Charlestown, Massachusetts, is the site of one of six navy yards established during the American Revolution to build warships for the United States. For nearly 175 years, as wooden hulls and muzzle-loading cannon gave way to steel ships and sophisticated electronics, the yard evolved to meet the changing needs of a changing navy. B the end of World War II the Navy had three annexes and a Naval air station on Boston Harbor.
In 1799 the United States was engaged in a naval war with France, and Congress called for the building of six ships-of-the-line, the battleships of the day, to protect American commerce from French attacks. Two years later Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert bought sites in six cities in which the ships could be built. The one in Charlestown became the Boston Navy Yard. It was primarily used as a storage facility until the War of 1812, but during that war the yard completed the Navy's first ship-of-the-line, the 74 gun Independence. From the War of 1812 until the Civil War the yard enjoyed a slow but steady growth as a repair facility and supplier of food and "slops" (clothing and personal articles). Few ships were built at Charlestown, but those few made important contributions to the fleet: Merrimack, which became the famous confederate ironclad Virginia; Cumberland, which met her end in battle with the CSS Virginia; and Hartford, Admiral Farragut's flagship at New Orleans. During this period the drydock was built and many buildings constructed. The Civil War forced rapid growth on Charlestown Navy Yard. As a repair and supply base it supported the squadrons blockading Southern ports and harbors. As a shipbuilding facility it converted a number of small vessels into warships and built Monadnock, one of the few monitors constructed at a government ship yard.In the 1890s the Navy began building steel vessels and the yard, now called Boston Navy Yard, began to expand. During the first years of the twentieth century a second drydock was added to handle the largest ships then afloat. The yard's role in repairing and supplying vessels of the Navy continued to expand during the Spanish-American War and World War I. The large number of convoy escorts required by the allies to protect merchant shipping from German submarines and Boston's strategic location gave the yard an important repair responsibility. After World War I and the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty of 1922 activity at the yard slowed again. But in the 1930s, with the rise of totalitarian governments in Germany, Italy, and Japan, naval ships were again built at the yard. New destroyers, like Mugford, were built with WPA and PWA funds. The United States became involved in the struggle with Nazi Germany even before the official declaration of war in December 1941. Congress created a two-ocean Navy in November 1939, and 10 months later the United States traded 50 overage destroyers for British bases in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Boston Navy Yard reconditioned many of the ships and repaired British ships damaged by the Germans. With the entry of the United States into the war, the navy yard turned full time to aid the war effort. Convoy escorts were repaired and supplied and numerous destroyer escorts (DEs) built. The yard employed nearly 50,000 persons who worked around the clock, seven days a week. The end of World War II brought another cutback in the yard's work. Boston Navy Yard turned to modernizing older vessels. New electronics, radar and sonar equipment, and missile batteries were installed in vessels that had helped win the war. In the 1960s, as World War II vintage ships were reaching the end of their useful lives, the Boston facility began modernizing the Nation's warships through Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM). USS Perry was the first destroyer to be remodelled in this program that was intended to add five to seven years to the life of aging ships. The wars in Korea and Vietnam had little effect on the work at the navy yard; the wars were too far removed from the East Coast. After Vietnam, Boston Naval Shipyard was closed, ending 174 years of service.
When the Charlestown Navy Yard closed, 30 acres became part of Boston National Historical Park. The National Park Service now maintains an important part of the ship yard, and as part of the Park Service's interpretive program, USS Constitution, in connection with the United States Navy, and USS Cassin Young are preserved as representatives of the kinds of vessels built in this yard.