Friday, April 14, 2000
USS Constitution and Museum: an April Vacation destination
There's so much to see at the Charlestown Navy Yard; I'm sorry we didn't go sooner. We visited the USS Constitution, the USS Constitution Museum and the USS Cassim Young. We've saved the rest of the Naval Yard buildings and Bunker Hill for our next visit.
It can get confusing in the Yard: the Navy, the National Park, and a private nonprofit all manage ships or sites here. Don't worry about it; just make sure that you visit both the USS Constitution ship and museum, in whichever order you like.
The USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat (hence the Navy men on board). She acquired the name "Old Ironsides" when British sailors watched their cannon balls bounce off her oak frame and tumble uselessly into the sea. They guessed her sides were made of iron. She fought at sea from 1797 through 1815, and then spent decades as a training ship and a floating barracks before being discovered, in 1896, rotting in the Portsmouth shipyard.
She has been restored regularly in the subsequent 100 years, but much original material remains intact. It carries 36 sails and originally required 450 men for battle operations. It's a fine, not overdone, presentation of a period vessel. The 45-minute tour begins above decks and takes you down two more. It's a bit long on the gory details, but the sailors do know all their facts. You can see officers' cubbies, learn about the hammock system for sleeping 430 enlisted men in four-hour shifts, and develop a mental image of the ship in full battle with scurrying powder monkeys (boys who carried powder from storage area to the guns), booming cannon, and fire-dampening water whooshing around the floor.
In the museum, there is a balance of traditional exhibits and interactive options. The first-floor display of the ship's foreign ports-of-call is best for ten-year-olds and up after they've had a chance to play with the "fire a cannon" display set up out front. Here kids select tool images sequentially to clean, load, and "fire" the cannon. They judge their skill by the video results on a frigate image across the way. The first permanent exhibit portrays 1790s Boston as a busy port and trading center "filled with shipyards, traders, craftsmen and sailors looking for work." Two other good exhibits describe life on board ship and trace the history of the USS Constitution through its travels and engagements.
The museum lends itself to splitting families into older visitors who want to read labels in the lower-level exhibits, and busier visitors who need the action of the upstairs area. On the second floor, a volunteer builds ship models until 3 p.m. most days. This floor has a station with small take-apart ships, another with six hammocks for testing, and an interactive video for mock battles at sea. There are three spectacular models of the USS Constitution on display. Don't forget to look up; a variety of demonstration construction pieces used in restoring the ship are suspended from the ceiling.
The museum's comprehensive activity sheet is designed for four different levels of child users. Even if you don't use it in the museum, you may find later that it answers questions you didn't ask during your visit. They have an excellent educational program at the Museum. Starting May 1 you can join gallery tours daily on the half-hour between 12:30 and 3:30. During April spring break, on April 22 from 10 a.m. to noon, Marines from 1812 will drill and re-enact daily duties. The weekend of June 29 to July 4 is Boston Harborfest with numerous activities. Keep an eye on the Web site (www.ussconstitutionmuseum.org.) or call them at 617-492-1812 to see what will be available.
We also visited the USS Cassim Young docked nearby. Park Service personnel offer 45-minute tours, above and below decks. You're treated to views of cramped crew quarters, passable officers' quarters, the intact kitchen and laundry room, two gun batteries, torpedoes and launchers, and the fabulous radar room. Juxtaposing 1797 and 1943, and picturing relatives on such a WWII ship was an interesting history lesson.
Admission is free. The museum is handicapped accessible but the ships are not. You can access the deck of the USS Constitution by ramp, with a single step down. Visiting the lower decks requires climbing ladder-like stairs. Ceilings are quite low on both ships. Our visit took two and one-half hours.
The USS Constitution Museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during winter hours, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from May 1 to October 31. There are no food service arrangements or delightful areas for picnicking. You can compensate by stopping at the little market near the Park gatehouse and taking your treats or a picnic down to the waterfront near the condos and offices.
If you go: By car, take 93 South to the Charlestown Exit, travel left under the ramp, right out of the rotary and up and down Bunker Street, turning right when you run smack into the wall of the Navy Yard. Enter through "Gate Five" and look for the National Park Service Parking lot and signs into the Navy Yard. The Yard is on the trolley tour line; the closest T stop is North Station, or you can take the water shuttle after a visit to the Aquarium.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito