Last updated: November 30, 2023
Historical/Interpretive Information/Exhibits, Information - Ranger/Staff Member Present, Restroom - Accessible, Water - Bottle-Filling Station
Known also as the Boston Naval Shipyard and the Boston Navy Yard, the Charlestown Navy Yard was a shipyard for the U.S. Navy for 174 years.
Long before the United States established the Charlestown Navy Yard, the tidal flats of this area provided seasonal sustenance to local indigenous communities for thousands of years. These communities, whose descendants are the Massachusett, called the land Mishawum or "Great Springs." These flats also became a landing for British infantry transports in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.
In 1800, the U.S. Navy established the Charlestown Navy Yard as one of the nation's first six navy yards. Over time, the Navy Yard grew to cover nearly 130 acres with over a hundred buildings, three dry docks, numerous piers, its own railway, and more. In 1974, the federal government closed the Navy Yard and set aside 30 acres of it as a national historic site; the remaining acreage became privately owned.
Thousands of workers in the Charlestown Navy Yard built over 200 ships and repaired thousands more over its 174-year history. Dry Dock 1 helped make this work possible. Built in 1833, and one of the first in the country, it provided a dry area to build and repair ships. The building that now houses the USS Constitution Museum once contained huge steam-powered pumps that moved seawater in and out of the granite Dry Dock. Today, workers still use Dry Dock 1 to repair the USS Constitution and the USS Cassin Young.
Two other outstanding features of the Charlestown Navy Yard are the Ropewalk and the Chain Forge buildings. Workers in the Ropewalk made all the rope needed by the U.S. Navy; they could make fiber or metal rope the length of the Ropewalk, or about four football fields long. Ironworkers in the Chain Forge made links of anchor chain for ships, using a unique process called Die-Lock. This process made links used for anchor chains incredibly strong. The Ropewalk and the Chain Forge buildings are repurposed now and privately owned.
The most productive years of the Charlestown Navy Yard were during war time, particularly World War II. Over half the ships workers ever built in the yard were built during this war when the Yard had over 50,000 employees. During this time of crisis, the Navy Yard opened its doors to women and people of color. For the first time, the opportunity to make livable wages was available to thousands of people. While these workers provided critical labor and many excelled in their positions, some experienced racism, sexual harassment, and discrimination. It was the job of the U.S. Naval officers who ran the Yard to resolve these problems as well as issues involving wages, working hours, conditions, and apprenticeship programs.
The Navy Yard was like any other industrial plant and it had a mostly civilian workforce. To these workers, the Yard was a workplace that they commuted to, but for Naval personnel, the Yard was the source of their everyday needs such as food, shelter, medical care, recreation and more.
The residential areas of the Navy Yard include some of the oldest structures in the Yard. The Officers' Quarters, the Commandant's House, and the Marine Barracks seem untouched by time. These buildings now provide housing and office space for National Park Service employees.
The USS Cassin Young, part of the National Parks of Boston since 1980, brings back memories of World War II and the Cold War to the Charlestown Navy Yard. Although workers in the Charlestown Navy Yard made destroyers, they did not build the Cassin Young. However, these workers developed sonar technology which was installed in the USS Cassin Young during the Cold War.
In 1934, the U.S. Navy made the Charlestown Navy Yard the permanent home for the USS Constitution. This 54-gun frigate has long been associated with the Navy Yard; Edmund Hartt built the USS Constitution nearby in 1797. The USS Constitution Museum has been a partner to the ship since 1972.
Many U.S. Navy ships and Naval personnel have left the Yard to protect and supply U.S. interests around the globe. From the Charlestown Navy Yard, the USS Jamestown delivered food to the people of Ireland during the Great Famine in 1847 and Admiral Richard Byrd's Antarctica scientific expedition sailed from the Yard in 1933.
Many sitting U.S. Presidents and Secretaries of the Navy have visited the Charlestown Navy Yard including one person who held both positions over his long public career, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
From the age of sail to the age of steel, tens of thousands of civilian workers and U.S. Naval personnel in the Charlestown Navy Yard kept the Navy supplied with ships and equipment for 174 years. By preserving a portion of the Charlestown Navy Yard, the National Park Service memorializes their contributions. Some of this story is told in the exhibit, “Serving the Naval Fleet” in the Charlestown Navy Yard Visitor Center in Building 5.
- Akers, Regina T. "African Americans in General Service, 1942." Naval History and Heritage Command. March 23, 2017. https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-ii/1942/manning-the-us-navy/african-americans-in-general-service--1942.html.
- Bearss, Edwin C.. Historic Resource Study: Charlestown Navy Yard, 1800-1842, Volume I and Volume II. Boston, Massachusetts: Boston National Historical Park, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, October, 1984.
- Bearss, Edwin C. and Frederick R. Black. The Charlestown Navy Yard 1842-1890. Boston, Massachusetts: Boston National Historical Park, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, July 1993.
- Black, Frederick R.. Charlestown Navy Yard: 1890-1973, Volume I and Volume II. Boston, Massachusetts: Division of Cultural Resources, Boston National Historical Park, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1988.
- "Byrd Ship Sails for Antarctica: Harbor Craft Bid Adieu to Departing ..." Daily Boston Globe, October 12, 1933, 18.
- Carlson, Stephen P.. Charlestown Navy Yard Historic Resource Study, Vol 1-3. Boston, MA: Division of Cultural Resources, Boston National Historical Park, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2010.
- "On March 28, 1847, USS Jamestown Leaves Charlestown Navy Yard on Humanitarian Mission to Help Ireland." Irish Boston History & Heritage. March 28, 2020. https://irishboston.blogspot.com/2020/03/on-march-28-1847-uss-jamestown-leaves.html.
- "Transformed Land in Charlestown." Signs By Friends of the Boston Harborwalk. Accessed August, 2021. https://boshw.us/sign/transformed-land/?lang=english.