142 messy years of ship's history Constellation: Caretakers are laboring over a $9 million restoration to return the ship to its leaner 1854 appearance. They want it in dry dock by Christmas.

December 10, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Take the oldest, wettest, most cluttered and claustrophobic basement you can imagine, multiply the mess a thousand times and start cleaning.

That's the task facing three members of the staff of the warship Constellation and nine laborers as they race to unload 142 years of accumulated relics and junk. The want to finish the cleanup so the ship can be moved into dry dock by Christmas.

The job is only about half done, and it has already left piles of iron, rope, bronze spikes, wood and junk alongside the ship at the Fort McHenry Shipyard.

Project engineer Paul G. Powichroski spends most of his time in the shipyard office ordering tools and materials. But he goes aboard at least once a day and pokes around on the dock amid all the stuff that has been lugged from the ship since it was moved Nov. 17 from the Inner Harbor.

"It's just been amazing," he said. Few records were kept of what was on the ship, or what may have been removed over the years. Clearing out what remains has become part archaeology, part spelunking.

From deep in the bilge and from hidden recesses of the orlop deck have come handwrought mast hoops the size of car tires used to attach mast supports, and a pile of 6-foot lifeline stanchions.

There are stacks of hammock irons -- perhaps 100 of them -- that once held batting used to protect sailors on the spar deck from bullets. Nearby are heavy braces that once secured the ship's rigging and fighting tops -- platforms high on the masts for marksmen.

"This we're thinking is probably part of the original ironwork from the 1854 ship," he said. "It was taken off when they tried to make it look like the 1797 ship."

The 1797 Constellation -- a frigate built in Baltimore -- was scrapped at Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Va., in 1853 and replaced the next year by a sloop of war. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the ship's Baltimore caretakers, with the complicity of the Navy, added details and made alterations in a bid to make the ship look more like the 18th-century frigate.

The Constellation Foundation, which was restructured in 1994, is determined that the $9 million restoration will return the ship to its leaner 1854 appearance as the last all-sail warship built for the Navy.

Powichroski intends to use as much of the original iron as he can and copy whatever he can't use. "We will have a fully operating blacksmith's shop right here by the dock," he said.

The dock holds plenty of reminders of the efforts to alter the ship's appearance. Most obvious are 21 fiberglass cannons, each light enough for one person to lift. They were fabricated to replicate two 5,500-pound, 18th-century cannons lent to the ship by the Naval Historical Center in Washington.

The fate of the fiberglass guns remains uncertain. The iron cannons and an iron carronade, a light cannon used at close range, will be returned to the Navy. They're "the wrong vintage," Powichroski said.

Eventually, much of what comes off the ship may be made available for sale, or as premiums in exchange for donations, said Louis F. Linden, the foundation's executive director. But first, everything has to be inventoried and its historical value determined.

Among the finds are three wooden barrels filled with iron cannonballs the size of softballs. They're modern reproductions, Powichroski said, and it's "my guess they were put on board to make the ship look 1812-ish."

On the other hand, three cylindrical iron projectiles were found that could well date to the Civil War. They will be kept for display on the restored ship.

Piles of wooden blocks -- the pulleys used to lift the sails and rigging -- also litter the shipyard dock. Many are modern. Others may date to refits between the Civil War and the early 1900s.

"We're not going to use any of the modern stuff," Powichroski said. "We'll use a lot of the older blocks, and if we don't have enough, we'll make new ones that simulate the old."

The thousands of pounds of iron and wood taken off the ship have left it riding 6 inches higher in the water.

But clamber up the side on the rope ladder and make your way below deck, and it quickly becomes apparent how much remains to be done.

Nine temporary laborers with strong backs are still picking old iron fittings out of the bilge, where they found tons of it -- literally -- strewn amid the ballast.

Next, in teams of four, they'll lug the 300-pound, cast-iron ballast blocks to a pallet beneath an open hatch. From there, the blocks will be lifted out of the ship by crane.

Some ballast will be left on board while the ship is in dry dock to help gravity straighten the ship's keel.

The keel is now badly "hogged" -- 27 inches higher in the middle than at the ends.

Eventually, all 350 tons of ballast will be removed, cleaned and replaced before the ship is refloated.

Workers have yet to remove old hatch grates; stacks of folding chairs; boxes of paper cups; a nasty-looking 1940s-era bathroom; tons of old live-oak and modern pine timbers saved from prior restorations.

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