Last updated: January 14, 2022
The Charlestown Navy Yard Ropewalk is an extraordinary granite building along the northern boundary of the Charlestown Navy Yard. Here, ropemakers manufactured all the rope needed by the US Navy for nearly 120 years.
Since its establishment in 1794, the US Navy purchased rope from private American ropemakers. The Navy became concerned about the quality and cost of rope from private firms and decided to make its own rope. In 1833, the Navy persuaded the US Congress on the practicality of a single ropewalk supplying all the Navy’s rope. A ship of sail at this time, such as the USS Constitution, needed more than 40 miles of rope.
While people have made rope to help sail ships since the days of early Egypt and China, in the mid-1600s, ropemakers in the American colonies created outdoor spaces on straight and level ground that they called ropewalks.
The length of a ropewalk determined the longest rope that could be made in it. Workers walked the length of a ropewalk as they twisted plant fibers into rope by hand. By the time the Navy decided to make its own rope, ropewalks were enclosed buildings, and steam engines mechanized many ropemaking tasks.
The Navy asked architect Alexander Parris and machinist Daniel Treadwell to design and outfit the Charlestown Navy Yard Ropewalk. Parris was already employed by the Navy, starting in 1825. During twenty years of Navy service, Parris supervised the construction of seven granite structures in the Charlestown Navy Yard. Treadwell was a well-known builder of ropemaking machines.
Based on their plans, the US Navy constructed the Ropewalk building: a quarter-mile long, one-and-two story granite building with a slate roof. The length of the Ropewalk equaled the height of the Empire State Building.
The Ropewalk is 45 feet wide with walls that are two-feet thick. The thick walls made this Greek-Revival structure both formidable and fireproof. Similar to Dry Dock 1 and the Bunker Hill Monument, builders transported granite for the Ropewalk from a nearby Quincy quarry. After two years of construction, the Ropewalk opened in 1837.
The Charlestown Navy Yard Ropewalk made rope mostly from two plants, manila and hemp. Manila, a plant from the Philippines, was naturally water-resistant. On the other hand, workers had to coat the more widely-grown hemp with tar in the Tar House adjacent to the Ropewalk to waterproof the hemp.
The Charlestown Navy Yard Ropewalk conducted every phase of the ropemaking process starting with the plant fibers. On the second floor of the Ropewalk, workers spun plant fibers into ribbon-like lengths called slivers. Machines twisted these slivers into yarn and then wound the yarn onto spools, or bobbins.
Workers brought these bobbins of yarn to the first floor and placed them on an upright rack at one end of the Ropewalk. Then, workers tied together yarns from multiple bobbins to a twisting device on a moveable cart. As this cart moved on a track down the length of the Ropewalk, it pulled the yarns from the bobbins and twisted the yarns into a single strand. Here number of yarns determined the thickness of the strand. A similar process twisted strands into a finished rope (see photo gallery below).
A rope's strength comes from the multiple and opposite twisting of its components: ropemakers twisted slivers clockwise to form yarns, then twisted yarns counter-clockwise to form strands. Finally, three strands were twisted together clockwise to form a typical rope. This twisting also prevented the rope from unravelling.
The Ropewalk experienced its highest level of productivity during World War II (WWII). In 1942, the workers in the Ropewalk made 20 million pounds of rope. Being highly mechanized, the Ropewalk had a small fraction of the overall Yard employees.
As Navy Yard workers entered the armed forces in WWII, the Navy hired women to take their place in the Charlestown Navy Yard. While women became 17% of the Yard’s workforce, the proportion of women ropemakers was much higher (44%).
The Navy Yard Ropewalk made rope for the US Navy from 1837 to 1971. Over the years, the Navy expanded the Ropewalk, replaced obsolete machines, and converted from steam engines to electric motors to operate ropemaking machines.
After 1955, the Ropewalk no longer made all the rope for the US Navy. The Navy changed the mission of the Ropewalk to research and manufacture nylon rope, which had begun replacing plant fibers in ropemaking. All ropemaking activities ended in 1971 when the Navy closed the Ropewalk. The entire Charlestown Navy Yard, by then called the Boston Naval Shipyard, closed three years later. At this time, private firms began to supply the rope needs of the US Navy.
When in operation, the Ropewalk was a place of noisy and difficult work, but people saw its whimsical side as well. Popular writer Henry W. Longfellow captured this in his poem "The Ropewalk" in 1854:
In that building, long and low,
With its windows all a-row,
Like the port-holes of a hulk,
Human spiders spin and spin…
Later in the 1890s, the Yard managers built a tree-lined walkway along the southern length of the Ropewalk; it became known as "Flirtation Walk," and it served as a popular promenade.
The US government sold the Ropewalk building to a private company that converted it into residential housing in 2021. The National Park Service will manage a public exhibit on the history of the Charlestown Navy Yard Ropewalk within this housing complex. Some of the Ropewalk story is on display at the Charlestown Navy Yard Visitor Center in an exhibit called "Serving the Naval Fleet."
Learn more...Charlestown Navy Yard: Ropewalk
- 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, 1984.
- "The Bitter End: A Farewell Salute to the Boston Naval Shipyard Ropewalk." Boston Naval Shipyard News, December 24, 1971.
- 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.
- Carr, Revell J. "Ropemaking at Mystic." The Log of Mystic Seaport Vol 27, no. 3. (1975).
- Charlestown Ropewalk. National Association of Manufacturers. From YouTube, posted by "Dan Gagnon," December 7, 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55cQ68N79y0&t=39s.
- Cosgriff, Eileen. "The Ropewalk Building: A Case Study in Historic Preservation." Master's thesis. Harvard Extension School, 2018. https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/37365419.
- Davis, Helen W., Edward M. Hatch, and David G. Wright. "Alexander Parris: Innovator in Naval Facility Architecture." The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology Vol 2, no. 1 (1976): 3-22.
- Desy, Margherita, M. and Phaedra Scott. "Ropemakers for the Navy: Part I and II." USS Constitution Museum, October 6, 2016. https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/2016/10/06/ropemakers-navy-part/.
- Larson, Leslie. The Ropewalk at Charlestown Navy Yard: A History and Reuse Plan. Boston: Boston Redevelopment Authority, 1987. https://archive.org/details/ropewalkatcharle00lesl/page/n63/mode/2up.
- Plymouth Cordage Company. The Story of Rope; The History and the Modern Development of Rope-Making. North Plymouth, Massachusetts: Plymouth Cordage Company, 1916.
- Upson-Walton Company. Something About Rope, an Encyclical to Our Customers. Cleveland: Kessinger Publishing, 1902.