Join us on July 23, as we celebrate “Old Ironsides’” much-anticipated return to the water! On that night, Dry Dock 1 will be filled and USS Constitution will float into Boston Harbor after a two year restoration.

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There is a naval phrase that a person makes officer by “coming up through the hawse hole (or pipe)”. Meaning, that person rose through the ranks from the lowest rating as an enlisted individual to that of a commissioned officer.


Why discuss hawse holes? During USS Constitution‘s 2015-2017 dry docking and restoration, the cast iron hawse pipes from her bows were removed so that new hull planking could be installed. Let’s review a bit of history concerning ships’ hawse holes before we look at the work of the restoration.


“HAWSE-Holes, are certain cylindrical holes cut through the bows of a ship on each side of the stem, through which the cables pass in order to be drawn into, or let out of the vessel, as occasion requires.” [Falconer’s New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, 1815 ed.]

Joshua Humphreys drew the hawse holes on his “Sheer, Half-breadth and Body Plan” for the three 44-gun frigates (see detail below). The hawse holes were cut through the outside planking, the ship’s vertical live oak frames, and through the inner hull planking. It appears that the holes were to be bolstered with extra planking to lend support to the holes.

Detail of the “Sheer, Half Breadth and Body Plan” after Joshua Humphreys’ 1794 design. This plan depicts the structure of the three 44-gun frigates, United States, Constitution, and President. Note the pair of hawse holes in the starboard bow, where the trailboard area comes to an end. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
According to The Shipbuilder’s Repository; or, a Treatise on Marine Architecture, published in London in 1788, hawse holes were to be lined with lead of one inch to one and one-half inches in thickness, depending upon the size of the vessel. Peter Goodwin, former curator of HMS Victory in Great Britain, provides the following description of how a ship’s hawse holes would be lined to protect both the ship’s structure and the hemp anchor cable:

“A series of oak segments were placed around the internal periphery of the hole, in ‘barrel stave’ fashion. Between eight and twelve segments were used, depending on the size of the hole. This was then lined with either lead or heavy gauge copper…In some cases, it seems that the practice was to have the hole sheathed in lead only.” [The Construction and Fitting of the English Man of War, 1650-1850, Peter Goodwin, 179]

Whether or not Constitution‘s hawse holes were lined with lead in her early years is unknown, but it is likely that some type of protective lining was applied to the holes.

Detail of Antoine Roux’s watercolor of USS President, 1802. Roux clearly denoted the two hemp anchor cables of President; one cable leads aft to a stowed anchor, the other leads forward to an anchor set on the bottom of the harbor. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Hawse holes, while necessary and important elements that allowed a ship to anchor safely when needed, were, after all, fairly large holes in the bow. They, could, in heavy weather, admit large quantities of water into a vessel. To prevent this, “hawse bags” and “hawse plugs” were employed. The former were bags of oakum that were used to stop up hawse holes, and the latter were literally plugs driven into the holes to prevent water from flooding the gun deck. The hawse bags and plugs sometimes failed, as Constitution‘s Acting Chaplain Assheton Humphreys noted in his journal,

“The only circumstances worth noting [while sailing toward Madeira in early 1815] were a heavy gale which we encountered…which kicking up a terrible sea at midnight stove in the hawse plugs, and deluged the gun deck. In a few moments nothing was to be heard but the washing of a great body of water fore and aft on the gun deck and as my cot…was slung to the beams of that deck…I was soon sensible that something novel was the matter, and I was soon confirmed in my belief by hearing the Carpenter [George J. Whittemore] sing out the ship was foundering and call upon the Boatswain to turn out all hands.

No water yet had found its way into the Ward Room and though a little frightened I concluded to remain where I was, in which I was further encouraged by Capt. Henderson [of the Marines], who having been waked by the noise, ejected his head with night cap on and eyes half opened thro the door of his stateroom & enquired what was the matter, upon being told, he coolly observed there was no water here [in the Ward Room on the berth deck], and then turned in, an example I speedily followed, concluding that if he took it so easily, there was no reason why I should not. In a short time a little order was established, and by cutting down the hammocks of the men birthed [sic] forward and jamming them in the hawse holes further ingress to the water was denied, and egress obtained for that already shipped by manning the pumps and drawing the scupper plugs. ‘Tis certain a large body of water, a weight of many tons, found its way into the ship.” [The USS Constitution’s Finest Fight, 1815: The Journal of Acting Chaplain Assheton Humphreys, US Navy, edited by Tyrone G. Martin, 14-15.]

The Royal Navy began to use “chain cable”, i.e. cast metal chain, for its anchors as early as 1817. The first reference of “chain cable” on Constitution is noted in an 1821 letter from Captain John Rodgers to Commandant Isaac Hull. Yet, the same letter also notes that the ship was being outfitted with 21″ anchor cables, suggesting that the transition from natural fiber hemp cables to chain was a slow transition.

Detail of “U.S. Ship CONSTITUTION 1824” by Nicholas Cammillieri, 1824. The artist clearly shows natural rope anchor cable on Constitution’s bow. [USS Constitution Museum Collection]
Even into the 1830s, “Old Ironsides” appears to have still been using natural fiber cable. In December, 1834, the ship carried three 22 1/2 inch hemp cables and, in March of 1835, she received one 120-fathom 22-inch hemp cable and one 150-fathom two-inch chain. By the ship’s World Cruise of 1844-1846, it appears she was using chain cable exclusively, for Lieutenant John B. Dale noted in his journal on May 30, 1844, that “the anchors…[were] hoisted upon the gunwale, [and] the chain cables unbent and paid below…” [Lieutenant John B. Dale Journal, New England Historic and Genealogical Society]


With the advent of the chain cables, later to be referred to only as “chain” or “anchor chain” to denote it from other chain used aboard ship, hawse holes required more substantial linings than just lead sheathing. Cast iron pipes were fitted into vessels’ hawse holes. As the 19th century progressed, hawse “holes” slowly came to be known only as hawse “pipes”, showing the material transition of this one aspect of a vessel’s construction.


USS Constitution has hawse pipes in her bows today that are of indeterminate age. They are cast from grey iron and only one of the four pipes carries a marking (“PF” scratched into the surface of one of the port bow pipes). “Old Ironsides'” hawse pipes could be as old as the 1872-1877 rebuild in Philadelphia, where the ship’s hull was stripped to the waterline so that all exterior planking could be replaced.

Detail of a c.1875 photograph of USS Constitution at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Note the a metal, possibly lead, lining that has been bent around the bottom of the inner port hawse hole. The current cast iron hawse pipes could date from this rebuilding period. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Constitution‘s bow was not extensively rebuilt again until the significant 1927-1931 restoration. Therefore, it is highly probable that the cast iron hawse pipes placed in the bow in the 1870s rebuild remained there through the “cosmetic” restoration of 1906-1907 (see the c.1910 photograph below, showing the hawse pipes and hawse plugs).

Photograph of USS Constitution’s bow, c. 1910 with hawse pipes, anchor cable (for display purposes only) and mooring chains. [Courtesy USS Constitution Museum Collection]

In the 1927-1931 restoration, 85 percent of Constitution was completely rebuilt and replaced. Many sections of the ship were rotten and the bow area was no exception.

This May 17, 1927 photograph shows the cast iron hawse pipes, which were removed in the 1927-1931 restoration and then re-installed after the bow was completely rebuilt. Note the drooping of Constitution’s bow, showing that she had a drastic loss of sheer or sweep upwards to her shape. [Courtesy USS Constitution Museum Collection]

Periodic replacement of bow planking would take place through the middle decades of the 20th century. In 1968, both interior and exterior bow planking was rebuilt, but there is no direct indication that the hawse pipes, which each weigh nearly 1,000 pounds, were removed. In 1971, a scale drawing was made of one of the pipes, the first such drawing to represent the dimensions of the pieces (see below).

“Boston Naval Shipyard 12/15/71/ Frigate Constitution Hawse Pipe”. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

The photograph below, taken on November 11, 1974, after Constitution had been refloated from Dry Dock 1 in the Charlestown Navy Yard, shows what appears to be a Navy Yard worker (in the hard hat with number “63”) installing an inner flange on the port hawse pipes. The cast iron hawse pipes are, essentially, sleeves that fit into the holes cut through the three layers of oak that make up Constitution‘s hull structure. The outboard flange is cast to the body of the hawse pipe. However, there is no inboard flange cast to the pipe body, which may be one reason the 1971 drawing was made. At that time, in the early 1970s, it may have been determined that the hawse pipes needed to have inner flanges that could be through-bolted to the outer flange, thereby locking the hawse pipe securely into the ship’s bow.

Charlestown Navy Yard workers on USS Constitution’s gun deck, November 11, 1974. The worker in the hard hat may be setting an inner hawse pipe flange in place. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

One of the challenges of the 2015-2017 restoration was to remove the four hawse pipes, replace the white oak hull planking in the bows, and then re-intall the pipes. The photograph below shows some of the new hull planking on the starboard bow, attached to the 1927 restoration live oak framing.


New laminated white oak planking was installed on USS Constitution’s bow in 2015 and 2016. Note the rough holes cut in the planking to match the hawse holes cut into the 1927 restoration framing.  [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

When the four hawse pipes were removed from Constitution‘s bow during the 2015-2017 restoration, it was discovered that mid-to-late 20th century bolts were not secure in the interior and exterior hawse pipe flanges. Steve Nichols, Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston shipsmith, with the assistance of NHHC ship restorer John Hinckley, devised a temporary armature for the interior of each hawse pipe. The armature (see photo below) extended the shape and length of the pipe. This allowed the interior flange to be temporarily mounted in such a way that the straight, 90 degree holes drilled in the interior flange could be lined up with the angled holes in the exterior flange.


A port hawse pipe with interior flange temporarily held in place by the iron bar armature inside the barrel of the pipe. Temporary threaded rods have been run from the exterior flange through the interior flange. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Each new bolt for the hawse pipes had to be heated in the forge and then fitted into its respective hole in the exterior flange. The outer head of each bolt was then pounded to a custom fit for that hole and that portion of the exterior flange (see photo below).


Steve Nichols, NHHC Detachment Boston shipsmith, peens over the hot iron head of the new hawse pipe bolt, custom-fitting the bolt to that hole in the pipe flange. John Hinckley, NHHC Detachment Boston ship restorer (background), assists by making certain the bolt has been properly fitted through its hole in the interior flange. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

The photograph below shows the dramatically different angles between the exterior flange (to the right) and the interior flange (to the left). It is the temporary armature inside the pipe that is supporting the interior flange so that the temporary threaded rods could be inserted and establish the correct alignment between the two flanges.


A port hawse pipe with temporary threaded rods used to line up the interior flange (painted grey) and exterior flange. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
Once the new bolts were made for the hawse pipes, each pipe was hoisted out to Constitution by crane. They were installed one at a time and fitted carefully into the hawse holes cut into the new hull planking.


The outer starboard hawse pipe is hoisted into place. The inner starboard hawse pipe is temporarily secured with clamps and heavy timbers. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

The photograph below shows the outer starboard hawse pipe with its bolts. The holes labeled “bolt” indicate a new bolt that extends through the exterior flange, the wood of the hull and framing, and through its hole in the interior flange. Each through-bolt is threaded and tightened with a large nut. The holes labeled “drift” are bolts that go through the exterior flange and into the wooden hull and framing.


The two starboard hawse pipes. The outer pipe has been secured with its bolts and drifts; the inner pipe awaits its fasteners. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

Inside the ship, large nuts have been tightened down on the ends of the threaded through bolts (see photo below). Drifts, whether inserted from the exterior or interior, attach through the white oak hull planking and live oak framing.

An interior view of the starboard hawse pipes. The threaded bolts are clearly discernible with their black caps covering the nuts on the ends of the bolts. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
The four cast iron hawse pipes have been re-installed on USS Constitution. Their hawse plugs (see photo below) have also been fitted.


The re-installed starboard hawse pipes on USS Constitution’s bow. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
To the casual observer looking at the recently rebuilt bow of “Old Ironsides”, it is likely that the hawse pipes make little, if any, impression. Yet by tracing the history of how the ship’s bow was originally built, through one detail – the hawse pipes, we can catch a glimpse of how USS Constitution was adapted, changed, and up-dated throughout her 83 years of active service.


The activity that is the subject of this blog article has been financed in part with Federal funds from the National Maritime Heritage Grant program, administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, through the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Francis Galvin, Chairman. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of the Interior, or the Massachusetts Historical Commission, nor does the mention of trade names or commercial products constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Department of the Interior, or the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

The Author(s)

Margherita M. Desy
Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command

Margherita M. Desy is the Historian for USS Constitution at Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston.