America’s oldest commissioned warship, USS Constitution, was finally refloated on Sunday following a two-year, multi-million dollar restoration at the historic Charlestown Navy Yard, located at the Boston National Historical Park.
USS Constitution entered the yard’s Dry Dock 1 on May 18, 2015, and since then ship restorers and teams of Constitution Sailors have worked side-by-side to bring Old Ironsides back to her glory.
The restoration included the replacement of 100 hull planks and the required caulking, the re-building of the ship’s cutwater on the bow, as well as the on-going preservation and repair of the ship’s rigging, upper masts and yards. One of the biggest tasks in the restoration was the replacement of Constitution’s copper sheathing below the waterline. Copper sheathing has covered the lower hull since her launch in 1797, as protection against ship worms that could damage the wooden hull.
Captain Robert S. Gerosa, Jr., commanding officer of Constitution, said he was proud of the hard work and dedication of his Sailors during the restoration.
“The significance of the water coming in the dry dock is the start of the evolution,” said Gerosa. “It’s the start of getting Constitution back in the water. This is it, this is what we’ve been striving for the last 26 months. We are again in the water where ships need to be.”
Richard Moore, Director of Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston, which oversaw the project, was extremely pleased with the undocking of Constitution.
“All of the Detachment Boston employees take great pride in the work accomplished,” said Moore. “The ship restorers, riggers and blacksmith are a group of skilled craftspeople who have put their talents to great use during Constitution’s dry dock restoration. Tonight’s successful undocking is the culmination of the Detachment Boston’s hard work on Old Ironsides over the past 26 months.”
On Sunday evening, as the tide in Boston Harbor began to rise, shipyard workers opened the valves in the caisson, the “floating gate” that has held back the harbor water and Dry Dock 1 flooded. It was the first time the sea has touched Constitution’s hull in 26 months. Constitution finally lifted from her keel blocks at about 9:45 p.m.
Later at 11:15 p.m., after checks and diver inspections were completed, Constitution crossed the sill of the dry dock and into Boston Harbor.
USS Constitution History
Constitution started her service in the U.S. Navy with her launch Oct. 21, 1797. She was one of the six original frigates which began the new United States Navy and construction was authorized by an act of Congress in 1794. She and sister frigates were designed by shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys. As the Navy’s capital ships, they were larger and more heavily armed than frigates that had come before her, Constitution and her sisters became formidable opponents on the high seas.
Her keel was laid in Edmund Hartt’s Shipyard in Boston. She was built from the resilient Southern live oak from Georgia and her three masts were made from the strong white pine of Maine. Humphreys designed her hull at 22 inches thick at the waterline and to protect the hull, copper sheathing was added.
Undefeated in battle, she fought wars on the high seas, from the Quasi War with France to the Barbary Wars and most notably the War of 1812 against Great Britain. Her defining and most historic battle was with the British frigate HMS Guerriere, during which one of Constitution’s sailors noticed that some of the enemy’s cannon shot appeared to fall harmlessly off her hull. “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!”, the sailor purportedly shouted – thus earning her the nickname Old Ironsides.
Restoring the ship in keeping with the tenets of her original design was an important objective in the project, said Naval History and Heritage Command Director Sam Cox.
“When she was built, Constitution was among the best-designed ships in the world, she could outrun anything she couldn’t outgun and outgun anything she couldn’t outrun,” Cox said.
“Expanding that advantage has been the objective of Navy shipbuilders since Constitution’s keel was laid,” Cox continued. “Just yesterday, the Navy commissioned the USS Gerald R. Ford, a technological marvel of today. Ford and her crew will make history in new and innovative ways and can trace their lineage back to USS Constitution and the Sailors who first took her to sea in 1797.”
Constitution remains in service to her country today, sharing the history and heritage of America’s Navy. The ship is expected to continue post-docking restoration work before re-opening to the public in early September.