Enjoy this behind-the-scenes tour of the Old North Church, Boston’s oldest surviving church building, including a bonus look at the church’s bell-ringing chamber and underground tombs.
By Aimee Tucker
Apr 15 2021
The lovely, sun-lit interior of the Old North Church.Photo Credit : Aimee Seavey
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It’s tough to pick a favorite thing about Boston’s North End neighborhood, that bustling hub of Italian bakeries, pizzerias, and cafes just steps from Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, but if you follow the red-brick Freedom Trail through its narrow streets, you’ll soon come to my favorite – the Old North Church.
Founded in 1722, the Old North Church, officially known as Christ Church in the City of Boston, is Boston’s oldest surviving church building and one of its most popular historic sites.
It is most famous for the role it played in the American Revolution on the evening of April 18, 1775. That night, church sexton Robert Newman and vestryman Capt. John Pulling, Jr. climbed the steeple and lit two lanterns to signal that the British were marching to Lexington and Concord by sea (across the Charles River), rather than by land. This served as the spark to Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride (which we all know is more legend than fact, but let’s save that for another post), and the start of the American Revolution.
We think of the Old North as one of the beacons of colonial patriotism, but actually, in 1775, the majority of the congregation was loyal to the British crown, making its eventual role in the start of the war even more extraordinary.
There’s a reasonable admission fee to tour the church, but you can also add on a behind-the-scenes tour.
Inside, especially on a nice day with the sun streaming in through the windows, the church is a history-lover’s dream. Wooden, creaky, and just worn enough – the church is a true American treasure.
Upstairs, I was lucky enough to get a better view.
And there’s nothing like a little colonial graffiti to get your history-loving heart pumping.
After ducking into the gift shop next door to the church and buying a ticket for the afternoon tour, I was met by my guide, Louis. He told me I was the only one that had signed up. In my experience, this usually leads to the best tours, and the Old North Church was no exception.
First, we climbed a small (but steep) flight of stairs to a room set up with some period photos to help tell the story of the church’s history. For example, the original steeple was destroyed by the Storm of October 1804. The replacement, designed by famed architect Charles Bulfinch, was also toppled, this time by Hurricane Carol on August 31, 1954 (see the photo below). The current steeple borrowed design elements from both, and (fingers crossed) will stand proud for decades, if not centuries, to come.
Then, it was up the narrow wooden staircase to the bell ringing chamber.
On the way up, I noticed a familiar pair of lanterns nestled together in a window. This pair are identical to the ones believed to have been hung in the steeple in 1775. If you’d like to learn more about the alleged surviving Revere Lantern, you can do so here.
We went through the door, which was aged to perfection and covered in bell ringing patterns, and into a room criss-crossed with heavy ropes.
There are eight original change ringing bells (meaning the bells are rung in a series of mathematical patterns called “changes”) at the Old North Church, tucked up into the steeple. The oldest bells in North America, they were cast in Gloucester, England in 1744 and hung in Boston in 1745. One bell has the inscription: “We are the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America, A.R. 1744.”
In the bell ringing chamber, a small but passionate group of trained ringers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Guild of Bellringers man the bells, and it’s charming to see evidence of their normal, modern lives (coffee cups, group photographs, a map with pins stuck into it) in the midst of so much history.
Louis told me that Paul Revere had grown up in the neighborhood (you can visit his adult house just a quarter-mile away), and had been a bell ringer himself. His signature can be found on the original 1750 Bell Ringer’s Agreement, in which the guild agreed upon a democratic organization of the tower.
Remember how I said that sometimes when you’re the only one that signs up for a tour, you get an even better one? Here’s where my tour of the Old North Church went from good to great – I got to see the actual bells myself! They’re up yet another steep set of stairs (more like a ladder, actually), exactly where they have been for 270 years, connected to the ropes below. Hello, beautiful bells!
After slowly descending back to ground level, it was time to head outside and to the back of the church for the “underground” part of the tour in the church’s crypt. There are 37 tombs (with an estimated 1,100 bodies) underneath the Old North, constructed between 1732 and 1860. Only in recent years has more been learned about them… and the bodies inside.
Again, this part of the tour is very authentic. Louis told me more than once to watch my step or duck under a pipe. The space hasn’t been extensively modified or remodeled for visitors, which gives it a wonderful “old” look and feel, if you’re into that sort of thing… which I definitely am.
After being filled, each tomb was sealed with a wooden or slate door, with many doors covered over by plaster per city order in the 1850s. Here’s one door that’s only partially covered today.
The “Stranger’s Tomb” from 1813 was used to bury poorer citizens, including children, that had died from disease.
And beyond a hulking mass of (cheery red) water pipes…
You’ll find the tomb of John Pitcairn, a British Marine officer stationed in Boston at the start of the Revolutionary War. Unlike many British officers, Pitcairn was respected, and maybe even liked by Bostonians. He died shortly after being shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 17, 1775, and was buried here at the church, as were many others that fell that day.
The crypt is also the final resting spot of Captain Samuel Nicholson of the USS Constitution (the famous “Old Ironsides” from the war of 1812). Louis told me that servicemen still visit his tomb today to pay their respects. It’s an amazing peek into another side of 18th and 19th century Boston.
Each year, half a million visitors visit the Old North Church, and I suspect that most of them wander over to Modern or Mike’s Pastry afterward for a cannoli, or Pizzeria Regina or Galleria Umberto for a slice (and if not, they should). History and good food in one of the greatest American cities – what more could you ask for?
Have you ever been to Boston’s North End and visited the Old North Church?
LEARN MORE: Visiting the Old North and have a sweet tooth? Don’t miss Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop just next door. See more from our visit: The History of Chocolate in New England.
The Old North Church. 193 Salem Street, Boston. 617-523-6676; oldnorth.com
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.