USS Constitution – Freedom Trail Stop 15 Overview

Old Ironsides at the Charlestown Navy Yard

Old Ironsides at the Charlestown Navy Yard

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Undefeated in 33 Fights

USS Constitution, or “Old Ironsides,” is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

Free admission, but visitors must show a valid ID and pass through security to visit the ship and enter through the National Parks Service Visitor Center. The Visitor Center has an introductory film and interesting exhibits that cover the Navy Yard and the Constitution.

Nov. 1- March 31 Tues-Sun 10-4; April 1-Sept. 30 Tues-Sun 10-6; Oct. 1- Oct. 31 Tues-Sunday 10-4; Closed for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years

A wait is generally required to take the worthwhile USS Constitution tour.

Official National Park Service website Phone: (617) 242-5601(617) 242-5601

Official USS Constitution website


Handicap access to the ship is via a ramped gangplank to main deck. The deck has 1/2″ raised ridges. Navy personnel can assist. The lower decks are down steep staircases.

Restrooms are in the Visitor Center

Public transportation: Green or Orange line to North Station (in Boston proper). Alternative, 93 Bus to Sullivan Station Bunker Hill.

Plan at least an hour to view the Constitution, including a tour.

Background Information

The Revolutionary War officially ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris. In 1785, the United States sold its last remaining naval vessel due to a lack of funds. The same year, two American merchant ships were captured by Algiers.

Eight years later, in 1793, Algiers captured eleven ships and held their crews and cargo for ransom. The new nation was undergoing one of its first tests.

Waking up to the need to protect its interests, Congress authorized the Naval Act of 1794. This act allocated the funds to build six frigates that were to become the start of the US Navy. Four of the frigates were designed to carry forty-four guns, and two were to carry thirty-six guns.

The USS Constitution was the third of the six original frigates. She was built, starting in November 1794, across the river from its current berth, at the Boston shipyard of Edmund Hartt.

The Constitution’s design took into account the reality that the United States could not match the European states navies’ heavy “ships of the line.” The much smaller US Navy needed to be strong enough to defeat other frigates, yet fast enough to avoid fights with heavier ships.

Her design was unusual for the time in that she was very long and narrow, and mounted heavy guns. She also had a diagonal rib scheme for extra strength. The primary materials were pine and oak, including southern live oak from Georgia. Live oak is extremely dense, heavy and hard, and is the reason that the Constitution could survive heavy cannon shots without damage. This unique design was to be proven many times in battle.

Originally designed for forty-four guns, the Constitution was often equipped with fifty or more. During the War of 1812, she carried thirty 24-pound cannons on the gun deck (one level down from the upper deck), twenty-two 32-pound carronades (shorter range cannon) on the upper deck and two chase guns each at the bow and stern.

Peace with Algiers was announced in 1796, and construction was halted before any of the ships could be launched. Prompted by President George Washington, Congress agreed to continue funding the three ships closest to completion – the USS United States, Constellation, and the Constitution. The Constitution finally slipped into the waters of Boston harbor in October 1797.

The Constitution served briefly during the Quasi-War with France from 1798-1800. During this conflict, she served three tours of duty in the West Indies and participated in several actions. She returned to Boston in 1801 where she was put into reserve. Prior to her next duty service, her bottom was resheathed with copper from Paul Revere’s factory – the first copper rolling mill in the United States.

In 1803, under Captain Edward Commodore Preble, she sailed to Africa’s northern coast to confront Barbary ships during the First Barbary War. There she participated in multiple actions, the most significant being the Battle of Tripoli Harbor. She was on station during this conflict for over four years, not returning to Boston until 1807.

The Constitution’s most famous actions took place during the War of 1812. In August, about 700 miles east of Boston, the Constitution met the British frigate, the HMS Guerriere. Within about 35 minutes, the Guerriere was a wreck and too damaged to be salvaged. After transferring the wounded and prisoners to the Constitution, the Guerriere was set afire and blown up.

It was in this fight that the Constitution earned the nickname of “Old Ironsides.” When many of the Guerriere’s shots were observed to bounce harmlessly off her hull, an American sailor reportedly exclaimed “Hussah, her sides are made of iron.”

On December 29 of that year, the Constitution fought and defeated the HMS Java off the coast of Brazil. The Java was defeated in about two hours. As with the HMS Guerriere, she was too damaged to be captured had to be destroyed at sea.

The Constitution participated in several other actions, including the defeat of the HMS Pictou, and the capture of HMS Cyane and HMS Levant. The Levant was later recaptured by the British. The Constitution also had two cat-and-mouse escapes from superior British squadrons. She additionally captured a number of British merchant vessels.

After the War of 1812, the USS Constitution served in the Mediterranean squadron. This service was mostly uneventful, but there were notable discipline issues regarding the behavior of the crew while in port.

The normal service life for a ship during this period was ten to fifteen years. When the Constitution was thirty-one, a service order was put in to request money for repairs. Catching wind of the request, a Boston newspaper erroneously reported that she was about to be scrapped. Within two days, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides” was published. The ensuing public outcry incited efforts to save her, and the refurbishment costs were approved. The USS Constitution made the first use of Dry Dock 1.

Most of the Constitution’s subsequent duties were ceremonial. She ferried ambassadors ministers to new posts and performed various patrolling duties in the Mediterranean, South America, Africa and Asia. Just prior to the Civil War, she became a training ship.

There were attempts to make her seaworthy once again to attend the Paris Exposition of 1878, but these were unsuccessful. In 1881, she was deemed unfit for service. The Constitution was finally returned to the Charlestown Navy Yard in 1897.

In the early 1900’s, there were several attempts to refurbish her, but all failed. In 1905, the Secretary of the Navy suggested that she be towed out to sea and used as target practice. Public outcry prompted Congress to authorize $100,000 for her restoration. By 1907 she began to serve as a museum ship with tours offered to the public.

Since that time she has undergone multiple refurbishments and cruises, including a three-year, 90-port tour of the nation that started in 1931 and transited the Panama Canal in 1932. Her most extensive refurbishment was from 1992 to 1995. She sailed under her own power in 1997, in honor of her 200th birthday.

The Constitution typically makes one “turnaround cruise” each year during which she is towed out into Boston Harbor to perform demonstrations, including a gun drill. She is then returned to her dock, where she is berthed in the opposite direction to ensure that she weathers evenly. Attendance on the turnaround cruse is based on a lottery draw and is a highly prized ticket.