Friday, October 12, 2012

The West End Museum of Boston

Another “new to me” resource!
Scale model of a rope walk at the West End Museum
The buildings were long, to cover the ropes as they were
twisted and braided.  They were also considered fire hazards, so
they were located on the edges of town and usually right on the waterfront. 

I have an ancestor who was a ropemaker from Boston and Salem.   When I found out that the West End Museum was having an exhibit on Boston ropemakers, we jumped in the car and drove right down to the museum.  The West End of Boston is a neighborhood that has been almost completely destroyed by urban renewal since the 1960s.  Most of it disappeared when Government Center was built in the early 1960s, but the new Boston Garden sports arena, the Big Dig, and other projects have contributed to the destruction of a once vibrant ethnic neighborhood.  The West End Museum is a block away from North Station, located at 150 Staniford Street, Suite 7.

Lucky for me, the executive director, Duane Lucia, was sitting right by the front door when we walked in to the museum.  Within a minute or two of our arrival we were perusing maps with Duane, and searching for the possible places my ancestor could have lived and worked.  There were great exhibits on rope making and a model of a ropework, too.  I had only seen one other ropework exhibit before this -  at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.   The 250 foot rope walk at Mystic is a portion of the Plymouth Cordage building built at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1824, and it was originally over 1,000 feet long. 

Yours Truly and a museum staff member examining the
many maps showing the location of  Boston ropewalks
during the Colonial and Federal time periods.

My ancestor, Benjamin Gardner (about 1720 – 1797) is a brickwall ancestor.  I cannot find his parents, although I have found a brother.  In my search for his lineage I have amassed much information on his neighbors, his occupation, his wives and children, and even found many references to him in Reverend Bentley’s diaries.   Yet, even after my trip to the West End Museum he still remains a mystery.  But every clue is valuable.

At the West End Museum there were many maps and directories of all the ropemaking facilities in Boston, including during the lifetime of my ancestor.  Since his brother was also a ropemaker, perhaps it was a family business?  Perhaps their father was also a ropemaker?   We found Benjamin Gardner, listed as a “ropemaker” in the Boston directory at Pleasant Street, which is now called Charles Street East in Boston.  Right on the corner of the street there was a large ropeworks located where the Boston Public Garden was once Back Bay.  It was waterfront property in the 1700s, great for unloading hemp for the ropeworks, and for loading finished rope onto ships.
Detail of the model rope walk building

Benjamin Gardner left Boston sometime around the time of the American Revolution (it was occupied by the British, and many residents left Boston.  A good hint to remember if you are tracing a Boston ancestor) and went to Salem where he continued as a ropemaker with a partner named Josiah Gaines.

Although I didn’t smash my “brickwall” I was happy with what I learned at the West End Museum, and I’ll continue to visit their new exhibits and to use it as a resource for Boston genealogy.   The West End Museum is completely FREE to the public!  If you have Boston ancestors, you should check it out!  The Ropewalks exibit will continue through October 27, 2012. 

This article is about the student who constructed the model of the ropeworks at the West End Museum.

Mystic Seaport, Museum of America and the Sea

Copyright 2012, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

1 comment:

  1. I've seen the ropework exhibit in Mystic Seaport (we live in CT), but I think I never fully understood what I was seeing. The idea that they made buildings long enough to cover the ropes--I guess to keep from too much twisting, as happens when we coil & uncoil garden hoses--is intriguing to me.