'Don't Give Up the Ship!'

August 07, 1994

Those immortal words by Capt. James Lawrence as he lay dying on the U.S.S. Chesapeake during the War of 1812 are appropriate to the fate of its sister frigate, the Constellation. The Constellation, reputed to be the oldest surviving U.S. naval vessel, is again threatened. This time it is the wear and tear of old age on its wooden hull and spars. Unless several million dollars can be raised for extensive repairs, the venerable ship could be towed from its place as the centerpiece of Baltimore's rejuvenated downtown, never to return.

As is evident to any visitor to the harbor these days, the Constellation has been stripped to its hull. And that is none too strong, either. The ship must be hauled into drydock soon, for restoration work that could take several years as well as millions of dollars. The U.S. Navy still nominally owns the vessel, but it is having a hard enough time maintaining a sufficient force of steel-hulled ships, leaving not much to spare for the historic relic.

Visitors and private contributions provide almost all of the ship's income. The city contributes a bit, but the federal and state governments pay nothing toward regular maintenance. Both have helped with past restorations, however.

Captain Lawrence's immortal words have an ironic appropriateness to the Constellation. He is remembered for words he didn't quite utter. What he actually said was, "Tell the men to fire faster and not to give up the ship . . ." There are those who believe the Constellation isn't quite the ship built in 1797, either. But it nonetheless represents the naval might of a fledgling country, much of it launched on the Chesapeake Bay.

Even with its rigging stripped, the Constellation is the conspicuous centerpiece of the Inner Harbor, almost its trademark. It is unthinkable to lose it permanently. A fund-raising campaign under experienced leadership is being organized. Recognizing the ship's value, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has chipped in $5,000. Now the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has earmarked $1 million for the restoration. Assuming the funds survive a conference committee with the House, the critical repair work can begin. But much more money will be needed.

Against a background of so many pressing social needs, money for an old wooden boat might seem frivolous to some. But tourism is a vital part of the Maryland economy, and the harbor is its brightest attraction. The Constellation is not a sentimental trophy. It is an investment in an important economic asset. Nothing better evokes the maritime traditions of Baltimore and Maryland.

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