Thursday, October 21, 2010

21 October 1797: Launching of USS Constitution; the need for preservation and interpretation continues

 Mass Moments notes that, on this day 1797, USS Constitution was launched in Boston. It took three attempts to set the immense ship, reinforced with heavy diagonal planking and copper sheathing, afloat. Shipyard officials warned townspeople to be prepared for a great wave when the boat was finally launched, but none appeared. Her greatest moment came during the War of 1812, when in less than 20 minutes her guns turned a British warship into a hulk, not worth towing to port. When British cannonballs appeared to bounce off her thick wooden hull, a sailor exclaimed, "Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!" Ever since, people have referred to the ship by her affectionate nickname "Old Ironsides." Berthed at the Boston Navy Yard, she is the oldest commissioned warship in the world.
(read the rest)
This year, the Globe reports, the "Constitution," which attracts half a million visitors annually, made one of its brief forays (typically, 6-8 per year since the restoration) into Boston harbor and "fired a 21-gun salute off Castle Island and then a 17-gun salute off Boston's Coast Guard station, which was the site of the former Edmund Hartt shipyard, where the ship was built and then launched on Oct. 21, 1797."

As the Mass Moments entry notes, the unusual reinforcement of the ship accounted for its strength but also made it difficult to maneuver at launch.  And possessing the strength of "Ironsides" did not necessarily mean longer effective life.  The piece goes on to explain that "In 1830 the Navy declared that Constitution was no longer seaworthy and recommended that she be scrapped." Thanks not least to a popular poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes that celebrated the ship that year, the public protested, and Congress appropriated funds for repairs, but there were to be three more threats of destruction, and three more reprieves.  A major four-year restoration took place on the eve of the 200th anniversary celebrations in 1997. Another round of repairs began in 2007.

It's an interesting case to contemplate for a variety of reasons. To begin with, one could classify this as one of the earliest historic preservation efforts in the nation, antedating the commonly accepted starting point—the formation of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1853—by a generation.  There are in addition the enduring technical challenges, particularly when it comes to working with old wood and massive timbers (see this fascinating article from American Forests; incidentally, I'm proud to say that the University of Wisconsin Forest Products Laboratory, familiar to me since my childhood, played a major role in the last major restoration).  Finally, in the case of structures so subject to decay and deterioration, there is the conceptual or philosophical problem of "the same axe twice," as the old joke or anecdote goes (if you change the handle three times and the head twice, is it really the same tool?).  How much is original?  According to the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston, approximately "10 to 15 percent of the ship’s fabric is composed of timber installed between 1795 and 1797."  One offshoot of the process of deterioration and restoration has been the market for discarded materials. The 1927-31 restoration was financed in part by the selling of such souvenirs.  The tradition of course is older.  Pieces from the timbers or sheathing of old Royal Navy ships, whether hulks or preserved—Nelson's "Victory" is probably the best example—have been marketed at least since the nineteenth century. I myself have a couple of such items in my collection.  All in all, then, the "Constitution" wonderfully embodies the theoretical and practical aspectts of preservation.

And the need for interpretation as well as preservation continues (otherwise: why preserve?).  The USS Constitution Museum recently announced that it is seeking "an energetic, enthusiastic intern to assist in the development of a Museum/Public Libraries outreach program" (application details). Always nice to see my interest in historic preservation and books and libraries combined.

Speaking of documentation and public history:  In the meantime, inland Whitehall, NY, the official birthplace of the US Navy (who knew? bonus points: the date is Oct. 13, 1775) finds its historic claim challenged by Providence, R.I., and three Massachusetts locales:  Beverly, Marblehead, and the "Constitution"'s home of Boston.  A meeting at the Constitution Museum on the anniversary of the Navy's birth, organized by Archivist of the United States David Ferriero (a Marblehead native whose wife is from Beverly), took up the vexed question.  He explained that the real purpose was educational rather than juridical:
Ferriero set his staff researching the Navy's origins shortly after he was appointed the archivist last year. Curiosity about the competing claims to his hometown's title was one reason, he said, but he added the real purpose is not to settle the argument. Rather it's to use the good-natured debate to send a message about the archives: "These are your records, you should be using them, we provide access to them and there are all kinds of stories to be told from the records of your government," Ferriero said.
To end the suspense: the title remains both officially unchanged and popularly disputed.  When Ferriero put the five choices to an unofficial voice vote, the audience sent up "huzzuh"s in equal volume for Marblehead and Beverly. And so, advocates of local history keep the struggle, like the "Constitution" itself, alive.


USS Constitution Museum
• Boston Navy Yard (map; National Park Service site)
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