"Old Ironsides" is a 207 year old Navy frigate officially named U.S.S. Constitution. The oldest commissioned warship in the world and Boston's most famous landmark, she is open to the public and provides a remarkable trip back in time for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Her story, which is still ongoing, began here in the year 1794, when the Congress voted to establish a Navy.
Old Ironsides was built of oak at Hartt's Shipyard in Boston. Her anchors were made in Hanover, Massachusetts, her fastenings provided by Boston's own Paul Revere and her sails made in the old Granary Building in downtown Boston. She was finally launched on October 21, 1797, at a total cost of $302,718. The new ship was 204 feet long, displaced 2,200 tons and carried 450 men and 54 cannon. She was a good sailor, powered by nearly 43,000 square feet of canvas and capable of exceeding 13 knots.
Old Ironsides sailed from Boston on July 20, 1798, cruising the West Indies and campaigning against the Barbary pirates based in Tripoli. Later she cruised in the Mediterranean and spent a short time on special service in Europe.
The war of 1812 against Britain began on June 18 of that year and lasted until February 18, 1815. This was the ship's golden age, during which she built her reputation for invincibility. She made five cruises during the conflict.
The first cruise, under Captain Isaac Hull, was not propitious. Leaving Annapolis, Constitution fell in with five ships under the impression that they were American. They turned out to be British vessels, which thereupon chased her for three days and nights until she finally broke free and made for Boston.
On the second cruise, Captain Hull made amends. After first capturing four English merchant brigs, he met one of his former tormentors, the Guerriere, a 49-gun frigate under Captain J. J. Dacres. In a 25 minute fight, the Constitution dismasted and defeated Guerriere, losing seven dead and seven wounded, as against the British ship's losses of 15 dead and 64 injured. It was during this combat that a sailor was reputed to have said, in reference to the cannonballs bouncing off Constitution's oaken bulwarks, "Her sides are made of iron!'" thus christening her with the "Old Ironsides" nickname by which she is known today.
In her third cruise, she captured the British 49-gun warship Java, shooting away her masts and mortally wounding her commander. After Java surrendered, Constitution removed the vanquished sailors and put Java's hulk to the torch.
The fourth and fifth cruises of Old Ironsides took place under the command of Captain Charles Stewart. During the first of these outings Captain Stewart captured two schooners, a full-rigged ship, and a brig off the coast of Guiana during a five day period in February of 1814. In the course of the fifth trip Constitution captured a brig off Bermuda and a ship near Lisbon, and then engaged and captured two ships-H.M.S. Cyane and Levant-in one night on February 20, 1815-two days after the war had ended.
The following six years brought many repairs, and the ship's next real service was in the years 1821 to1823 and again during 1824 to1828, when she served as flagship of the U.S. Mediterranean squadron. Afterward Constitution was considered to have outlived her useful life and was condemned as unseaworthy. Plans to demolish her were scuttled after a public outcry fed in part by a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes:
"Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
and many an eye has danced to see
that banner in the sky...."
Once money was appropriated she entered drydock at the Boston Naval Shipyard on June 24, 1833, and emerged rebuilt nearly a year later to begin her second career of active service as flagship at various times for the Mediterranean, Home and Pacific squadrons. A 52,000 mile epic voyage in 1844 to1845 took her around the world. Her final belligerent action occurred in 1853 when she captured slave ships off the African coast.
By 1861, she was unarguably obsolete and was reduced to the status of school ship. Eventually she underwent further rebuilding at Philadelphia and undertook her last foreign cruise in 1878 when she traveled to France for the Paris Exposition.
An anachronism, the frigate spent 1883 to 1896 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, as a receiving ship for new sailors-basically a barge covered by a roof serving as a dormitory. In 1897, her 100th year, she was towed to Boston for a celebration of her centennial.
Her advanced age and rotting timbers nearly brought her again to the shipbreakers, but the public again protested. A partial refit enabled "Old Ironsides" to serve as a naval museum until 1925, when a massive overhaul was approved.
In 1931, the restoration was completed, and Constitution left on a triumphal tour of the East and West Coasts of the United States. In 1934, she returned to Boston, where she has remained as a commissioned warship and as flagship for commandants of the First Naval District. The years continued to take their toll, and the elderly vessel revisited the drydock in the Boston Navy Yard for repairs in 1945, in the early 1970s, and finally in 1992 to undergo a massive, three year overhaul to prepare her for her bicentennial celebration in 1997. During that occasion, she traveled for a short distance under her own sail for the first time since 1881.
The years between overhauls have seen Old Ironsides perform her tradition of being cast off from the pier once a year in order to be turned end for end and thus expose both sides equally to the elements. This annual turning has become a ceremonial cruise through Boston Harbor on the Fourth of July, an event that is the country's official symbol of Independence Day.
"Old Ironsides" is open for tours every day but Monday, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The U.S. Navy offers free tours (30 to 40 minutes long) guided by active-duty enlisted sailors of both the spar deck and gun deck, and visitors pressed for time can opt for a self-guided tour of the spar deck only.
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