No sailing ship is complete without a suit of sails to spread to the wind. As Constitution neared completion in Edmund Hartt’s Boston shipyard in the summer of 1797, Secretary of War James McHenry prepared a report for Josiah Parker, Head of the House of Representative’s naval committee. In it he wrote, among other things, that the ship’s “sails are preparing.” [1]

For decades, historians have acknowledged Boston sailmaker Benjamin Hale as the man who made Constitution’s first suit of sails.  No one person could sew (by hand) the hundreds and hundreds of yards of canvas needed to make them, but it seems likely Hale at least organized the labor that made it happen (and probably made more than a few stitches himself).  This information comes largely from the reminiscences of Benjamin’s son James W. Hale, who in 1880 wrote:

Everybody must know why the old burial-ground between the Tremont House and Park Street Church is called the “Granary.” But everybody don’t know that in the old Granary building, the first suit of sails for the old frigate “Constitution” was made by my father. Reason—because his sail loft was not large enough to spread the sails in, and Charles Bulfinch, who was his old friend and “Cheerman of the Se-lectmen,” gave him permission to use the Granary building. [2]

A detail of Osgood Carleton’s 1796 map of Boston showing the location of the Granary (the red dot).  The building numbered “2” is the new State House.  The “Monument” is Charles Bulfinch’s Doric column commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill, destroyed when the hill was cut down in the early nineteenth century.  Centry Street is now Park Street.

The “Granary” in question was one of four town-owned properties stretching from Beacon Street to Tremont Street along old Centry Street, now renamed Park Street.  These consisted of an almshouse, a workhouse, and a bridewell (or house of correction).  Built in 1729, and moved down the slope slightly in 1738, the Granary functioned, as its name implies, as a grain storage facility for the town.  Capable of containing 12,000 bushels, it served as insurance in time of scarcity.  The town filled it at harvest time with grain purchased from inland farms, and the needy could buy it for a price only 10 percent over the original cost.[3]

Now, James Hale’s memoir implies that the Granary belonged to the town in 1797.  Documentary evidence suggests otherwise.  On Sept. 30 1798, Boston Navy Agent Henry Jackson (the fellow charged with contracting and paying for all the items needed for the ship) paid himself $329.16 for “rent of building occupied for fitting rigging and making sails, etc.” for Constitution. [4]

How is it that he could receive payment for use of the building if it belonged to the town?  The answer can be found in a convoluted tale of changing land uses and gentrification, stories still familiar to Bostonians today.

In 1795 the town broke ground on the new Bulfinch-designed state house that still graces the summit of Beacon Hill.  As a letter to the Columbian Centinel explained, this called for a rapid redevelopment of the entire neighborhood, including the removal of the poorhouse and workhouse:

The erection of a new State House in the pasture of the late Governor [i.e. John Hancock], while it points to the expediency of removing the poor from the place they now occupy, opens the prospect of a better accommodation, which is truly gratifying to benevolent minds.  The appreciation of the lands on which the Alms-house, Work-house, and Granary stand, will be rapid as the new State House rises from the ground.  The appearance of an elegant building elevated above the beautiful green, the common, will captivate the very eye, while men of calculation will turn their attention to the increased value of every foot of land in its vicinity.  Whether laid out into lots for common dwelling houses, large taverns, or lodging houses, with shops and stores in the lower front, all the land…must in a short time become more valuable than any other of equal extent in Boston. [5]

The town council concurred, and loath to miss an opportunity to make a profit on what was then a pretty dismal stretch of property, it voted to sell the land and buildings at auction.  The money raised was to be used, in part, to pay for a new almshouse in Leverett Street. The advertisements called the tract a “much-admired, elegant and extensive piece of LAND, in Boston,” and so it went under the hammer on November 9, 1795. [6]

The purchaser was none other than Henry Jackson, the newly appointed Navy Agent, who coughed up the princely sum of £12,050 for the land and some of the buildings. [7]  For some unknown reason, the town did not include the Granary building in the sale. It continued to be used as an inspection store for nails and potash through the end of 1795.

In February 1796 the town finally auctioned off the building (80 feet long and 30 feet wide, according to the advertisement). [8]  Henry Jackson snapped it up and in November Jackson’s partner Samuel Clapp used the building as an auction house. [9]  As Jackson and Clapp rented out the upper stories to the federal government in 1797, the partners rented the building’s “large, dry and commodious” cellar. [10]

With Constitution’s sails completed and delivered, the building reverted to more mundane uses.  In May 1798 it was used to display a sort of petting zoo. Mr. Gilbert’s “Collection of Living Animals, harmless and playful” included a baboon, porcupine, bear, “rackoon” and a rabbit, all “very great curiosities.” [11]  In October Henry Jackson auctioned off goods at his store, “formerly the Granary,” among which was 600 pieces English Duck, which very well may have been a remnant of the fabric purchased to finish Constitution’s sails.

The old Granary, now considerably decrepit, was “removed” in 1809 for the new and fashionable Park Street Church, a grand structure still happily presiding over the corner of Park and Tremont Streets.  Removal in this case did not mean total destruction; many of the old oak timbers were carried to Commercial Point in Dorchester, just a few miles away, and used to erect a storehouse. [12] This building stood long enough to be photographed, and it was still around as late as 1873 when it was used as a hotel.  Its ultimate fate is unknown, but the location was cleared long ago for a natural gas tank farm (the fancifully painted one passersby can see from I-93, just south of downtown).  The Granary’s name lives on, at least for tourists on the Freedom Trail, in the adjacent Old Granary Burial Ground.

 

The storehouse at Commercial Point, built from the Granary’s timbers.  Dorchester Historical Society.
-M. Brenckle

[1] Quoted in Tyrone Martin, Creating a Legend (Chapel Hill: Tryon Publishing Co., Inc., 1997), 71.
[2] James W. Hale, Old Town Boston, Early in this Century, by an 1801-er (New York: George F. Nesbitt, & Co, 1880), 37.
[3] Historical Sketch and Matters Appertaining to the Granary Burial Ground (Boston: Municipal Printing Office, 1902),
[4] Documents Accompanying a Message from the President of the United States, with Sundry Statements of Expenditure; Containing Detailed Accounts by Naval Agents (Washington City: Duane, 1803), 25.
[5] Columbian Centinel, Boston, 15 April 1795.
[6] Courier, Boston, 21 Oct. 1795.
[7] Moral and Political Telegraphe, Brookfield, Mass, 18 Nov. 1795.
[8] Columbian Centinel, Boston, 24 Feb. 1796.
[9]Polar Star, Boston, 7 Nov. 1796.
[10] Polar Star, Boston, 1 Feb. 1797.
[11] Massachusetts Mercury, Boston, 11 May 1798.
[12] Samuel Adams Drake, Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1873), 299.

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USS Constitution Museum
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