“ALT” (Appreciating the Little Things) #4: Once Again, Repairs are Being Made to “Old Ironsides”

In the proper perspective, the plan to repair the beloved battleship, the U.S.S. Constitution or “Old Ironsides,” isn’t really a “little thing.” However, because the media and the public tend to relegate the historical to mere footnotes, this story qualifies!

The U.S.A. Today reported on March 6 from Crane, Indiana that “35 white oaks harvested at a naval facility here will be used to replace deteriorated hull planking and supporting structures on Old Ironsides.”

This ship received her nickname after its famous sea victory against the HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812 when many of the shots from the British ship rebounded harmlessly off her wooden hull. In the reported words of an American sailor,“Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!”1

The U.S.S. Constitution was launched on October 21, 1797. Since surviving several wars, its biggest battles have been economic in nature. In 1828, Secretary of the Navy John Branch ordered a routine survey of its ships. The original estimate of $157,000 (over $3 million today) for necessary repairs to the Constitution led to an erroneous article on September 14, 1830 in the Boston Advertiser that the Navy intended to scrap the ship. Two days afterward, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides” was published in the same paper and garnered great support all over the country. Secretary Branch approved the costs.1

Scrapping was averted in 1843 when Captain John Percival convinced acting Naval Secretary David Henshaw that the ship’s repairs would cost just $10,000 instead of the $70,000 estimated by a naval constructor.1

The Constitution served as a training ship, later as a receiving ship. By 1881, she was declared unfit for service and after her centennial celebration in 1897, her future at Boston was uncertain. When Secretary of the Navy Charles Joseph Bonaparte (ironic name?) suggested that she be used as target practice and allowed to sink at sea, a Worcester, MA businessman, Moses H. Gulesian offered to buy her for $10,000. When the State Department refused, he started a nationwide campaign which led to Congress’ appropriation of $100,000 to restore her in the following year. In 1907, she became a museum ship.1

But by 1924, the ship was in very poor condition once again. Facing the only options of either breaking up the ship or letting her sink at the dock, the Board of Inspection recommended that Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur ask Congress for $400,000 to repair the ship. ’’The Secretary, however, took the attitude that it would be a fine gesture on the part of the people of the country, and particularly the school children, if they contributed small donations for the purpose.” Through the contributions of children and adults, the selling of souvenirs made from the ship and lithograph prints of a painting, $617,000 was netted. Unfortunately, the five-year campaign also saw the repair costs rise. In the end, Congress had to spend $300,000 to finish the job! Secretary Wilbur was criticized for shunning large contributions in favor of a grass-roots campaign which eventually led to the added cost. However, Rear Admiral Philip Andrews, the committee’s final leader, acknowledged that Wilbur’s plan did much to increase public awareness of the history of the ship and its role in the Navy’s heritage.2

In 1973, a one-year series of repairs included removing red oak which had been used experimentally on the ship in the 1950s, but had not aged as well as live oak. The U.S.S. Constitution opened as a privately run museum in April of 1976. One month later, Commander Tyrone G. Martin dedicated a 25,000 acre tract of land in Indiana which now supplies most of the wood used in her repair work.1

In 1992, a 3-year comprehensive structural restoration was started on the Constitution. The $12 million project was aimed at restoring her to the famous 1812 specifications while still open for visitors. Contributors to the project included the city of Charleston, SC which sent live oak felled by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and some live oak from International Paper Company’s properties.1

“Old Ironsides” has seen a lot of history and, through the tireless efforts of many over the centuries; many more will be privileged to see her as well. As that sailor in the War of 1812 exclaimed, “Huzzah!”

1 — Wikipedia
2 – “Pennies for Old Ironsides,” http://www.navyhistory.org, 8/21/2012

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