- Historic Sites
Memo To: Oliver Wendell Holmes From: The Friends Of Old Ironsides Subject: Help!
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
With so many eyes on her she is less likely to slide into oblivion than in the past. Moreover, she has solid, if honorary, official status. A commissioned warship (the Navy calls it a special commission), she is also the flagship of the First Naval District Commandant, presently Rear Admiral Joseph C. Wylie. Her immediate commander nowadays is typically a junior officer whose actual grade strikes the layman as incongruous with his billet. But he is also typically a man who sought his rather daunting assignment and who is dedicated to his venerable charge. Her present captain is Lieutenant J. W. Powers, U.S.N.R., an unpretentious but clearly efficient officer who loves the ship, is an active student of her history, and is fully aware of his extraordinary mixture of responsibilities as commander, curator, host, and competitor for the maintenance dollar. He is proud to be fifty-third in a list that begins with Sam Nicholson and includes Preble, Hull, Bainbridge, Stewart, and Dewey.
All of this status, care, and public exposure have assured Old Ironsides of continuous repair and replacement such as she has certainly not known since she was on full combat status. This work is performed on a regular schedule, projects and timing being worked out between her skipper and navy yard specialists, subject to what can be allowed from appropriated funds.
Such care has put off the evil day much longer than after any previous rebuilding. So has the ship’s annual “cruise,” a ceremonial occasion in recent years, when she is towed from her dock, turned in the harbor, and remoored facing in the opposite direction, to equalize as far as possible the effects of weather on each side. But she is admittedly near the point where piecemeal repair will not be enough. Her sails are long vanished. Though she is impeccably shipshape, she now contains only about 8 per cent of her original material, and the observant visitor can see only too many telltale signs that once more she is floating on borrowed time. Forty years is a very long time for a wooden hull to survive without major rebuilding.
Recognizing this, a group of private citizens led by Leslie C. Stratton, Jr., organized “Project Old Ironsides” in 1968, with the primary objective of reawakening national concern for Constitution ’s future and incidentally of raising funds to ensure it. The program recalled similar efforts in 1925 (even to the extent that Mr. Stratton’s father was a prime mover in that earlier campaign), except that this time the whole initiative has been in private hands. Evidently assuming that the legislation of 1900 and 1925 had set a firm, continuing policy of financing the ship’s survival from private contributions rather than appropriations, the Stratton group proposed no appeal to Congress but sought simply to raise a fund for remittance to the Navy to supplement public moneys already available. Contributions to this fund are still being received.
While no one on Project Old Ironsides has made a firm estimate of the cost of putting the entire frigate back in pristine condition (barring a thorough board of survey, probably no one could), it seems highly questionable that the job can again be done by voluntary means. Even in 1927 Congress had to put up one fourth of the funds. The total bill was almost a million dollars; considering what lias since happened to the dollar, it seems very doubtful that Constitution could be fully restored today for twice that figure. A lot of money, some will say, especially in these days of legislative “economy.” Yet it seems quite possible that the old ship could be made good as new for less than the cost of a single advanced jet fighter plane. Not so much money, after all, when taken in context.
A wooden ship is not like the Washington Monument, though it may mean as much in the story of a people and a people’s ideals. It is more like an image carved in snow: it does not melt as fast, but it melts, usually imperceptibly and in places where the loss is not noticed until the whole structure collapses.
We are down to that hard, ultimate question again. Is Old Ironsides worth saving? If so, the American people and Congress have little enough time left to debate ways and means. As one of her many historians made a fictional character say, “Why so rich a government should not bear this expense is difficult to understand.”
Somebody must bear it, and soon, unless the valiant “eagle of the sea” is to keep her much-postponed rendezvous with the waiting “harpies of the shore.”