While Navy officers were primarily responsible for main shipyard operations, civilians, both skilled and unskilled, comprised the majority of the workforce at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Some of the specialized workers at the shipyard included block maker, carpenters, sawyers, gun carriage makers, spar makers, painters, armorers, sail makers, blacksmiths, caulkers, coopers, riggers, boat builders, rope makers, masons, machinists, joiners, plumbers and coppersmiths.
The Charlestown Navy Yard became widely known and recognized for its rope making facility in the 1830s as it was the only facility serving the Navy throughout those years. The Charlestown Navy Yard combined steam and iron technology in the 1850s to construct its first steamer. This, however, was just one example of the role that technology played at this time. During this decade the shipyard experienced numerous modernizations. Such modernizations involved lengthening the dry dock, installing gas lights, manufacturing wire rope and developing a state-of-the-art machine shop. The machine shop, in particular, served as a catalyst for bringing the new technology of iron cladding to the shipyard. The new steam technology attracted a new set of workers who had experience working with steam machinery. This, in turn, led to the creation of machinist apprenticeships and the formation of other trades involving steam machinery and iron cladding around 1858. “During the 1850s and 1860s, boilermakers, machinists and iron moulders, and comprised a larger and larger part of the workforce.”
Charlestown’s business plummeted at the conclusion of the Civil War as the Navy started directing funds needed to run the shipyard into reconstruction efforts. Through the 1870s the Charlestown Navy Yard was only behind New York in terms of productivity, but the 1880s proved to be the decade where the Navy Yard all but shut down. Many tradesmen were left without jobs during this time when the shipyard’s main work involved dismantling vessels.
Following the 1880s, the Charlestown Navy Yard went through significant transformation. Old ship houses were replaced by steel plate storage yards, a new lengthened dry dock was built, gas and oil tanks constructed and a locomotive shed established. Upon the start of World War I, the shipyard once again experienced a heightened level of activity that exceeded all previous levels of activity. Over 4,000 workers worked two ten-hour shifts or around the clock in three eight-hour shifts. Charlestown’s primary function was in the repair of warships including steel destroyers, armored cruisers and battleships, submarines, and wooden sub chasers.
The Charlestown Navy Yard acquired the status of shipbuilder in the 1930s and was no longer looked upon as a repair facility. Steel warships were launched from the shipyard for the first time in 1930s. However, Charlestown produced steel-hulled ships earlier, the tug Pentucket in 1903 and the training bark Cumberland in 1904. Because the primary building material switched from wood to steel, the fuel powering the turbines of the, in turn, switched from coal to oil. In 1934, the launch of USS MacDonough, a modern destroyer powered by geared turbines driven by steam generated in oil-burning boilers, reflected the technological advances that had been incorporated by the yard. Charlestown Navy Yard built 12 destroyers in all during the 1930s and 24 more by the end of World War II acquiring a reputation as a “destroyer yard.”
By the end of the war, expansions at the yard made it possible to bring a destroyer from keel to launching in just three to four months. Still, at the war’s end, the yard went through another transformation and it began to focus on conversions, turning old ships into modern war vessels. The yard incorporated new technology and began updating and repairing sonar equipment in destroyers and destroyer escorts. Work on destroyers and destroyer escorts kept the yard busy throughout the 1950’s.
By 1973, business had fallen off drastically and Captain R. L. Arthur, the yard commander, announced that Charleston would have to be closed. In 1974, a museum was established to celebrate the history of the yard. Sprawling over thirty acres, it featured the 1797 frigate USS Constitution and the 1943 destroyer USS Cassin Young.