Aging USS Constellation receives a skin treatment Rubber coating on hull seals leaks before towing

September 11, 1996|By Claudia Moessinger | Claudia Moessinger,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

The first step toward restoration of the aging USS Constellation, the historic showpiece of the Inner Harbor, happened underwater yesterday.

As a nurse dresses the wounds of a patient, diver Martin Sadowski applied a skin of rubber to stop the Civil War vessel's leaks and prepare it for towing to the Fort McHenry dock, where it will remain during repairs.

Ship keeper Rick McDonough guided as Sadowski hammered the 3-foot-wide sections of roofing material to the ship's hull over hTC a layer of marine life -- mussels, mostly.

The 1854 vessel is the last all-sail warship built by the Navy. It was used to free slaves, and carried famine relief to Ireland and priceless American works of art to the Paris Exposition of 1878.

Since moving to Baltimore about 40 years ago, the vessel has become a popular tourist attraction.

But time has taken its toll. The ship is infested with dry rot. The Persian red walls of the gun deck are flaking, and McDonough said that he could poke a hole to the outside hull.

The boat has been patched, corked and plugged. It would sink without the aid of two pumps on board, daily pumping out thousands of gallons of water, McDonough said.

And the once-proud ship has looked naked since the removal of its heavy masts two years ago, when the Navy determined that the vessel was unsafe.

Fund-raising attempts to restore the vessel were initially hampered by the "frigate fraud" -- a ruse decades ago in which the 1854 sloop of war was passed off as the original 1797 frigate Constellation, said Louis F. Linden, executive director of the USS Constellation Foundation.

"The controversy had a negative impact. Most people want to know what they put their money in," said Linden.

The ruse also added to the deterioration of the vessel. "She was terribly butchered up to look like the frigate. The hatch was cut, and that impaired the structural integrity," said Linden.

But the campaign has taken off, he said. The group has met more than half of its $9 million goal and soon will begin more widespread fund raising, Linden said.

"We want to go to the people of Baltimore and enable them to 'own' the ship," he said.

When the Constellation re-opens to the public in about three years, visitors will notice the ship's interior mimics a museum setting.

Other renovations will erase the aesthetic changes made during the "frigate fraud."

"We will tell the truth about the artifact the best we know it," said Linden.

He said the vessel will be a big payoff for Baltimore's economy. "She represents the city," he said.

Dana McKnight and Mike Olson, shipyard workers in Newport News, Va., visiting the Inner Harbor yesterday, were impressed by the ship's size and history.

"I would love an opportunity to look at it again," said McKnight.

Pub Date: 9/11/96

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