Ropemakers for the Navy

“Friday last, the cable of the CONSTITUTION frigate was conveyed on the shoulders of two hundred and ninety three men from the walk to Navy yard. It was preceeded [sic] by Col. Claghorn, and attended by a party of drums and fifes and three American ensigns.”
– The Boston Gazette, and Republican Weekly Journal, September 18, 1797

Twisting fibers of different materials into rope is one of the world’s oldest handicrafts. Nearly every industry needs cordage of some sort to function, be it threaded for clothing, string for tying bundles, or different sized ropes for the intricate rigging of sailing vessels. A ropemaker from England arrived in Boston in 1641 to launch the industry in the British colonies.

Rope, which is made by twisting layers of fibers in opposing directions, was first manufactured in open fields at man-powered rope-laying equipment. The length of the longest piece of rope was determined by the strength of the ropemakers maintaining the twisted fibers at the laying-up equipment. By the 18th century, long wooden sheds, called ropewalks, were being used to house the ropemaking equipment and product. A great danger in ropemaking was fire because of the prevalence of hemp fibers and dust and the hot tar used to waterproof the rope. According to Samuel Eliot Morison’s “The Ropemakers of Plymouth: A History of the Plymouth Cordage Company, there were fourteen ropewalks in Boston by 1794. That same year, on July 30th, a fire began in Edward Howe’s ropewalk consuming it and five others, culminating in ninety-six buildings being lost altogether.

“Wednesday morning, about four o’clock, the melancholy cry of fire grated on the ears of our citizens. They immediately assembled to stop, if possible, the ravages of this destructive element. The fire caught in the Rope Walk of Mr. Howe, by an accident in heating some tar, and before the Inhabitants could be alarmed and assembled, it had gained so great a head as to render abortive all attempts to secure, from the flames, any of those elegant and valuable Rope Walk, which formed a row from Milk Street, to the west part of Fort Hill; their attention, therefore, was turned to the preservation of the dwelling houses, which from the intense heat arising from the burning tar and hemp, were taking fire in every direction at the distance of several rods…By this accident, many citizens, who by many years laborious industry had acquired a little property-in one instant the ‘twinkling of an eye’ are reduced to poverty”
– August 1, 1794 [Boston] Mercury

By the time USS Constitution was ready for launch in the autumn of 1797, more ropewalks had been constructed to the west of Boston Common. It was probably one of these ropewalks that manufactured Constitution’s 22-inch circumference anchor cable which was paraded through the Boston streets to Edmund Hart’s North End Shipyard in September, 1797. Because one sailing vessel could, literally, require miles of standing and running rigging, a maritime center such as Boston needed several ropewalks to supply the required cordage.

Antique views of ye towne of Boston

An illustration from Antique views of ye towne of Boston, by James Henry Stark, published in 1901. The long buildings in the foreground are identified as 18th century ropewalks in the Beacon Hill area. [Courtesy Boston Public Library via Internet Archive]

Excerpts of article by M. M. Desy and P. Scott: Ropemakers for the Navy: Part I, which first appeared on Restoration Blog | USS Constitution Museum.