Old Ironsides continues to educate

BOSTON — With 200 years of history stowed within its majestic hull, visiting the USS Constitution is an experience unlike any other.

Permanently locked in the Charlestown Navy Yard, the USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

A symbol of American pride and perseverance, a tour onboard this prominent ship takes visitors closer to a journey that began over two centuries ago.

The USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world (Photo by Christine Dominguez).

The USS Constitution was commissioned on Oct. 21, 1797— just three years after its construction began. The ship was ordered for assembly the same year that the U.S. Navy was established and was needed to out-sail all potential enemies at sea protecting American merchants and their valuable cargo.

The Constitution was built from material gathered across the eastern seaboard. The wood came from states like Georgia, Maine and Rhode Island; the keel and cannon balls from New Jersey; sails, gun carriages, and anchors from Massachusetts; and the spikes and copper sheathing were provided by Paul Revere. Her final cost was $302,718.

Her defining moment occurred during the War of 1812. Unwilling to go down, the Constitution defied the strong British ships as they continuously targeted against her. The enemy’s fire bounced right off her “armor,” therefore earning the nickname, “Old Ironsides,” which is still used today.

A battle ship, a training ship, and now a historic site, “Old Ironsides” has traveled around the world, and has done it all, until her career ended in December 1881. After over a century of being docked, she sailed for the first time on October 1997, during her 200th birthday celebration.

Official tours of the USS Constitution are given by officers of the U.S. Navy (Photo by Christine Dominguez).

Aboard “Old Ironsides,” visitors are guided through the most fascinating decks on the ship. Tours which are run by the U.S. Navy, take visitors around the spar deck (top deck), through the gun deck, and finally the berth deck.

On the top deck, visitors get a glimpse of the magnitude of the some of the guns used during battles. The “carronades” have the capacity of firing a [32-pound solid], and has a kill range of 400 yards.

The tour also allows visitors to walk around the gun deck and berth deck, which are right below the top deck, giving visitors a chance to see and understand what the crew had to endure during long months at sea.

The artifacts are still kept in good condition, such as the vat where the crew had to cook their food and the rows of hammocks where they had to sleep, drawing a vivid picture of life as a sailor.

“I didn’t know sailors had to practically sleep on hammocks during months at a time,” said Laura Baxter, a Maine resident who has visited the ship several times. “Can you imagine what happened to them when the seas were rough and the hammocks swung around?”

Out-of-towner Ray Taylor said that he has more than once reason for visiting “Old Ironsides.”

“I have an interest in military things in general, ships, and history,” he said. “I was here when I was 10 with my Boy Scout troop—and this is where it all started.”

Gunners who manned these cannons could load and fire a shot in two minutes (Photo by Christine Dominguez).

Although already “retired,” “Old Ironsides” is sailed up to Castle Island, located in the Boston Harbor, several times during the year, for the very much anticipated, turnaround cruises. The most anticipated sail, opened to the general public, is “The Fourth of July Turnaround.” Because availability is limited, those who wish to participate must submit an entry form, and names are randomly chosen through a lottery system.

Just across the pier where “Old Ironsides” is docked, visitors can stop at the “USS Constitution Museum.” Housing several exhibitions on two floors, the private non-profit museum welcomes all guests free of charge. Exhibitions such as “ Old Ironsides in War and Peace,” illustrate the ship’s 200-year-old-history through artifacts, and documents.

The museum excels at catering to visitors of all ages, and there is something for everyone to enjoy, whether they’re a history buff or a large family with children of all ages. One of the museum’s newest exhibition is “Sailors Speak: A Sailor’s Life for Me?” opening this month. It provides “hands-on” activities, like “Fire a Cannon” and “Make a Mess,” that are perfect for families to enjoy together.

One of the most interesting exhibitions in the museum is the second-floor workshop, where members of the [Model Shipwright Guild] set up to work on replicas of famous ships. According to Dick Remillard, developer and webmaster of the group’s website, The Guild, which is a separate entity from the USS Constitution Museum [and formed in 1979], strives to promote the art and craft of ship modeling, nautical history, and the education of the public on these subjects.

Sailors aboard the USS Constitution would sleep in hammocks in the lower deck. The low ceiling did not provide much room (Photo by Christine Dominguez).

It is not unusual to find groups of visitors, especially children, crowded around Guild members enthusiastically working on their models. There is usually at least one modeler every morning, except Mondays, until about 2 p.m.

Remillard not only finds great pleasure working on his models, but also enjoys attending Guild meetings at the museum every month, where members are just feet away from the docked ship.

At the end of the day, Remillard and the rest of the members have the opportunity to witness the flag-lowering ceremony.

“For visitors and new members, this can be very exciting the first time, especially at sunset, when the flag is lowered on the ship,” he said. “To herald the flag lowering ceremony, a cannon is fired every evening and if you are not expecting it you may jump right out of your chair.”

The museum is open everyday of the year, except on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., from May 1 through Oct. 15; and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Oct. 16 through April 30.

Visiting “Old Ironsides” is an experience that will give visitors a hands-on look at the rich history of a vessel that has served the nation for over 200 years; the site also sees the most visitors throughout the year. Typically, summer is the busiest month, but during spring and fall, school groups swarm the premises.

Guided-tours of the ship are offered every half hour beginning at 10:30 a.m. and ending at 3:30 p.m., but visitors should be aware that prior to entering the ship, a basic screening process is required.

For those who can’t make the trip to Charlestown, there are other ways to celebrate “Old Ironsides.” In the traveling exhibit, “’Old Ironsides’ Across the Nation,” members of the USS Constitution’s active-duty Navy crew, along with the museum staff, bring the ship’s history with them across the country, complete with replicas of the ship’s gun deck.

Frank Clements puts together a model of the USS Cassin Young inside the USS Constitution Museum while children on a school field trip look on.


If You Go

USS Constitution

  • Admission fee: Free
  • Open: Summer Hours : April 1 to Oct. 31, Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. Winter Hours : Nov. 1 to March 31, Thursday through Sunday 10 a.m.-3:50 p.m.
  • Closures: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, and closed on Mondays year round. During winter hours, the ship is also closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
  • Facilities: Restrooms, benches, brochures and information inside Charlestown Navy Yard Visitor Center.
  • Food: There are no food facilities on site. However, there are several restaurants within walking distance of the site.
  • Transportation: Visitors can follow the Freedom Trail to Charlestown Navy Yard or choose to take a taxi.
The USS Constitution rests at its dock in the Charlestown Navy Yard (Photo by Christine Dominguez).

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