An Old Wooden Wall

April 04, 1995|By CHRISTOPHER T. GEORGE

Commenting on the sad shape of the sloop of war Constellation, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer remarked that the deterioration of the historic wooden warship may herald a decline of downtown Baltimore -- a chilling prophecy indeed!

State bond money for repairs to the 142-year-old ship appears likely to be a mere fraction of the $3 million Baltimore lawmakers had requested as the state's share of the $9 million estimated to be needed. The City Council proposes to give $3 million in bond money, but those funds are dependent on whether city voters approve a ballot question in the fall -- and any approved money won't become available until late next year!

To me, a historian, the Constellation as it is now, mastless and desolate, reminds me of nothing less than the ''old wooden walls'' or hulks in which the British housed American prisoners during the American Revolution and again in the War of 1812.

Countless Yankee prisoners, mostly sailors, white and black, suffered -- and died -- in the disease-ridden British hulks anchored in Charleston and New York harbors and in the sweltering heat of the West Indies. Even into Victorian times, English convicts languished and perished in prison ships anchored in the Thames and elsewhere. Many a proud old sailing ship ended her career shamefully as an ''old wooden wall'' before the vessel disappeared from history forever.

Many historians used to believe that the ship towed ''home'' to Baltimore in 1955 (after the U.S. Navy threatened to sink it), was in large part the frigate launched in 1797, one of the original six frigates of the young U.S. Navy and sister ship of ''Old Ironsides,'' the U.S.F. Constitution now in Boston. More recently, naval authorities have said the ship in Baltimore harbor is a sloop of war of the same name built in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1853.

Although Mr. Schaefer's fears of a deterioration of downtown Baltimore may be premature, no one can deny the eyesore that the Constellation, without masts and closed to the public, has become. Its condition should sadden anyone who cares for history and the future of Baltimore's downtown area.

The General Assembly should carefully reconsider the bond money it will give for the restoration of Constellation. Perhaps Mr. Glendening, operating out of a southern Maryland mindset gained as Prince George's County executive, does not fully appreciate the importance of the Constellation to the tourist industries of Baltimore -- and of the state. When combined with the National Aquarium and the Harborplace pavilions, the Constellation is one of the ingredients that gives the Inner Harbor its one-of-a-kind appeal to visitors.

The Constellation is an irreplaceable link to the past, to our nation's maritime heritage, to a time when the city's shipbuilders constructed frigates and clippers that matched the best seagoing vessels in the world. The sloop of war evokes an age when sailors served on wooden ships throughout the seven seas under intrepid skippers of the likes of Marylanders John Rodgers and Joshua Barney. The ''beautiful woman'' -- as admirers called the Constellation in earlier days -- deserves better than to be allowed to die like any other old wooden wall of a past era.

Conservators should also think seriously about how best to preserve the vessel once it is restored, no matter who comes up with the millions to do the job. To put the old ship back in the waters of the Inner Harbor is just asking for it to deteriorate again, necessitating within a few decades the same salvage job required today. When a wooden ship is kept in salt water, the replacement rate is always high. Timber must be replaced at least every 10 or 12 years, though wood in the hull and lower decks usually lasts longer.

Plunking the Constellation back in the waters of the Inner Harbor after restoration to decay once more would be the height of foolishness. The ship should be maintained in dry dock, as has been done in Portsmouth, England, with H.M.S. Victory, British Admiral Horatio Nelson's flagship, aboard which in 1805 he lost his life while destroying the combined fleets of Spain and Napoleonic France at Trafalgar.

Today, the Victory sits in permanent dry dock, sheltered from the ravages of sea water and destructive maritime pests. Thus protected, the ship serves as a permanent shrine to Great Britain's naval heritage, as the Constellation, if similarly protected, could again be a shrine to the U.S. Navy here in Baltimore.

A dry dock could be constructed in Harborplace at the very same location where the Constellation is now berthed with no real change to the visual delight that a restored ship will bring. To sit the ship back in water is insane; its sailing days are over. It is a historical artifact and should be treated as such.

Christopher T. George is a Baltimore-area free-lance writer and an associate editor with the Maryland Historical magazine.

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