The oldest commissioned ship in the American Navy, the USS Constitution has earned many nicknames over the years, including “Old Ironsides” and the “Eagle of the Sea.” Originally designated as simply “Frigate D,” the frigate was built in Portsmouth Navy Yard in Maine , named by President Washington, and launched in 1798.
In 17 years of active duty, it racked up a battle record as celebrated as any ship of its time, defeating the heavier British ships Guerrière and Java during the War of 1812, and leading a blockade of Tripoli during the War of the Barbary Coast.
The ship is now docked at Charlestown Navy Yard, where navy sailors wearing funny hats give tours every half hour. Fans of Master and Commander will be thrilled to stand behind a long gun cannon on the gun deck or sit at the gambrel table in the captain’s quarters. Even casual visitors will snicker at the toilet seats located on the aptly named poop deck. Some of the stones in the bilge are the originals placed there for ballast more than 200 years ago.
The last time the Constitution detached from a tugboat to sail freely under its own power was in 1997 during its 200th anniversary; the ship, however, is towed out into Boston Harbor and turned around with a 21-gun salute every year on July 4. (Members of the public can sign up on the ship’s website for a lottery to board the ship for these cruises.)
To get to the ship, visitors first pass through the newly renovated Charlestown Naval Yard Visitors Center (Charlestown Navy Yard, Building 5, 617/242-5601, www.nps.gov/bost/historyculture/cny.htm , 9 A.M–5 p.m. daily), which features a 10-minute video on the history of the Yard, along with ropes, chains, uniforms, and other artifacts.
Near the ship is a much larger USS Constitution Museum (Charlestown Navy Yard, 617/426-1812, www.ussconstitutionmuseum.org , 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily Nov.–Apr., 9 a.m.–6 p.m. daily May–Oct., free) that displays swords, pistols, and cannonballs captured from the Constitution’s various engagements, along with a giant-sized model of the ship under full sail.
Several short films give more information about the ship and its history. Kids love the upper floor of the museum, which features a cannon they can swab, wad, and “fire” against an enemy ship; and a rudimentary video game in which they can engage the HMS Java while learning the basic principles of battle under sail.