The ropewalk in the Charlestown Navy Yard is the last remaining naval rope factory in the country. It was built in 1838, when Andrew Jackson was president. It was an operating rope making factory until 1971, and closed a few years before the rest of the Navy Yard closed.
Charlestown had been making rope since 1638 and at one time there were several outdoor rope walks in the town. These long, slender walks evolved because making rope from hemp meant it had to be stretched to its full length. The rope maker literally "walked" the rope, twisting it as he moved. The practice began as an ancient handcraft -- pictures from ancient Egyptian tombs show men walking while making rope. When it was mechanized in the 19th century the craft moved indoors.
The Navy Yard Ropewalk Complex is three buildings: the ropewalk itself, a long, slender building 1,320 feet long and 42 feet wide; plus a tarring house and a hemp store house. The walls are two to three feet thick. The door and window shutters are wrought iron, and the roofs are made of copper and slate.
Future plans for the Ropewalk
Since it closed there have been several development plans presented and discussed, but no work on the site has happened yet. The Ropewalk Complex is under the supervision of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, but all development must be approved be the Boston National Historical Park Service. It’s a tough marriage, as the Park Service has strict guidelines as to the kind of development that is allowed.
One proposal was for the three buildings to be turned into a museum complex, where the ropewalk would become a rope making museum and the other two smaller buildings would be used for conservation exhibits, archives of historical Boston documents and a maritime museum. A great creative idea, but no funding.
Another plan to turn the complex into a hotel met a dead end. The Park Service guidelines prevent any new additions, which meant that, for example, no additional entrance doors beyond the ones that now exist at the north and south side of the building could be built. No additional doors would mean a quarter mile between entrances for hotel guests. The wrought iron fence, separating the ropewalk from Chelsea Street, is also considered an artifact and cannot be removed. Thus, there could be no direct access to or from Chelsea Street.
There was a discussion to create a series of artist’s lofts, where children might learn to play guitar, weave a basket, or even make some rope. Boston Redevelopment Authority planners, with the enthusiastic following of Mayor Thomas Menino, talked of envisioning the ropewalk as an "incubator for fledging artistic entrepreneurs such as painters, furniture makers, musicians, playwrights, graphic designers, and others." This proposal came with a price tag of $30 million, which also included the cost of restoring the building from the effects of a recent fire.
While only a few of granite-era buildings remain in downtown Boston, all three of the Navy Yard's rope making structures still survive. Even the nine-alarm fire in 2002 did only moderate damage. Firefighters discovered that the building, because of its three-foot walls and copper and slate roofs, was more "fortress than factory," and was nearly impenetrable.
What do you think should be done with the ropewalk? Should it be an art center, a condo, or a museum? One writer suggested turning it into a fish farm, where fish could be spawned in long tanks and then released into Boston Harbor to restock depleting supplies. Ideas on a funnier note suggest a mausoleum, a bowling alley or a very long car wash.
- Where is it?
In the Navy Yard. The Ropewalk complex is part of the 30 acre Historic Buildings section.
- When was it built?
- Who built it?
The building was designed in Greek Revival and Boston Granite Style by architect Alexander Parris, who also designed the Navy Yard and Quincy Market.
- What was it built for and who was the first occupant?
It was built as a place to make rope. Stephen Whitmore, Master Ropemaker, was the walk's first superintendent.
- Why was it built?
As a place to manufacture rope. The ships in the Navy Yard needed 1,000 tons of rope each year. During World War II the ropewalk supplied 22 million pounds of rope a year. During the 1950s the tarring and hemp store house were turned into research and development facilities. They created the nylon rope we use today.
- How was it built?
Of granite, stone, brick and timber. The granite is backed with very hard burnt brick. The walls are two to three feet thick. The ropewalk is a quarter mile long and 45 feet wide. The longest portion, the "laying up ground" is 1,100 feet long, one story with low ceilings and a basement. There is a 200 foot section two stories and a three-story head house.
- What are the future plans for the structure?
Proposals so far have not led to development. It has apparently been a difficult sell to potential developers because of Park Service insistence that the integrity of the structure be preserved. Until something new happens the ropewalk sits, in its Greek Revival simplicity, a monument to itself.
Information for this article was compiled through information from Friends of the Navy Yard, from ‘The Ropewalk at the Charlestown Navy Yard: A History and Reuse Plan" by Leslie Larson, Boston Globe archives and by interview. Also, a great Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyYhPPTv1D8.