 48, and his wife Norma Koch, 46, were visiting Boston from Fort Wayne, Ind. They said they enjoyed the convenience of the audio devices.

"We just walk down the street like we're talking on cell phones. I have a really hard time reading something while I'm walking," said John Koch, who just two days earlier ran the Boston Marathon. "It really encapsulates it for us. It gives the essential facts."

People accustomed to leading Freedom Trail tours while playing the part of a character from history agree.

Sam Jones leads tours while portraying William Dawes, one of the Minutemen who rode with Paul Revere. He said the costumed tour guides initially worried the audio guides might attract flocks of walkers away from the old-fashioned tours. He's not so worried, anymore.

"When we first thought about the project, we thought that it might detract a little away from our tours, but they made a big effort to keep us involved in the project," said Jones, who narrates part of the audio tour.

"There are people who want to do the trail at their own pace and by themselves but still have the flavor of the Revolution given to them and it's a way that they can do that," he added.

The sites along the Freedom Trail tour include the Old South Meeting House; Paul Revere's house; the Old North Church; the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill; the USS Constitution; the Granary Burying Ground, which contains the gravesites of Samuel Adams and John Hancock; and Rose Kennedy's birthplace.

Standing on Boston Common, sightseers can hear Sen. Kennedy talk about how Boston has long been a place for public oratory. Later, they can hear him reminisce about how his maternal grandfather, John Francis Fitzgerald, a two-term Boston mayor, used to perch a chair at the top of Hull Street in the North End Italian neighborhood, giving him a view of Charlestown and the Old North Church. From there he would survey the sites of the Freedom Trail.

At the Granary Burying Ground, Goodman talks about a tomb where colonial babies are buried and explains the colonial custom of sometimes not naming babies, in an effort to lessen the bonding process in case the child died of disease at a young age.

Patrick Moscaritolo, the president and chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said tourism officials had been looking for ways to beef up tourism since the Sept. 11th attacks.

The new audio guide should make the Freedom Trail "more contemporary, more appealing. We know how kids today are into computers, GameBoys, everything else. It was definitely in response to what we saw a couple of years ago in the change in visitor profile," Moscaritolo said.

Others say the Freedom Trail's historical value simply makes it a must.

"To me the Freedom Trail is a big piece of Boston and it really holds Boston together as a walking, historic city," said Paul Sacco, executive director of the state's travel and tourism office.

"It's fun, it's educational, the kids love it. There's lots of sights along the way. We get many calls into our office. We always say to them, 'If you do one thing in the city, walk the Freedom Trail,' " Sacco said.