As you visit USS Constitution undergoing renovations in its dry dock, take time to reflect on how visitors would have different experiences visiting the ship in the Navy Yard over its long history.
In the early days, especially during the War of 1812, visitors flocked to visit the famous warship whenever it dropped anchor after a cruise. The Reverend William Bentley paid a visit while the ship lay in Salem Harbor in 1814, writing that he was “handsomely received by Captain C. Stewart,” and given a tour of the entire ship. Not all visitors were so nicely accommodated. According to Marine Fifer Thomas Byron, in 1813 “a green looking countryman came alongside the ship in a shore boat to look at the ship and having the whip on the main yard to whip in water one of the larks went down in the boat and commenced talking with the man while another slipped the rope under his arms no sooner done than up he went crying a Turkey a Turkey, this was sport for the officers. They lowered him down on deck and showed him the Ship he was a man over six foot high with broad brim hat, a long surtout and cane and cut a great figure in the air.”
At the time of the ship’s 100th birthday in October 1897 it was first opened for extensive public visitation; the side rails on the ship had to be cut to accommodate a gangway for the public; 900 sailors joined in a parade to the Navy Yard for the celebration.1
In October 1899 you might have found yourself in a time-warp, for alongside “Old Ironsides” loomed a true ironsides, the USS Olympia. You now saw for yourself that the Age of Sail had truly passed. Thousands of people came to the Navy Yard to witness this spectacle of seeing the two ships together.2
In October 1929 you had a busy day for yourself alongside 6,000 other visitors in the Navy Yard when 15 active US Navy ships, including 4 destroyers and “Old Ironsides” were open to visitors for Navy Day. The highlight of the day was the installation of a new 32 foot bowsprit on the nose of “Old Ironsides,” undergoing an extensive renovation.3
One of the grandest visits in the early days came in 1934 when the USS Constitution returned to Boston after its 23,000-mile National Cruise; you would have been squeezed in with over 40,000 other visitors to the Navy Yard; a German cruiser, the Karlsruhe, the first German ship in Boston in 26 years added to the allure. About 10,000 people actually got to board “Old Ironsides” that day. But not to worry, the ship would now have regular visiting times for the public “by all who wish, on any day” it was declared.4
It would be hard to top that day in July 1976 even if you did have to compete with 650,000 other people who came to Boston to witness a 6-mile, 68-ship parade in Boston Harbor led by “Old Ironsides” herself, part of the American Bicentennial. You might even have run into an unusual visitor to the ship; Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain visited as well.5
No visit can compete for sentimental value with the one in July 1997 when the ship marked its 200th birthday. On that day, off the coast of Marblehead. Massachusetts, “Old Ironsides” unfurled its sails for the first time in 116 years and sailed under her own power. What a visit to treasure, the ship’s former glory come to life.
Today, you may be constrained in your visit because of ongoing renovations (2015-2017), but take heart; while the ship is now open for regular visitation, plan to visit again in 2017 when you’ll witness USS Constitution in the best shape she’s been in for 220 years; yours will become another of the unique visits that the ship has offered here in the Navy Yard over time.
1 Boston Globe Oct 20 1897
2 Boston Globe Oct 17, 1899
3 Boston Globe Oct 26, 29 1929
4 Boston Globe May 14, 1934, Boston Globe June 9,1934
5 Boston Globe July 11, 1976
Park Guide, Boston National Historical Park
Bill Parrow is a guest blog contributor and a park guide with the Boston National Historical Park.