Launched in 1797, the USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat, and to keep her that way the 218-year-old navy frigate is getting a much-needed makeover. Sprucing her up will take about three years and will cost around $12 million. When the work is complete the historic “Old Ironsides” will once again raise her sheets and sail around Boston Harbor back to her berth in the Charlestown Navy Yard.
Although USS Constitution serves primarily as a floating museum, it is still carried on the Navy roll as an active ship. She is crewed by officers and sailors of the United States Navy. On August 14 Commander Robert S. Gerosa, Jr. became her 74th captain, taking charge during a change of command ceremony held on board the vessel at Dry Dock 1 in Charlestown Navy Yard. The USS Constitution entered the historic dry dock in June. Workmen have already removed her guns, masts and giant stove and have begun removing the first of about 3,000 copper sheets from her hull. The USS Constitution has been repaired, refitted and restored four times, most famously in the 1920s, when she was saved in part through a campaign where school children donated nickels, dimes and quarters to help fund the work. This is the ship’s first major makeover in over 20 years, and the work is vital if the wooden warship is to remain the revered national treasury which she has become.
The USS Constitution was a state-of-the-art frigate in her day – and that day was August 19, 1812, when she fought and defeated the British warship HMS Guerriere. It was in that battle during the War of 1812 where the famous ship got her nickname. When the British cannonballs bounced off the frigate’s thick wooden sides a crewman yelled “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron! See where the shot fell out!” Newspapers of the era picked up on the quote and began calling the USS Constitution “Old Ironsides.” The frigate more than lived up to its nickname over the next two years, during which she fought and defeated four other British warships (Java, Pictou, Cyane and Levant).
The USS Constitution was built of oak at Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in Boston. A little less than 15 percent of the wood is original; the rest has been replaced over the years. Reports from workmen at the dry dock note that most of the timber is still in good shape, but that other parts show rot and wear and will be replaced. All of her guns are replicas, most dating from the restoration of the 1920s. Many of the original items used aboard the ship and uniforms worn by her crew during different periods of service can be found in the onshore museum.
The USS Constitution first saw active service in the “Quasi-War” with France in 1798, and during the war against the Barbary Pirates in 1803. She took part in the battle of Tripoli (the same one whose shores are mentioned in the U.S. Marine Corps hymn) and after the War of 1812 returned to patrol the Mediterranean. Brought back to Boston and placed “in ordinary” in 1828, there were rumors that the then 30-year-old warship was to be scraped. Those rumors spurred Oliver Wendell Holmes to pen his famous poem “Old Ironsides,” in response to which the Navy changed its plans and sent her back to sea. Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, USS Constitution was demoted from active warship to a training vessel. The frigate did get to sail the high seas one more time, however, as she was refitted and sent to show the flag in France as part of the exposition of 1878. Three years later, however, she was declared unfit for sea, as time had finally taken its toll. The USS Constitution languished in Boston until 1905, when the secretary of the Navy considered having her towed out to sea and used for target practice.
That could have been the end for the gallant old lady, but a public outcry moved Congress to intervene and declare her a museum ship. Some work was done over the next 20 years, but it was not until 1925 that the first major restoration began. Similar if less extensive restoration efforts are now once again underway, as workers in the port where her keel was laid over 200 years ago are giving”Old Ironsides” yet another makeover, and one that will keep her fit for service in this her third century under the colors of the red, white and blue.