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  • James Wheeling

Nothing Like a Visit

It’s amazing to me that I can do so much research from the comfort of my home but there comes a time when a visit has to happen. I’ve done research in the National Archives (intimidating!!!) and in the Archives at the University of Michigan. I’ve picked my way through old mining roads and into dusty old forts. I spend a fair amount of time looking at old maps on-line as well as old drawings. I’ve consulted with archivists and historians at Lowell Mills and small historical societies in towns like Sonora, CA.

But the most recent trip was to Boston, in November, to see our daughter. While there, I worked on my story, firming up the locations, logistics and the action points. This trip was my chance to actually stand in front of the Beacon Hill Friends House and understand the width of the roads around it, its proximity to Boston Common, its entrance and egress. Fascinating!! Then I had to switch my brain back to 1849 and erase all the cars, buses, electric lines, light poles, and security cameras. Good thing I’ve a great imagination.

I have a character who has to visit a part of Boston known, in 1849, as Fort Hill. It was originally one of two forts built by the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War that eventually allowed the British to be evacuated from Boston. By 1849 the Fort Hill area had developed into a suburb of Boston. In the late spring and going until late fall of that year, that area became a hotbed for the cholera outbreak. Many of the immigrating Irish came to the Fort Hill area to live in the cramped and ill-kept tenement houses where the disease spread like wildfire. Before the disease ran its course, 611 people died in the Boston area. This map will tell you just how devastating the outbreak was for Boston citizens.

Another discovery I made on my trip has to do with the railroad industry. Originally, I had a character leaving Boston on a southbound train for Fall River, MA. But, I didn’t know exactly where he would be meeting this southbound train. While in Boston I learned he would have taken the Old Colony Railroad and would have left from a station located at the corner of South Street and Kneeland. Today, the South Street Diner sits in its place surrounded by tall brick apartment buildings.

One of the best surprises during my trip to Boston was the confirmation of a hunch I had about the import business from the Mediterranean and East Indies. Turns out there was a thriving trade business being done in Boston in 1849 at a place called India Wharf. When I wrote my story, I had to have an importer of fine goods from the south of France. Lo and behold, this is where they would have done their business! Today, the Harbor Towers sits in its place but at the time, it was a magnificent structure housing over 32 different importing companies. Designed by the famous architect, Charles Bulfinch, it was built in 1807 in solid stone, 1,340 feet in length. I wish I could have seen it.

Finally, just the opportunity to visit Boston Common was wonderful for this mountain girl. I enlisted my daughter, her boyfriend and my husband into helping me plot a route that a character would take, under the cover of darkness, from the area around Old Colony Railroad station to the Beacon Hill Friends House and back. It was a little chilly on this day in November, 2019 but we stepped around the Frog Pond and imagined the asphalt trails as gravel, maybe, and ran up and down the stairs leading to and from Beacon Street.

While I love my story and my characters, I have to say that I might love research and learning things even more.

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