A Brief History Of The Boston Navy Yard And The Marine Barracks

By Peter A. McDonald - Originally Published May 1932

The Boston Navy Yard, sometimes referred to as the Charlestown Navy Yard, is located in the section of Boston known as Charlestown. It is situated at the junction of the Charles and Mystic rivers. In former days this land was known as "Moulton's Point," but the term was dropped when jurisdiction of the area was ceded to the United States by the state of Massachusetts in the year 1800. The site covered an area of approximately thirty-five acres, but by subsequent purchases in 1817, 1863, and 1920, and, with the filling in of flats and marshland, there is today an area of one hundred and thirty-one acres. This includes forty-nine acres at South Boston where No. 3 drydock is located. This drydock was purchased from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1920. It is 1176 feet long, 133 feet wide, and is the largest drydock in the United States and one of the drydocks in the entire world capable of docking the great ocean liners: Leviathan, Majestic, Bremen, and Brittanic.

In the early days the yard was enclosed on the land side with a strong granite wall some twelve feet in height, the top of which was covered with broken bottles to prevent people from climbing over it. A section of this wall has recently collapsed and has been replaced with a steel picket fence of equal height.

There are three main entrances to the yard. One, called the "MAIN GATE," is located at the southwest end of the yard, meeting the junction of Water and Wapping streets. No. 4 Gate is situated at the north end of the marine barracks, opening on Chelsea Street. This entrance is used by the marines entering and leaving the yard. No. 5 Gate is at the northwest end of the yard and is used for general foot and motor traffic. All gates are manned by Marines.

Within the navy yard there are some two hundred buildings, similar to those found in most navy yards. A number of these buildings erected in the early part of the nineteenth century are still in existence and capable of withstanding many more years of use. One of the most famous is the "Rope Walk," built in 1834. This building, more than one thousand feet in length, is a stone structure made of Quincy granite with heavy steel doors, and which is, in itself, a fortress. Here all the rope, hemp, and cordage used in the United States Navy is manufactured. The Commandant's house might also be mentioned. This building, erected in 1809, is a brick structure three stories in height, located in the west section of the yard and bordering on Chelsea Street. It has housed practically every commandant this yard has had and, no doubt, will continue to be used for many more years to come.

Forty-six ships have been constructed in the Boston Navy Yard, the first vessel launched being the sloop of war Frolic in 1813, and the latest the Whitney, a destroyer tender, launched in 1923. Additional vessels have been constructed for other governmental departments. No. 1 drydock, built of granite, completed in 1833 was the first drydock built in this country, and the first vessel to enter it was the famous frigate Constitution.

The U. S. S. Constitution, or "Old Ironsides" as it is commonly referred to, was built by the act of Congress which authorized the building of six frigates in the year 1793. Work has commenced on the frigate at "Moulton's Point," former name of the navy yard, in 1794 and she was launched in 1797. This famous old ship participated in forty battles and never suffered defeat. In 1927 work of rebuilding her was undertaken at this yard. The necessary funds for the rebuilding were raised by popular subscription, in addition to an appropriation of three hundred thousand dollars authorized by Congress in 1930 to complete the work.

Another historical spot within the walls of this navy yard is the site upon which the marine barracks stands. Prior to the acquisition of this property by the federal government it bore the foot-prints of many a British soldier enroute from their ships, at anchor in the Charles River, to their position on Breed's Hill, where the famous battle of Bunker Hill was fought. Heavy shot and shell rained over this section during that memorable battle and during the excavation for the foundation of the barracks many lead and steel pellets were extracted from the ground.

The first barracks were made of wood and housed about fifty men. In the year 1829 this building was replaced by the present one, a four-story brick structure one hundred and twenty feet in length, twenty-five feet wide, and forty-five feet in height. It faces the waterfront, with its rear resting on Chelsea Street, and gives a commanding view of Boston harbor. In the south end of the barracks are quarters for the commanding officer while in the opposite end are to be found four apartments for duty officers. In the basement of the barracks proper are storerooms for quartermaster supplies, a boiler and fireroom, and an old brig. This brig, used until 1909, makes one shudder to think that human beings were actually incarcerated in it. The narrow cells, dimly lighted, with their low ceilings and small iron doors certainly do not compare with the spacious, clean, and brightly lighted cells that are found in the new brig. Discipline was severe in those days and one term of confinement was usually sufficient to correct those who bore the idea that orders and regulations need not be obeyed. On the first, floor is located the pay office, orderly room, post exchange, barber shop, baker shop, tailor shop, galley, and mess hall. On the second floor there are a poolroom, recreation room, squadroom, lavatory and showers, and a police locker. The third and fourth floors are used primarily for sleeping quarters.

A new cement driveway cuts an are in front of the barracks, the inner portion of which has been transformed from a bed of cinders into a beautiful lawn, one of which any marine barracks would be highly proud. Shrubbery and hedge have recently been planted, adding greatly to the beauty of the grounds. Much credit for this, and many other improvements, belongs to the present commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hoadley, whose untiring efforts to make the barracks a pleasant place in which to live have not been in vain.

At right angles to the north end of the barracks is the Administration Building, a two-story red brick structure erected in 1909 at a cost of nineteen thousand dollars. On either side of the main entrance we find a memorial tablet. The one on the left is dedicated to the three marines who died in the charge of Coyotepe Hill, near Masaye, Nicaragua, on October 12, 1912. The other, on the right, was erected to the memory of the ten marines of the Samar Expedition who died in the island of Samar, Philippine Islands on January 13, 1902. Within the building are to be found the offices of the Commanding Officer, Post Quartermaster, Officer of the Day, SergeantMajor, and two quartermaster storerooms. In the basement of the building are the carpenter shop and the post brig.

On the walls in the Commanding Officer's office are pictures of former commanding officers with their dates of command. In arrangement about the room they are as follows: Major T. S. English, 1848-1853; Colonel Charles G. McCawley, March 23, 1866-August 1, 1871; Colonel James H. Jones, August 2, 1871-April 17, 1880; Captain William Wallace, April 18, 1880-May 13, 1880; Colonel C. D. Hebb, May 14, 1880-January 31, 1885; March 1, 1890-September 22, 1890; February 12, 1891-July 10, 1892; Lieut. Colonel G. P. Houston, March 2, 1888-February 28, 1890; Captain Louis E. Fagan, September 23, 1890-February 11, 1891; Colonel F. H. Harrington, December 16, 1893-January 14, 1894; Brigadier General Robert L. Meade, January 16, 1894-December 20, 1897; Colonel Henry C. Cochran, April 24, 1899-August 3, 1900; Colonel T. N. Wood, March 12, 1906-May 22, 1911; Lieut. Colonel John W. Wadleigh, May 22, 1911-June 2, 1911; Colonel L. H. Moses, April 4, 1899-April 23, 1899; June 3, 1911-March 19, 1912; Colonel T. P. Kane, March 20, 1912-December 31, 1913; Colonel Randolph Dickens, February 28, 1914-November 9, 1914; Captain H. C. Daniels, November 11, 1914-January 4, 1916; Colonel H. N. Hall, January 5, 1915-September 15, 1918; Captain Angus Wilson, September 16, 1918-September 30, 1918; Colonel Melville J. Shaw, October 1, 1918-June 30, 1920; Colonel George C. VanOrden, July 1, 1920-September 20, 1921; Colonel A. T. Marix, September 20, 1921-June 15, 1923; Colonel Louis M. Gulick, June 15, 1923-July 1, 1924; and Brigadier General Percival C. Pope, July 10, 1892-December 15, 1893; March 26, 1898-April 3, 1899; August 4, 1900-November 6, 1903.

The officer personnel serving at this post at the present time is composed of Lieut. Colonel W. T. Hoadley, Commanding Officer; Captain Jesse J. Burks, Post Quartermaster and Judge Advocate of the General Court-Martial; Captain W. P. Leutze, Mess and Duty Officer; First Lieutenant Robert J. Straub, Duty Officer; Second Lieutenant W. W. Benson, Post Exchange Officer and Duty Officer; and Second Lieutenants P. A. McDonald, T. B. Hughes, S. S. Yeaton, R. D. Salmon, Duty Officers, Chief Pay Clerk J. J. Reidy, Paymaster's Deputy and Marine Gunner V. H. Czegka, Police and Duty Officer.

Space will not permit a lengthy discussion of the histoiry made by the Marines who have served here but before concluding there is one very important piece of work which is of interest to the whole Corps.

In 1824 the Marines distinguished themselves during the famous mutiny at the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown. It appears that three of the inmates were sentenced to be publicly whipped for the committance of an act contrary to prison rule. An officer detailed to administer the punishment entered one of the cells to ascertain if everything was in order when suddenly the occupant sprang passed him and locked him in the cell. This inmate then unlocked the cells of the other two who were to be punished with him. The three, after deliberation, decided to release the officer and threatened him with death if he dared to disobey their command. He was ordered to, approach the door leading to the guard room and give the necessary signal when everything was alright, while they stood prepared to rush into the room and seize the arms. The officer refused to carry out their command and said that he would die rather than obey their wishes. One of the three was in favor of killing him but the other two, thinking this unwise, decided it a better course to relock the officer in the cell. They then passed into the dining hall and by this time the signal had spread to all parts of prison. The prisoners deserted their workshops, armed themselves with any type of weapon they could find, then congregated in one end of the dining hall. Men of all ages, guilty of some of the most infamous crimes stood there defying the prison officials as they were ordered to return to their cells. Greater and greater grew the danger of a general riot and it was thought that the inmates would bear down on the guards and slaughter them. One cool and level headed officer in the lot had the foresight to know that something drastic had to be done immediately if the prisoners were to be subdued. Without consulting his superiors he despatched a request to Major Wainwright of the Marine Barracks to rush Marines to the prison to quell the disorder. While waiting for the Marines to arrive, he entered the prison dining hall, unarmed, and pleaded with the prisoners to return to their cells. They stated that they expected that some of their lot would be killed but death would be better than such imprisonment; and with looks that indicated defiance they declared that they would refuse to leave the hall until the punishment had been lifted. Evil passion seemed to be inflamed in some of them, for they proposed to kill the officer who stood helpless to defend himself against such an angry mob. Sooner than expected Major Wainwright arrived with a detail of thirty Marines. He was requested to fire down the prisoners through the small windows opening into the dining hall, but he chose a bolder and sounder course. He marched his men into the opposite end of the hall and had them face the prisoners. He made it known that he was there to restore order and that was just what he intended to do, that he would carry out this duty if it cost him his life The prisoners seemed to be weighing their strength against that of the Marines and told the Major that they were ready to prove their strength against the handful of men he had. They repeated that they would fight to a finish.

The Major now ordered the Marines to load their rifles. To show that he meant business he required each marine to hold up to view the bullet which he was to place in his rifle. This only caused more growling for the prisoners expected their number to drive forward on the marines and disarm them before they could inflict much damage.

Major Wainwright ordered the Marines to take aim and upon command from him they were to shoot to kill. He then took out his watch and turning to the convicts he said, "You must leave this hall. I will give you three minutes to decide. It at the end of that time a man remains, he shall be shot dead. I speak no more." The multitude held their ground, not a man flinched. One minute passed, then another. Not a man stirred. It was a tragic situation. But as the first few seconds of the final minute ticked away fear seemed to clinch some of them, and as if struck with panic they rushed the exits for safety. At the expiration of the three minutes not a man remained in the hall, it had been cleared as if by magic. Once again the strong moral force, steadiness, and grim determination of the Marines came to the fore and quelled what might have been a very serious riot coupled with bloodshed and murder.

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