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Launched in 1797, the USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat. Crisscrossing the globe, this three-masted frigate participated in the Barbary War off the coast of North Africa and sailed the Caribbean in search of pirates. She earned her nom de guerre Old Ironsides during the War of 1812 when enemy cannonballs bounced off her resilient wooden hull. Docked in the Charlestown Navy Yard, the famous ship is a floating museum open to public. It is also a stop on the on the Freedom Trail and the Old Town Trolley.
Named by George Washington in honor of one of the nation’s founding documents, the USS Constitution is one of the six original frigates authorized by the Naval Act of 1794. While six were authorized, only three were completed. The ship was designed by Joshua Humphreys and built by Edmund Hartt’s Boston shipyard. Her hull is a layer of live and white oak. Paul Revere made the ship’s copper fastenings.
The Constitution first saw action during the Quasi-War with France and then off the coast of Africa against the Barbary Pirates. It was during the War of 1812 that her legend was born. In addition to capturing numerous merchant ships, the Constitution defeated five British warships. Her most famous sea battle was against the HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia in August 1812. During the battle, when a British cannonball bounced off the hull, a Constitution crewmember shouted, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron.” As news of the victory spread, the moniker Old Ironsides was born.
After the war, the Constitution would see service with the U.S. Navy’s Mediterranean Squadron, sail around the world in 1843 and conduct anti-slavery operations as part of the African Squadron. She was often the flagship of the assembled naval force. Built at a time when wooden sailing vessel lasted only 10 to 15 years, the Constitution was saved from the scrap yard when public opinion was galvanized to save the ship in 1830 by the publication of the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem “Old Ironsides.” When the Civil War broke out, the Constitution was used as a training ship for the U.S. Naval Academy, which had relocated to Newport, Rhode Island. In 1873, the Navy decided that the ship would once again be overhauled to take part in the country’s centennial celebration. Although still in dry dock during the celebration, the Constitution would carry valuable artwork to France for the Paris Exhibition of 1878. She was deemed unfit for service three years later.
In 1896, Old Ironsides was towed to the Charlestown Navy Yard for her centennial celebration. Over the course of the next several years, different proposals were discussed, including returning the ship to active service, designating her as a museum and using the ship for target practice. When news of the last suggestion spread, a storm of public protest forced Congress to restore the ship. She began to serve as a museum ship in 1907. Sponsored by the Elks Lodge, a public campaign was initiated that encouraged schoolchildren to donate pennies to help refurbish the ship in 1925. The campaign raised more than $600,000. Congress appropriated the rest of the money needed to save the historic vessel.
To ensure proper maintenance, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Navy to place the Constitution on permanent commissioned status in 1940. The ship has undergone several restorations since then, including one in 1995 that enabled her to sail under wind power for her bicentennial celebration. It was the first time in over 100 years that the legendary ship traveled under sail. After another penny donation campaign, schoolchildren once again raised funds for the sails required to outfit the Constitution in battle configuration. In 2003, she was used as the model for the fictional French Frigate Acheron in the movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” With the retirement of the USS Simpson in 2015, Old Ironsides became the only U.S. Navy ship still in service that has sunk an enemy warship.
The Constitution is berthed at Pier One in the Charlestown Navy Yard. During public tours led by her active duty crew, visitors can take photos at the wheel. Old Ironsides makes one “turnaround cruise” each year. The ship is towed into Boston Harbor where she performs underway demonstrations and fires a gun salute. She is then reberthed in the opposite direction to ensure that the ship weathers evenly. A lottery is used to pick individuals who will be allowed to sail on the vessel during the cruise.
Housed in a historic Navy Yard Building 22 just a few yards away from the legendary sailing ship, the USS Constitution Museum brings history to life. It features a variety of interactive exhibits that chronicle the 200-year career of this iconic warship. The displays include how the ship was built as well as how sailors lived, worked and ate while at sea. Building 22 was known as the “Engine House.” It formerly contained the steam-powered pumps that were used to drain the historic nearby Dry Dock 1. Opening in 1833, it is the second-oldest dry dock in the country.
Named for Captain Cassin Young who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Cassin Young (DD – 793) is docked adjacent to Old Ironsides. Built in 1943, she was. The ship served during World War II and the Korean War. The destroyer saw action off Tinian, the island the Enola Gay took off from to drop the first atomic bomb, as well as Okinawa and Iwo Jima. One of only four Fletcher-class destroyers still afloat, she was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
While Boston attracts visitors year-round, the most popular times are from April to October. The warm weather brings numerous tourists as well as students on field trips to the city. Pack cold weather gear if you plan to travel to Boston in the off-season because winter weather can bring snow and temperatures that reach below freezing.
The museum and ship are operated separately. You will pass through a security checkpoint before boarding the warship. Visitors over 18 must show a valid government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license or passport. Avoid carrying objects that could set off the metal detector. You may only access the vessel during a guided tour. The ship is closed on Mondays and major holidays.
You can take the subway, known locally as the “T,” to reach the Charlestown Navy Yard. The closest stops are Bunker Hill Community College on the Orange Line and North Station on the Green Line. Rather than travel underground and miss many of Boston’s historic attractions, ride the Old Town Trolley. Let America’s Storyteller entertain you with a unique and informative narration about many of the city’s historic landmarks while you travel to the USS Constitution. Hop off the trolley and tour the museum ship at your own pace. When you are ready, you can climb aboard the next passing trolley. Because Old Town Trolley has the largest fleet in the “Cradle of Liberty,” a trolley comes by every few minutes. The trolley also eliminates the hassles of trying to navigate Boston’s crowded streets and finding a place to park.
A short distance from the Navy Yard, Bunker Hill Community College was featured in the hit movie “Good Will Hunting.” It was the school where the Robin Williams’ character Dr. Sean Maguire taught psychology. There are several other attractions within a short distance of Old Ironsides.
Established in 1780, Warren Tavern is the oldest pub in Massachusetts. Many Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere, frequented this historic watering hole. It was one of the first structures built after the British sacked Charlestown following the Battle of Bunker Hill. Serving a diverse menu, the tavern is open to the public.
Completed in 1843, the Bunker Hill Monument and Museum sits atop the site occupied by the American defense line during the famous 1775 engagement. The funds necessary to finish the obelisk were acquired with the help of Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The museum relates the story of the battle and the history of the monument. An exhibit lodge contains a diorama of the battle and a statue dedicated to the fallen patriot Dr. Joseph Warren who sent Paul Revere and William Dawes on their legendary midnight ride.
The historic St. Mary’s Church is the work of the celebrated Irish-American architect Patrick Keely. The cornerstone was laid in 1887. The house of worship features ornate stained glass windows by Franz Mayer and Company as well as a hammerbeam oak ceiling with angelic figures carved by the architect. The original organ and the brass light fixtures date from the early 1890s.
Situated at the intersection of North Washington and Chelsea streets, City Square adorns the spot where Charlestown was first founded. The park contains an outline of the foundation of the home built by John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts. The recreation area also includes a fountain and a World War II memorial along with benches, a range of plantings and bronze sculptural design elements. The park hosts outdoor movies during the summer.