On This Day...
October 21, 1797, the USS Constitution was Launched in Boston. In 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.
When the United States won independence from Britain, the young nation found itself without a protector at sea. Algerian pirates boarded U.S. merchant vessels, and both Britain and France harassed American ships and forced American sailors to serve in their navies. In 1794 Congress ordered a fleet of six super-sized frigates; each was to be built in a different port. George Washington named the ship built in Edmond Hartt's Boston shipyard, Constitution.
The hull of Constitution was made of oak planks more than seven inches thick. The ship was designed with diagonal cross-bracing of the skeleton, greatly increasing the strength of her frame. According to tradition, Paul Revere fabricated the copper spikes and bolts that held the hull and sheathing in place.
All this structural reinforcement made Constitution a formidable opponent at sea. It also made her heavy. When the ship was ready to be launched in 1797, her weight caused great difficulty. On the first attempt, she moved only 25 feet. Two days later, workers tried again but succeeded in advancing only another 30 feet. The next step was to build a launch site with steeper angles. Finally, on October 21 st , workers launched the ship into Boston Harbor.
In 1830 the Navy declared that Constitution was no longer seaworthy and recommended that she be scrapped. But an indignant public protested. The ship's exploits, memorialized in a popular poem, had endeared her to the nation. Congress relented and appropriated money for repairs.
Public sentiment saved Constitution from scrapping three more times in her history. The most recent restoration took almost four years and was completed in time for Old Ironside's 200 th birthday on October 21, 1997.
If You Go
USS Constitution Museum is on the Freedom Trail in Boston.
A Most Fortunate Ship , by Tyrone G. Martin (Naval Institute Press, 1997).