USS Constellation's hull reveals its true ancestry and year of birth Coins minted to raise $1 million to help pay for ship's restoration

July 30, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

As an ancient coin ritual was enacted on the deck of the dry-docked USS Constellation yesterday, the past and future suddenly became clearer.

Now it's official: The wooden vessel in the Fort McHenry shipyard is indeed the one built in 1854 by the Navy as its last ship under sail.

And it is definitely not the frigate Constellation built in Baltimore in 1797 as part of the original six-ship navy.

"There's no doubt about it, because we've surveyed the shape of the hull," said Peter Boudreau, restoration project manager for the Constellation Foundation.

The survey, concluded last week, was conducted with laser beams and compared the surface of the hull to the design drawn in 1853 by John Lenthall, the Navy's chief engineer, or constructor as he was then called.

It was a perfect match.

"It's the same ship. End of story," said Louis F. Linden, the foundation's executive director. "It's the first time she's been measured and compared."

The year, 1854, is emblazoned on the newly minted Constellation coin that was placed in the knee (a support block) of the ship's stem, the forward post of the keel, yesterday and "entombed for posterity," as Linden put it.

Along with it were a Baltimore bicentennial coin and an 1854 half-dollar. One after the other, the coins were ceremoniously sealed into the bow at the cutwater.

Beyond observing a seafaring ritual meant to pay the way for drowned sailors across the mythical underworld River Styx, the Constellation coin also has practical purposes.

It was minted as a way to raise another $1 million for the restoration.

Replicas of the coins are on sale to the public for $20 and will serve as a "lifetime pass to the ship," said Gail Shawe, chairwoman of the foundation's board of directors.

"It gives citizens a way to support the Constellation," she said.

If the $9 million restoration goes according to schedule, the Constellation will return to the Inner Harbor as a tourist attraction in 1999.

The coin campaign has echoes of a similar souvenir drive in the 1960s to save the hulk from ruin.

The ship's backers then contended it was the 1797 frigate and put that date on their coins to support their claim that the Constellation was the Navy's oldest surviving ship.

But in recent years, it has been established the historic vessel is instead a sloop of war, the only one remaining from the Civil War navy. Before war broke out, it intercepted slave ships sailing from Africa.

"When you look at the Constellation, you're looking at the end of the sailing navy. That puts her on the map right there," said Margherita Desy, associate curator of the USS Constitution museum in Boston. "It's fun to be the first but just as important to be the last."

In its current state, it looks like a poor cousin of the USS Constitution -- the 1797 frigate nicknamed "Old Ironsides" and restored by the Navy at a cost of $12 million.

With great fanfare, the Constitution sailed solo last week for the first time since 1881.

Since the Constellation went into dry dock in December, the tall Douglas fir masts are down, the ribs are being rebuilt and every wooden inch is being hand-scraped to make the sloop shipshape again.

"I know folks in Baltimore feel like the poor old Constellation's got the short end of the stick," said Desy.

"At least she's survived," she added. "There's a lot more of her that's undisturbed, as far as structure goes, than the Constitution. She's unbelievable, really."

"She's been all over the Mediterranean and the Atlantic," said Linden.

The Constellation delivered artwork to the Paris Exposition in 1878 and food to relieve famine to Ireland in 1880.

For a time after being decommissioned, it served as a training ground for the Naval Academy. In 1955, the ship was given away by the Navy.

The controversy that haunted the ship appears over at last. Referring to what was "a strange twisting of history," Desy said, "people believed the old story that this was the original [1797 frigate] cut down and refit."

In dry dock, Linden said, the Constellation is "getting her shape back," buttressed by purpleheart, a hardwood from Guyana.

The hull was so badly warped by years of neglect that straightening the keel at first seemed impossible.

Not only experts are at work. High school students involved in the Living Classrooms Foundation -- a program designed to discourage them from dropping out of school -- witnessed the coin ritual yesterday and then went back to scraping the masts.

Mishaune Maclin, 16, beamed as she explained why she was chosen to place one of the coins into the stem: "For all my hard work."

Jason Bess, 16, said: "At first, I thought it was just labor."

Now, said Leo Dorman, 15, he and the other teen-agers understand it as part of the march of maritime history.

"How many people get to work on the Constellation?" he said. "I can tell my grandkids I worked on that boat."

Constellation coins

Image: Sloop of war.

Date: 1854, the newly proved origin of the ship.

Content (in part): Smelted bronze fasteners original to the ship, which was the last U.S. all-sail warship built.

Price: $20.

Purpose: Fund-raiser for restoration, expected to cost $9 million.

Use: Lifetime pass to tour the ship, scheduled to open to the public in 1999 at the Inner Harbor.

Information: 410-539-1797.

+!SOURCE: Constellation Foundation

Pub Date: 7/30/97

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