Memo To: Oliver Wendell Holmes From: The Friends Of Old Ironsides Subject: Help!


Now Constitution was through—both as a warship and as a useful piece of naval equipment. The United States was down to the hard, ultimate question: was she worth saving as a symbol of national unification, national sea power, and international co-operation toward the goals of civilized mankind?

In 1900 Congress made a first tentative stab at an answer. It authorized the Secretary of the Navy to restore her hull and rigging, provided that the Massachusetts State Society of the United States Daughters of 1812 could raise by public contribution the estimated $400,000 required. The effort failed miserably.

By 1905 she was in such poor condition that proposals were openly made for her “honorable” disposal as a target for the Atlantic Fleet. But even after three quarters of a century the faint echoes of Holmes’s verses were heard. Congress repudiated the idea of liquidation by gunfire and halfheartedly appropriated $100,000. With this the farmyard structure was removed from her hulk, and she was given new spars, some superficial woodwork, and a set of dummy guns (her old armament had gone—no one remembers where). But her basic hull timbers, dating all the way from 1794 to 1871, continued to rot. It was not thought safe to dry-dock her, even had funds permitted.

Late in 1923, when her case seemed really hopeless and she was being kept afloat only by a tug that came each night to pump her out, the Navy Department ordered her surveyed to determine the cost of putting her “in a good state of preservation.” The board estimated $400,000 and urged her restoration. Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur took a look for himself and concurred. Empowering legislation was passed on March 4, 1925, along the same “do-it-yourself” lines as the 1900 act; i.e., the Navy was authorized to restore the ship “as far as may be practicable” and “to accept and use any donations … which may be offered.” Thus, without appropriation, was launched one of the most difficult, but in the end one of the most successful, ship resurrections of all time. A fund-raising drive co-ordinated by a national executive committee aided by patriotic, fraternal, and community groups across the country succeeded in raising from rich men, poor men, and millions of schoolchildren the surprising total of $650,000. Despite the naval board’s estimate, this proved insufficient, and Congress ultimately supplied a balance of $271,000.


Meanwhile, the vast job was already in motion, under direct charge of Lieutenant John A. Lord of the Navy’s Construction Corps. His problems were staggering. There were no adequate and authentic plans, and two years’ research was required to supply the lack. Simultaneously there began a frustrating search for suitable materials, for men with the skills necessary to rebuild a wooden ship, and for the long-disused special tools that such a project required. Lord was tireless, and his search turned up amazing finds, such as 500,000 board feet of live-oak ship timber—virtually unobtainable on the 1925 market—which the Navy had sunk for preservation in the fresh water of Commodore’s Pond at Pensacola before the Civil War and had then forgotten as metal warships supplanted wood.

Constitution ’s moment of truth came at 11:30 A.M. on June 16, 1927, when she re-entered the dry dock she had christened ninety-four years earlier. Many were confident she would fall apart as the water left her. No one was sure she would not. But Lord crammed her sagging, distorted hull with internal props and braces, supported her with a literal forest of external shoring, ran hog chains from bow to stern over a timber pyramid amidships to control bending stress, and prayed. Old Ironsides stood like a statue, and the work began.

It had still not ended when she floated out of the dock two and three-quarters years later, flying the fifteen-star national ensign of 1812 and rearmed with replicas of her original guns: thirty long 24’s and twenty 32-pounder carronades. She had still to receive almost a quarter mile of masts and spars—Douglas fir sticks donated by the lumbermen of the Pacific Northwest—and her new suit of seventy-two sails, just under an acre of canvas. A new ship, yet the same, with an estimated 15 per cent of her original material still in her, she made ready for sea again on her last, most triumphant cruise.

Commanded by Louis J. Gulliver and under tow of the mine sweeper Grebe —her new sails cautiously furled—she travelled over 22,000 miles between July, 1931, and May, 1934. More than 4,600,000 people visited her during calls at ninety American ports from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Bellingham, Washington. In Christmas week, 1932, shunning Cape Horn, she passed through the Panama Canal, built a third of a century after her last commissioned cruise.

It has been over thirty-five years now since her return to Boston, and during this time the lot of Old Ironsides has been happier than at any earlier period in the last century. A national monument afloat, she is the mecca for endless waves of pilgrims, preponderantly of school age; the number topped a half million in 1965 alone and was running ahead of that rate in the fall of 1969.