USS Constitution, the oldest warship of the US Navy and the
oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world (HMS Victory is
older, but is preserved in drydock), underwent a massive restoration from
1992 to 1996. The final phase of this restoration saw her fitted with
sails and sailed under her own power for the
first time in 116 years, on July 21, 1997. This photo feature presents
various views from earlier in the restoration process. These pictures
were taken from the bottom of Constitution's drydock, and from
aboard the ship during the restoration work. Also included are several
photos of her July 4, 1996 turn-around cruise, her first trip away from
the dock since 1992.
Haze Gray Photo Feature
USS Constitution Restoration
The Oldest Commissioned Warship Afloat
Description of the Restoration
Following the Sail Boston '92 "tall ships" event Constitution was
drydocked for a comprehensive restoration. This restoration returned her
to her condition at the time of the War of 1812, when she gained her fame.
The previous restorations had not been totally faithful to her original
design, for a variety of reasons. This restoration used plans of
Constitution's sistership President, the only known plans
for this class of vessels.
The initial work consisted of stripping the ship: all rigging, guns,
copper, caulking, ballast, and non-structural material was removed. In
order to keep her hull from drying out while she was drydocked, about 4
inches of water was kept in the dock at all times, and her hull below the
waterline was draped with huge sheets of canvas to keep out the sun and
keep in the moisture. This effort was quite effective--her keel was moist
to the touch two years after she was docked.
All deteriorated wood was replaced with new material. Much of the new live
oak was 'hurricane kill' from hurricane Hugo; teams were sent into the
field after that storm, templates in hand. Pieces that fit the templates
were shipped to Boston, where they were stored (some under water in the
drydock). Extra live oak has been laid in for future requirements. A
couple feet of hog was taken out of her keel, using specialized
variable-thickness keel blocks. All internal braces, knees, etc. were
replaced, including many knees and other structural members left out or
improperly replaced during previous rebuilds. This will do a lot to
prevent future hogging.
All the metal rods/bolts/etc. in the hull have been inspected with sonar,
and the few defective rods have been replaced. Most of these 200 year old
rods, some up to 6 feet long, are in excellent shape. Most of the metal
fittings are original.
She received all new spars, many made of glue-laminated boards instead
of the 4 piece "built" spars used previously. This will prevent cracking and
checking of the spars. She also received get new rigging, new caulking,
new copper, etc. All bulkheads, fancy work, etc. were be replaced or
repaired as needed. New lighting and fire protection systems were
installed; they will be less ugly than the previous systems.
Constitution was floated out of the dock in late 1995; rigging
and fitting out work went on well into 1996. Sailmaking started in
1996 and stretched well into 1997, with the final sails going aboard
just prior to her historic sail.
I was fortunate enough to gain access to the drydock during the
restoration process, and to gain access to sections of the ship
that are normally closed to the public.
Port side of the hull, forward, showing the keel and stem.
This view is taken from the port side, slightly forward of where the
stem joins the keel. It shows the majority of Constitution's
in place, with several planks removed for replacement, revealing the
frames behind them. The quantity of blocking, shoring and staging in the
drydock is quite apparent, as is the resulting difficulty in photography.
The bright, gleaming metal at the lower right corner of the photo is new
copper on the keel.
Another view of Constitution's port side, forward.
This view was taken just aft of the previous one. It shows her hull
structure and details more clearly.
Close-up view of Constitution's hull.
This view, showing a caulker at work, was taken slightly astern of the
previous two, and shows the actual joint between the keel and stem. The
missing plank near the top of the image shows how truly massive
Constitution's hull structure is -- note how the frames are
literally touching each other, giving the hull great strength. The rubber
boots attest to the fact that the drydock was normally kept awash with
four inches of water to keep the ship from drying out. Most of the wood
in this view is original, 1700's material.
View along Constitution's keel, looking from stern to bow along
the port side.
THe new copper on the keel gleams, and puddles in the dock reflect the light,
The dock had been drained to make this visit posssible, else this view would
have included a shallow lake running the length of the dock.
Massive new timbers installed in Constitution's stern.
This view looks aft, from port to starboard. The near-vertical surface at
the rear is the transom. These timbers, and a third out of view to the
right, will serve to support and strengthen Constitution' stern.
The stern is normally the weakest area of a vessel, and tends to hog (sag)
quickly. These timbers tie the stern into the rest of the hull structure,
hopefully delaying or preventing hogging problems in the future.
New knees installed, and knees waiting to be installed, along the
The newly installed knee at right, and the knee resting on the deck at
center, compared to the outlines of the old knees on the hull, show how
much larger the new knees are. Previous restorations hadn't been concerned
with hull strength, on the premise that the hull would not be strained
while the ship sat dockside as a museum. Therefore smaller knees had
been installed, and some had been left out entirely. Unfortunately, hogging
takes place even when the ship is no longer sailing, so the larger
structural members are needed.
Installation of a very large knee aboard Constitution.
Compare to the previous, smaller knees beyond this one to see an excellent
illustration of the strengthening taking place during this restoration.
Constitution's orlop deck. No changes are evident in this view,
although all the modern crew quarters formerly housed in part of the
orlop had been ripped out. Large diagonal timbers know as "diagonal riders"
were later installed long the hull here, greatly strengthing the ship. These
timbers had been left out during previous overhauls, and might have been
eliminated while the ship was still in service as a combat or training
Constitution in drydock.
The massive amount of scaffolding around the hull is quite evident in
this view, looking forward along the starboard side.
Turn-Around, Independence Day, 1996
1996 was Constitution's first turn-around cruise since 1992.
In addition to the normal festivities, Constitution was "escorted"
by a fleet of museum-warships and "tall ships". Museum ships included
the heavy cruiser Salem (CA 139) and the destroyer Cassin Young
(DD 793). Tall ships included HMS Bounty, Gazella of
Philadelphia, Spirt of Massachusetts and Ernestina.
Some of these photos were taken from Castle Island (Fort Independence), and
others from aboard Salem.
Constitution outbound from the harbor, approaching Castle Island,
under tow as always.
View is from Castle Island.
Constitution passing Salem.
View is from Salem.
Constitution outbound, having passed both Castle Island and
View is from Castle Island.
Constitution inbound, preparing to fire her traditional 21-gun
View is from Castle Island.
Constitution firing her starboard-side cannon during the 21-gun
View is from Salem; Castle Island and Fort Independence
are beyond Constitution.
Constitution during the 21-gun salute, with Salem beyond.
The monument at left honors Donald McKay, an East Boston shipbuilder best
known for his record-breaking clipper ships.
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