There is a certain romance about wooden ships, one that has increased in the past century as their numbers have decreased. Columbus "discovered" America in a wooden sailing ship; the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic in one, too. And of course, there is the USS Constitution—a relic from a different era, a different kind of warfare, and a different-looking world. But the Constitution, also known as "Old Ironsides," is unique in that she still floats today, a concrete example of an imagined past that visitors to Boston can and should visit to understand more about American history.
Constructed in 1794 in the shipyards of Boston and given her name by President George Washington, the USS Constitution was constructed using southern live oak, a particularly dense wood. Paul Revere forged the copper bolts and plating that kept her together, and her hull was built to 21 inches in an era when 18 inches was standard—a decision that likely contributed to her ultimate fame.
That fame arrived when the ship fought the British frigate Guerriere during the War of 1812. According to legend, several British shots entered the ship's hull, but her wood was so hard that they fell out again, lending her a new name and reputation. As early as 1813, both media and U.S. Navy officers were using the moniker "Old Ironsides," and she has been called by her nickname ever since.
After a long and glory-filled career defending the United States, Old Ironsides arrived back in Boston Harbor in 1897 in bad shape. She was on the verge of ruin when a local businessman began a campaign for her restoration. In the nick of time, a whirlwind fundraising tour from 1931-1934 that took the ship from Boston south through the Panama Canal to San Diego, raised the money for her full recovery. She spent a further happy century in Boston receiving almost 100,000 visitors a year and sailing from Marblehead (on Massachusetts' north shore) back to Boston on her own power for her 200th anniversary in 1997. Today, Old Ironsides resides in the area of Boston Harbor known as Charlestown, a former shipping center not far from where she was originally built.
Visitors can take free, guided tours of the ship, led by active-duty U.S. Navy sailors. The tour explores the top three decks of the ship—the spar deck (top deck), gun deck, and berth deck—and explains the ship's history, the makeup and duties of its crew, and its role in today's Navy.
Each Tuesday morning in the summer, a Constitution Experience tour is offered, during which visitors observe the Morning Colors ceremony (which includes the firing of the ship's cannon in salute), take a special extended tour, and explore the adjacent USS Constitution Museum. The Evening Colors ceremony also includes a cannon salute, so visitors who want to see this piece of the past in action can arrange to visit in the late afternoon, prior to sunset.
- Please note that the USS Constitution Museum and the ship itself are operated separately and do not share the same hours of operation.
- Ship hours during Summer:
- From April 1 through October 31 the ship is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 6pm (Closed Sundays.)
- Free, guided tours leave every half-hour until 5:30pm
- Ship hours during Winter:
- November 1 through March 31 the ship is open Thursday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm (closed Monday through Wednesday.)
- Free, guided tours leave every half-hour until 3:30pm to allow visitors time to exit the ship safely before sunset and the Evening Colors ceremony.
- "Constitution Experience" tours:
- "Constitution Experience" tours take place every Tuesday morning during summer hours, by reservation only. Visitors must arrive by 7:40am, and tours are limited to 50 visitors. To reserve your spot, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Subway Stop:
- North Station on the Green Line, Community College on the Orange Line. Both require a 15-minute walk. Check for directions before you set off. The USS Constitution is also located at one end of Boston's historic Freedom Trail and can therefore be easily incorporated into a walking tour of the city.
- Location: Bldg. 5 Charlestown Navy Yard, Charlestown, MA
- Phone: 617-426-1812
- Website: www.history.navy.mil/ussconstitution/