Home » News & Analysis » 220 Year-Old USS Constitution Leaves Dry Dock Following Two-Years of Repairs


220 Year-Old USS Constitution Leaves Dry Dock Following Two-Years of Repairs

USS Constitution floats in Dry Dock One of the Boston Navy Yard on July 23, 2017. US Navy Photo

This post has been updated with additional information from the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Today, perhaps 15 percent of USS Constitution – including the keel – is original material from the 1790s, but the spirit of the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat remains intact as a 26-month restoration winds down.

Late on Sunday, Constitution left Dry Dock 1 at Charlestown Navy Yard, Mass. returning to a location familiar with scores of tourists, the nearby Pier 1. Post-docking restoration work will continue, and the ship is expected to reopen to the public in early September.

“When she was built, Constitution was among the best-designed ships in the world,” said a statement released by retired Rear Adm. Sam Cox, Naval History and Heritage Command Director.
“She could outrun anything she couldn’t outgun and outgun anything she couldn’t outrun.”

USS Constitution By the Numbers

26 months in dry-dock.
100 hull planks were cut from white oak trees. After hours of steaming these planks, restoration workers had approximately 3 minutes to bend the wood into the right shape to fit Constitution’s hull.
150
white oak trees designated by the Navy for use in the restoration.
468 four-inch copper pins were fashioned to hold bronze protective castings to the forward edge of the cutwater on the bow.
2,200 new copper sheets replaced old copper sheets on the hull.

Constitution was one of six original frigates Congress authorized to be built in 1794, and launched on October 21, 1797. Shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys designed the six frigates as the backbone of the new American Navy to be larger and more heavily armed than earlier frigates.

In a recent blog post Constitution’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Robert S. Gerosa, Jr. reflected on how the growing pains experienced when new platforms are launched today echo many of the concerns 220 years ago when Constitution entered service.

“It was a new design with exotic parts sourced from distant locales and multiple builders for two designs,” wrote Gerosa. “The future success these ships would have was in no way represented by the pains of the building process.”

GM2 Erin Bullock, assigned to USS Constitution, stands on the fighting top of the frigate in Boston on July 23, 2017. US Navy Photo

For the restoration, a blacksmith fashioned 468 copper pins to hold bronze protective castings to the forward edge of Constitution’s cutwater on the bow. Planks cut from white oak trees were steamed in order to be bent just right to fit the ship’s bow. The Navy designated 150 white oaks for future restoration of the ship in the 1970s and 24 were used during the current maintenance period. To protect against wood boring shipworms, 2,200 new copper sheets were nailed to the hull. Copper sheathing has covered the lower hull since 1797.

When Constitution launched, Gerosa wrote, the frigate was immediately pressed into service fighting against the French and protecting merchant ships in home waters. But the ship’s defining moment occurred a decade and a half after launch, in action against the British frigate HMS Guerriere.

USS Constitution is held in place by temporary shoring while water floods Dry Dock One at the Boston Navy Yard on July 23, 2017. US Navy Photo

Constitution’s sailors noticed some of the enemy’s cannon shot appeared to fall harmlessly off the 22-inch hull. Gerosa wrote the ship’s nickname, “Old Ironsides” was coined when a sailor reportedly shouted, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!”

“The ship itself didn’t end up proving its true superiority until the war of 1812 when she was 15 years old,” Gerosa wrote. At this time, Gerosa added, the British front-line ships were newer. “Her unorthodox design proved ahead of her time in defeating not one but four British warships in three separate engagements.”

  • Ed L

    The Old Old Old Old Old Old Navy would shake there heads at a safety harness in the Fighting Tops. Only a REAL Sailor would understand. Like the difference between a Mainmast sail and a upper topgallant foremast sail

    • PRONESE

      NAVOSH Rules…

    • muzzleloader

      The old Navy would also Shake thier heads at the notion of women sailors.

      • Doubtom

        Naw, they would neither shake “There” heads or “Thier” heads. They might shake ‘their’ heads.

        • Secundius

          I’ve been a USNI News member since 2010, and found out Early that NOBODY can Spell for SH|T…

          • Doubtom

            It’s been my experience that this malady is far from confined to members of USNI.

          • Secundius

            I chalk it up to “Old Fart Syndrome”!/? Not being able to see the Computer Screen well enough to Write Anything Coherent..

          • Doubtom

            Scusa mi, Secundus, at 87, I well qualify for the “Old fart” group and yet I can still manage coherency as defined by the use of proper grammar and spelling. 😉

          • Secundius

            Near Seventy myself, but I don’t read “Leet”…

          • muzzleloader

            Spell check fail lol

      • Secundius

        That where “Powder Monkey’s” came in!/? They performed OTHER Duties besides Delivering Gun Cotton to their Respective Guns…

        • Donald Carey

          Old Ironsides’ guns used black powder, not guncotton.

          • Secundius

            Little Hard to Load Loose Gunpowder at Sea when the Ship is Dancing Underfoot. Gunpowder was usually Sewn into Cotton Bag or Parchment Casing and Pricked with an Iron Needle for either Quickmatch or for Flintlock Mechanism…

          • Donald Carey

            Cotton bags filled with black powder are not gun cotton and you should know it. Gun cotton is nitrocellulose – the first recorded discovery was in 1832, but the first practical production method wasn’t found until around 1846.

          • Secundius

            Technically 1845, but the use of an Experimental Combustible Cotton Bag started as early as 1828 by the University of Basel, Switzerland. And Norway started using Encased Powder Charges as early as 1586. And the Royal Navy in the early 17th century…

  • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

    Still more survivable than the LCS.

    • wilkinak

      Unless someone lights a cigarette. Whoosh! Aluminum takes longer to burn than highly varnished wood.

  • RobM1981

    Dry Dock 1 is a pretty historic site, too. That whole Navy Yard is worth the visit, once Constitution re-opens.

    Plus: it doesn’t matter if and when 0% of the ship is “original.” She has never been decommissioned. In whatever state she is, that’s the USS Constitution.

  • John Locke

    I have a piece of her from the 1927-31 restoration.

  • Ben Lowsen

    Great story. Great photos. Can’t wait to see “Old Ironsides”!

  • publius_maximus_III

    God bless America,

  • b2

    She’s a beaut alrighty, but where’s the cross trees and the yard arms? 44 guns vs average enemy 36 guns, heavy 24lb’ers! USA!

    • Secundius

      Technically a 4th Rate with 44 Guns, but actually a Small 3rd Rate with 55 Guns: 1 x 18-pdr. (5.04-inch) Bow Chaser, 30 x 24-pdr. (5.55-inch) Long Guns and 24 x 32-pdr. (6.1-inch) Carronades. (aka Superfrigate or Heavy Frigate)…

    • Ed L

      Those were design to be easily removed, replaced or stored below back when She was commission.

  • Ed L

    Dreaming here, but I really think it would be beneficial to Our Navy if there were a couple of Sailing Brigs (a warship with a … Brig sloops had two masts, while ship sloops continued to have three (since a brig is a … Originally a sloop-of-war was smaller than a sailing frigate and was (by virtue of having too few guns) outside the rating system) about say about 130 feet in length with Chain guns, etc. They could stay out for months at a time with no problem. They could have a diesel for harbor maneuvering

    As a BM3 on my first ship. Our First LT LDO a 30 year veteran insisted that all the boat coxswains learn how to handle a small sailboat 14 to 18 feet.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    God Bless ‘Old Ironsides’ and the people who take care of her! I must have built at least 10 different models of her when I was a kid. A truly iconic symbol of this country..

  • Still carried on the Naval Vessel Register as active and in commission in the category “other”. There is one other ship in that category (you will probably be surprised). Both go towards the current total of 273 active, in commission ships.

    See: nvr(dot)navy(dot)mil

  • Kenneth Millstein

    If the USS Constitution still remaining a part of our active fleet doesn’t give you thrills and chills nothing ever will. God bless both the vessel and our written constitution. “Sail” and continue to be safe!

  • Ed L

    Back in the Days of Sail, Navies of the world had there own forests for getting building material from

  • matt00773

    Fantastic ship! Great to see all the time and effort put into her. Should point out though that this isn’t the oldest warship still in commission as the article suggests – this honour goes to the British ship HMS Victory.

    • Dan Knaus

      There’s the caveat of “world’s oldest commissioned warship *afloat*” – Victory is permanently dry docked.

      • Secundius

        HMS Victory was “Officially” Decommissioned in October 2012…

        • El_Sid

          No – she was transferred from the MoD to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, but remains in commission and the flagship of 1SL.