Karen McHugh: One of the First Female Carpenters in Boston

By Emily McDonnell

Karen McHugh in the Charlestown Navy Yard Credit: Emily McDonnell

Karen McHugh in the Charlestown Navy Yard
Credit: Emily McDonnell

“I started out as the coffee girl.” Karen McHugh, one of the first female carpenters in Boston admits. “When you first join the union, you don’t get a particular job, so you have to do all of the bottom work, I did what a laborer would have done.” As the only woman, McHugh was constantly proving herself but she did all the work the men did and more. “When you're working hard, no offense to men, I love men, but they were always so happy, so I said ‘ hey! Lets try it out.’ And I had a ball. I joked with all the men a lot. I’m not a prissy girl, I wanted to be respected and I wanted to learn.” Eventually McHugh worked her way up and was able to actually take creative liberty while building. She designed many of the windows and doorways and she even channelled some of her ideas from the old colonial style house she had grown up in on the other side of Charlestown.  This was the best job she had had, she recalled. “You got to do work and could actually look at it, there was no endless typing and papers. I could put a little bit of me into it.”

I discovered Karen McHugh through pure serendipity. She looked like what most other people in Charlestown looked like, middle aged and walking her dog. I had coincidentally approached McHugh in order to pet her Mini Poodle named Nicki, little did I know I had discovered one of the first women carpenters in Boston. McHugh was born and raised in Charlestown. She had nothing but amazing things to say about her childhood in this historical town. In fact she says “There was always a lot to do. Very nice, beautiful really. We were all well working families.” She had grown up in a colonial house on High Street right near the Bunker Hill Monument where her father and grandfather had also grown up. Her father worked in the naval yard and her grandfather was a carpenter himself.
McHugh made a point that Charlestown had changed quite a bit while she was in high school when the Mayor at the time, Kevin White enacted the bus system. The bus system was a court mandated rule that brought alike kids to certain schools, as she says. For example, all of the children who were skilled in math and science would go to one school, and those who were good as sports would go to another. McHugh said that although it was supposed to give kids opportunities to excel in what they were good at, it ended up negatively integrating all of Boston. The ramifications separated the close knit culture of Charlestown, which has since changed.

McHugh graduated high school in 1974, and attended Bunker Hill Community College, to get her Spanish teaching degree. On a whim after college she went to go live in South America for about five years total. The first time she went, she lived with a friend she had met at college named Miria Deltora and together they lived in cities like Bokata, one filled with mountains, and Catalina, a city on the coast that she described as being both beautiful and very hot. This experience inspired creativity in her and in 1975 she eventually she got a job teaching English in Columbia and helped to start an English speaking school.

After her adventures in South America, she returned to her home in Charlestown and became a Spanish teacher, but eventually went to both secretary and medical school and began working as a secretary and project manager at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Mass Eye and Ear.

McHugh helped build the buildings on both the left and right side of this walk way.  Credit: Emily McDonnell

McHugh helped build the buildings on both the left and right side of this walk way. 
Credit: Emily McDonnell

After a few years there, McHugh felt as if she was unable to progress any further in her career. She grew bored of typing and doing paper work all the time and in her own words she felt ‘burnt out.’ She described how everyday she would drive past the men who were building what is Charlestown now and envied how they got to have so much fun and work outside all day and she just knew that it was time to put down the paperwork and start doing what those men were doing.

In 1986 the Carpenters Union had put out a newsletter claiming that they were looking for female carpenters. Aside from getting lost on the way there as McHugh recalled, there were no problems as she applied and eventually got the job and in March of 1986 she became one of the first female carpenters in Boston.

Today, McHugh lives in one of the very buildings she built and helped to design by the navy yard. When asked about the art scene in Charlestown, she mostly talks about the architecture, as she explains that most of the art in her town is that of historical value.  Although she lives in the modern and new building in the navy yard, she still prefers and admires the beautiful architecture of the colonial style housing on the other side of town that she grew up in. “Charlestown is one of the oldest towns in Boston,” she remarks, and she is glad to have lived her life in this historical city and had a hand in building it.