1930s petitions found on Constellation Letters asked that ship be moved to Baltimore

February 13, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A glimpse of Baltimore and its residents as they were about 60 years ago has mysteriously emerged from the musty clutter in the hold of the 143-year-old warship Constellation.

Workers restoring the ship in dry dock at the Fort McHenry Shipyard last week found on board a cardboard box containing thousands of yellowed petitions addressed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Signed by an estimated 43,000 people listing addresses in the city and nearby suburbs, they ask Roosevelt and his Navy secretary to return the historic ship to Baltimore, "her home port."

The signatures and addresses -- most written in fountain pen -- reflect a time of careful penmanship and attest to the rich ethnic neighborhoods of the day.

From South Ann, Fleet, Aliceanna, Rose and Bank streets in Fells Point came the signatures of Stanislaus Bednarczyk, Janocha and Cyran Ladislaus, Raymond Adamski and Edward Rykiel.

From addresses on Gough, South Central, Fawn and Albemarle streets in Little Italy came the names of Joseph Paggioli, Frank Villa, Louis Iannantuono and Frank Cipolloni.

Cipolloni, who still lives in the same house on Albemarle Street, would have been 13 or so then. He's 73 now, and doesn't remember signing. But he does remember the boys whose names appear on the sheet with his.

"A lot of them are dead, a lot moved away," he said. But several still live in the neighborhood. "We used to be sitting on the corner there eating a sandwich or something. They'd come around and say, 'You want to sign this?' So we'd put our name on it. I don't know what the hell I signed."

Most of the rest of the petitions' story remains a mystery.

No one at the Constellation Foundation's shipyard office has been with the ship long enough to know how the petitions came to be stored in the hold. It's not clear whether they were delivered to the White House or the Navy.

They just turned up, the latest of many historic curiosities to come off the ship as laborers work to clear the decks of generations of accumulated junk and artifacts.

"I was on my daily boat tour Tuesday at the end of the day," said assistant project manager Paul G. Powichroski. "As I went back aft on the orlop deck, it [the box] was sitting 6 inches away from a big puddle of water."

He moved it out of harm's way.

In the first half of this century, many efforts were made to bring the Constellation to Baltimore. They reflected the common belief that the ship was the Navy's original frigate Constellation, built and launched at Fells Point in 1797.

After decades of debate, however, most historians now agree the frigate was scrapped at the Gosport Naval shipyard in Virginia in 1853, and replaced by a sloop-of-war of the same name, launched at Gosport in 1854.

The new ship fought the slave trade off West Africa, served in the Civil War, and sailed as a training ship for years. After World War II, the Navy threatened to scrap it until Baltimoreans' pleas to bring it "home" finally prevailed in 1954.

By the 1970s, the ship's first caretakers had made it an Inner Harbor landmark, but in time it deteriorated. The Constellation Foundation is now restoring it to its original Civil War appearance, at a cost of $9 million.

The old petitions -- an estimated 2,900 of them -- are addressed to Roosevelt, to Maryland's congressional delegation and to Navy Secretary Claude A. Swanson.

Swanson served until he died in 1939. And because the petitions bear a 1935 copyright on a Frederick Farley drawing of the ship, they must date to between 1935 and 1939.

"We the undersigned petitioners," the petitions read, "request you to use your efforts to effect the return of the U.S. Frigate 'Constellation' to Baltimore, her home port."

Instructions ask that signers return the papers to the "Constellation Committee, Gavel Club of Baltimore."

Other documents in the box, however, are linked to the Star Spangled Banner Flag House Association, which took possession of the ship in 1954. They include several savings bank passbooks, insurance policies and other papers from the 1940s.

The association still operates the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House museum at 844 E. Pratt St. Neither Jack Ensor nor Prentiss Browne -- both past presidents of the association -- could recall the petitions.

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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