On December 16, 1773, a band of dedicated Patriots gathered at the Old South Meeting House for what may be the most fateful political convention in American history. On that night, these liberty-loving locals decided to throw off the shackles of tyranny and rise up against their oppressors by dumping crates of over-taxed tea in Boston Harbor. In committing this act of resistance (and water pollution), Sam Adams and his costumed cohorts set off a revolution that became the Revolution.
Today, nearly 240 years later, liberty-loving locals and guests can relive and even reenact their dramatic demonstration in what is looking to be a new revolution in tourism and educational entertainment. At the recently-reopened Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum (Patriots, Tories, and people from all geographical and political walks of life can come together in a shared experience that is heavy on the “experience.” Through cutting-edge technology and web-enhanced interaction, visitors to the restored Beaver and Eleanor (authentic recreations of the ships involved in the original Party) can take on the roles of some of Sam’s neighbors and then enjoy a “spot” of tea with Abigail Adams in her tea room.
Originally opened in 1973 as a ramp-up to the nation’s bicentennial, the museum was struck by lightening in 2001 and burned. In the ensuing dozen years, the folks at Historic Tours of America (who took ownership of the museum in 1999) put together a plan for a bigger and better Beaver. Ironically, just as the original Tea Party was a reaction to political gerrymandering and oppression, the reopening of the museum involved much of the same scenario. “The first six years was a long process of permitting,” explains Executive Director Shawn Ford, noting that the museum is the only attraction of its kind that is located in the middle of a bridge in the middle of a channel in the middle of a major harbor. “There were so many agencies from which we needed to get approval.”
As Ford looked forward to rebuilding, other construction projects also got in the way. “The Congress Street Bridge was under construction for what was supposed to be 1.5 years,” Ford recalls. “It went three.”
A firm believer in silver linings (after all, the destruction of he original Party led to the creation of the United States), Ford is confident that, while many missed the museum in the interim, the additional time actually was a good thing, as it allowed his talented team to come up with new ideas and develop new technologies that make the new museum even more sea-worthy (and visit-worthy) than it was before.
“Because of those setbacks,” Ford says, “I believe this project is a better project!”
Another element that Historic Tours brings to bear on the Beaver is their helpful Hometown Pass, which allows Commonwealth residents to enjoy free admission when they bring guests. “The Hometown Pass is something we have done in all our cities,” Ford explains. “It is a great way to get locals to bring friends and family from out of town. It also helps us support the community so they can support us.”
While the original museum offered one ships’ worth of exploration, the new edition already has two and a third is being built in Gloucester. Among the other updates are the inclusion of costumed tour guides who escort guests through the ships and, with the help of modern technology unheard of in Colonial days, encourage them to get involved in the Party and its historic aftermath. “We have a whole staff of actors who have researched their roles,” Ford says. “When guests come, they are handed identity cards and they play a role too! When they leave, they can go online and see what happened to their character and where their family is today.”
Technology also plays a major role inside the museum as well. “We have an exhibit called the Tory/Patriot exhibit that uses holographic technology,” Ford explains, noting that the computer-created characters actually appear to be in the room with you. “It really blows your mind!”
They look like real people, but at the end, they just disappear
The portrait gallery includes images of famous Bostonians and Brits from the time of the Tea Tax, some of whom appear to come to life. “Sam Adams and King George…start debating,” Ford explains, noting that the scripts they use are taken from actual diaries, letters, and other papers from the famous foes.
As the ship is owned and operated by Historic Tours (who also run Old Town Trolley tours and the famous Ghosts and Gravestones tour), the accuracy of the recreations is top-notch. “We have a huge research team and consultants to make sure what we do is historically accurate,” Ford explains, noting that the museum includes one of the only two known tea chests remaining from that fateful flinging fest on board the Beaver.
Speaking of the titular tea, one thing that has not changed is the invitation to fling along with the original Patriots. “Guests go to [a reenactment of] the meeting of the night of December 16, 1773,” Ford explains. “Once Sam Adams calls his famous line, ‘This meeting can do no more to save our country,’ you walk down the gangplank and have a rendezvous with history by throwing the tea crates overboard.”
After tossing some tea into the “Dirty Water” and taking a tour below deck to experience life on these special ships, guests can also enjoy and learn about tea in Abigail’s Tea Room. Overseen by resident Tea Master (and noted author) Bruce Richardson, Abigail’s is a lovely place to end your day at sea or to rent for a special party of your own.
“We were asked if a wedding couple could have a boat pull up and take them away after a ceremony on the museum ship,” Ford recalls, noting that the museum is also available for school groups or any other functions. “I said yes, but they could not go too far because you can’t get under the bridges.”
– Matt Robinson