Old Ironsides.

Imagine, for a moment, working at a shipyard in Boston at the end of the 18th century. You are a citizen of a nation less than a decade old. Your new country has emerged from a brutal war on its own soil, and is still in the process of creating the institutions necessary for its survival. Surrounded by hundred and hundreds of miles of coastline, your new country needs, most of all, a navy. So you are working with other carpenters, coppersmiths, and iron workers to build a frigate, an imposing warship that will be needed to fight the country’s battles at sea. What you do not realize, though, is that the ship you are hard at work constructing will fight pirates, engage in naval combat, sail around the world many times, and remain in service for over 220 years.

On a beautiful Sunday morning during the first weekend of summer, I drove to Boston Navy Yard, located on the northern end of Boston Harbor. Established in 1800 and referred to originally as Charlestown Navy Yard, it was a base for the US Navy until 1975. Since then, it has been overseen by the National Park Service and is the home for the USS Constitution and the destroyer USS Cassin Young, both free and open to visits by the public.

Completed in 1797, the USS Constitution was one of six frigates ordered for the brand new US Navy. Carrying a complement of 450 sailors and Marines, the ship was equipped with 52 cannons, representing the pinnacle of warship development in the 18th century. Its first action was to fight against pirates based in North Africa (the Barbary Pirates). A few years later, it would be deployed in the War of 1812, where it defeated five British warships. In one battle, against the HMS Guerriere, cannon fire from the British ship harmlessly bounced off the thick hull of the Constitution, the solid oak and pine wood deflecting the fire as if the ship were made from metal. After this battle the ship received its nickname: “Old Ironsides.” Reconstructed and restored several times over the years, the Constitution has served as a museum ship in Boston since 1907, although it has left its berth to travel the world as an ambassador for this nation many times since then.

Map of Boston Harbor. A pin is in the site for the USS Constitution. Bunker Hill Monument is also indicated.
Returning to Boston Harbor after only a week away. The Boston Navy Yard is in Charlestown. If you saw the movie The Town with Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner, it was set in this section of the city.
View of the Boston skyline, with traffic in the foreground.
A beautiful summer day means lots of traffic. Crawling along in heavy traffic for miles is part of life in the congested northeastern United States.
Honda Accord in foreground, masts of USS Constitution visible in distance.
Arrived! If you look carefully, you can see the main masts of the USS Constitution in the background.
Boston Harbor, filled with pleasure crafts, while the skyline is in the background.
Summertime means Boston Harbor fills with recreational boats.
Red brick path of Freedom Trail leading to Boston Navy Yard.
Get on down the (red brick) road! The Freedom Trail is a walk through the most historic sections of Boston. It is delineated by this red brick path, which leads through Boston Navy Yard.
USS Constitution Museum at Boston Navy Yard.
The Navy Yard is historic in its own right. Many of the buildings date to the 19th century and have been repurposed. This is the USS Constitution Museum.
USS Cassin Young at dock. A gantry crane is beside it.
First stop, the USS Cassin Young. A Fletcher-class destroyer, this ship was built during WWII and served in the navy until 1960. It has been a museum ship since 1981. The United States built 175 of these ships during the Second World War. Only four remain, including this one.
Sign that says "WWII Destroyer CAUTION Not Modified for Visitor Safety" in front of ship.
I love when my tourist destinations come with warning signs.
Rack of depth charges on aft section of the USS Cassin Young.
Depth charges on the aft (rear) section of the ship. The depth charge was one of the earliest weapons used to sink submarines. It rolls off the back of the ship, sinks to a predetermined depth, and then explodes. It need not hit the submarine directly. The pressure wave caused by the blast can be enough to crack the hull of a sub and cause it to sink.
Looking upward at anti-aircraft guns and ship's mast.
Bofors 40 mm guns, used to defend against attacking airplane. Despite the gunners’ best efforts, on two occasions the Cassin Young was struck by kamikaze attacks, a tactic used toward the end of WWII. Japanese pilots would deliberately crash their airplanes into enemy vessels.
Combat Information Center on board the Cassin Young.
The Combat Information Center, the “brains” of the ship during a fight. The status boards in the background are set for 28 July 1945, the date of the second kamikaze attack against the Cassin Young. The plane would crash into the ship only a few feet from where I took this photo. 22 sailors perished in the attack.
Bow of the Cassin Young. The Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument are visible in the background.
The bow. The Constitution is visible to the right, and the tower in the distance is the Bunker Hill Monument.
Billboard on building in shipyard. Text says "Ouch! It shouldn't happen to a dog: Wear Safety Shoes: Visit the Safety Shoe Store" and shows a sailor holding his foot, in pain.
Leaving the Young, this creative advertisement from yesteryear caught my eye. “Dog” in this sign refers to a “sea dog” which is slang for a “sailor.”
The USS Constitution in dry dock.
Currently in dry dock for more repairs, the Constitution is still open to visitors. A word of warning: visitors age 18 and older must show government-issued photo ID.
Main deck of the USS Constitution.
All aboard! I’m standing on a ship that’s almost as old as this country itself.
Foreward view of ship, toward bowsprit.
Looking forward, at the bow sprit. Look how thick the ropes are- handling the sails on this ship would be a workout for even the most fit among us.
Gun deck of the USS Constitution.
Heading below to the gun deck of the USS Constitution. The ship’s 52 guns would have been stored on this deck, and during battle would fire through openings in the side of the ship.
Munitions fired by Constitution's guns on a table on the gun deck.
This display on the gun deck showed the different types of munitions fired by the ship’s cannons. The ship did not fire only cannon balls. For instance, the object on the right that looks like a dumbbell from your local gym is called a “bar shot.” It was designed to destroy the sails and masts of enemy ships.
Plaque with names of all commanders of USS Constitution.
On the gun deck is also this list of every commander of the USS Constitution since 1797. I would imagine that having your name added to this plaque would be a lifetime achievement.
The ship's wheel.
The wheel of the USS Constitution. Owing to its design, it is referred to as a “double wheel.”
Ship's bell, attached to one of the masts.
Attached to one of the main masts is the ship’s bell. The bell was used to announce the time to the ship’s crew. For instance, ringing the bell twice, pausing, then ringing again would announce that it is 5:30 am.

Not far away, a granite tower rises high above the surrounding buildings. The Bunker Hill Monument commemorates the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. The British Army was besieging Boston, and to prevent the British from sending reinforcements from ships in the Harbor, colonial forces secretly occupied Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill during the night of June 16th. Colonial forces held off the British and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers for much of the day as the British Army attempted to retake the hills. The colonists eventually lost, however, when they ran out of ammunition. Despite losing the battle, the colonists were heartened by the knowledge that they had the ability to stand up to the mightiest army in the world at that time. Between 1825 and 1843, a granite tower was built on Breed’s Hill to commemorate the battle. The 221-foot tall tower is overseen by the National Park Service and is open to members of the public who wish to climb to the top.

Memorial for Civil War dead in a public square in Charlestown.
As I walked through Charlestown toward Bunker Hill Monument, I came across this public square honoring the city’s soldiers who perished in the Civil War.
Bunker Hill Monument, with a statue in the foreground.
Bunker Hill Monument on Breed’s Hill, where most of the fighting occurred. Despite this, the battle is known as “Bunker Hill.”
Sign in front of the monument, commemorating the battle.
British forces stormed up this very hill to attack the colonists. Tradition holds that William Prescott, a colonel in the Colonial Army, told his soldiers: “Do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”
Base of Bunker Hill Monument and the Lodge.
The building at the base of the monument is a Masonic Lodge, built to honor Dr. Joseph Warren, a Major General in the colonial army who died in the battle. A longtime member of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, the building was built in honor of Dr. Warren by his fellow Freemasons.
View toward the top of the monument, looking straight up.
“It’s a long way to the top (if you wanna rock n roll).” The rock group AC/DC was right. And it was at this point that my fear of heights decided to return. “Umm… is this wise?” I muttered to myself.
Stairs inside the monument. There is a number 10 on one of the stairs.
294 steps to the top! Every so often, the stairs are numbered to let you know your progress. Once I hit number “150” I stopped counting. In case you are wondering, there is no elevator.
Looking up the central shaft to the top of the monument.
So tall is the monument that the top disappears into darkness.
View from the top of the monument, looking northward.
Finally at the top, after 294 steps! This view is facing north.
View of Boston skyline from the top of Bunker Hill Monument.
The view truly was spectacular. This is facing west. The Boston skyline is in the distance.
Map of the freedom trail on a post, with the Bunker Hill Monument in the background.
After heading back down, I spotted this map of the Freedom Trail in front of the monument. I first walked the Freedom Trail with my Mom when I was a high school senior and was visiting potential colleges. Today’s adventure motivated me to do that walking tour again, and I think it will make a great post. Stay tuned!
2012 Honda Accord in foreground, Bunker Hill Monument in background.
By the time I got back to my car, my legs felt like jello. Climbing 294 steps up and down was a pretty good workout!

I arrived back home exhausted but very happy with my journey. Founded in 1630, the city of Boston is full of history, and today’s trip is further evidence of that. There is so much to see and do! If you are in Boston, take a trip to Charlestown to visit the Boston Navy Yard. The USS Constitution Museum is a great place to learn about America’s most famous warship. The USS Constitution is available to visit, along with the USS Cassin Young in the harbor. And the Bunker Hill Monument is only a few blocks away. The museums and ships are all open daily from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm. Best of all, everything is free (although donations are accepted)! Thank for coming along on today’s adventure!

‘Til next time.

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Old Ironsides.

  1. 294 steps! I guess you got your cardio in for the day. One of the coolest things in here was the list of all the commanders since the 1700s. My math nerdiness crept in and I started wanting to calculate the average tenure of each (a few years, it looks like?). Using that figure we could estimate when they will run out of space on that board. Haha. Great post! So much awesome history out there!

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    1. I think I got my cardio for today, tomorrow, and the day after that!

      Glad you enjoyed the post. I thought the same thing about the list of commanders. For the last half century, at least, it looks like the tenure for commanding the ship is about two years. So they’ll need another plaque in maybe 12 years?

      Like

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