J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ropewalks in the West End

The West End Museum has just opened a new exhibit on ropemaking in the area from the mid-1700s through the late 1800s. Less than a hundred yards from the museum’s building at 150 Staniford Street is the site of Boston’s earliest recorded “ropefield,” set up by John Harrison in 1642.

Because sailing ships needed rope, the cordage industry was a very important part of Boston’s economy through the Age of Sail. Rope factories required long stretches of land and employed many people, making them (along with shipyards) among the first businesses in town that operated much more like big factories than family workshops.

On 2 March 1770, ropemaker William Green insulted Pvt. Patrick Walker as he passed John Gray’s ropewalk, near modern Post Office Square. Their argument led to a series of brawls that culminated three days later in the Boston Massacre. Gray had fired Green after he heard about the trouble. But an experienced ropemaker was valuable, and I found in the accounts of John Box and Benjamin Austin’s ropewalk that Green found work there in the West End before the end of the year.

A West End ropewalk supplied the anchor cable for the U.S.S. Constitution during the War of 1812. A couple of decades later, engineers applied the technology of mechanized spinning to ropemaking and truly industrialized the process; the Charlestown Navy Yard became the U.S. Navy’s principal source of cordage.

The museum’s press release says:
The new exhibit in the Main Exhibit Hall at the West End Museum, traces the history, vitality and economic significance of the rope-making industry in colonial and federal Boston with graphic and model renderings, interactive displays, artifacts, videos, and more.
Events linked to this exhibit include:
  • Thomas K. Burgess’s walking tour “Ropewalks of the West End and Beyond,” 2 June starting at 10:30 A.M. at the museum, $15 ($7 for members).
  • showings of Steve Fetsch’s documentary Ropewalk: A Cordage Engineer’s Journey Through History, 5 June and 19 July at the museum, 6:30-8:00 P.M., free.
  • Duane Lucia’s walking tour “The Marriage of Wharf and Waterfall,” 7 August starting at 6:30 P.M. at the museum, $15 ($7 for members).
This exhibit will be on display until 18 August. (The thumbnail photo above, though taken by Lucia in connection with this exhibit, shows the Plymouth Cordage Company’s equipment now at Mystic Seaport.)


Gary said...


First, kudos for this blog. I check it out regularly as I'm a fan of all-things-Revolutionary period.

Second, you say that the rope making required "long stretches of land". Was that for the factory where the raw materials (hemp?) were turned into rope? Or where the raw materials were actually made / grown?

J. L. Bell said...

The hemp was grown in warmer climates. I've written about George Washington's efforts to grow it at Mount Vernon, but I understand that the British Empire imported a great deal of hemp from Russia. Rope was such a necessary product for a naval empire that it was exempted from most trade duties and boycotts.

The rope factories needed a lot of land because making long stretches of rope required spinning strands of hemp into long stretches of "yarn," and then retwisting those yarns into cords, and so on. The longer the ropewalk was, the longer the rope could be.