The triumphal 200th anniversary voyage under its own sails several weeks ago in Massachusetts Bay of the USS Constitution, affectionately known as "Old Ironsides," recalled the ship's equally popular visit to Baltimore in October 1931.
Baltimoreans learned in August that the famed vessel, which had first captured the new nation's interest in 1812 after it defeated the British Guerriere off Nova Scotia, and which had remained undefeated in 41 subsequent engagements, would visit their city.
Between 1927 and 1931, the ship had undergone a restoration, much of it made possible by the nickels and pennies collected by children nationwide, at the Charlestown (Mass.) Navy Yard.
The 44-gun frigate was originally ordered constructed by George Washington for the nation's infant Navy, and was designed by Joshua Humphreys. Its actual construction, between 1794 and 1797, was supervised by Commodore Samuel Nicholson, a Marylander who was also its first commander.
"The ship will remain here until November 2 and afterward will proceed to Annapolis, Washington and Norfolk in her leisurely journey down the East Coast to South Atlantic and Gulf ports," reported The Sun.
On its 1931 visit the Constitution was towed up the Chesapeake Bay with furled sails by a Navy minesweeper and berthed at the Recreation Pier at the foot of Broadway.
"She accomplished something at which she failed 119 years ago in spite of fair winds and good liquor," said The Evening Sun.
"It was in June of 1812, that the frigate made her first attempt to reach the port of Baltimore. Because she drew 22 1/2 feet of water and the depth of the harbor here then was only 18 feet at high tide, she got no farther up the bay than Annapolis Roads. The liquor? Wait."
In June 1812, under the command of Capt. Isaac Hull, the Constitution had set sail for Baltimore to take on supplies and more sailors. The ship's progress was halted north of Annapolis by shallow water and not the "spirited" enthusiasm of the crew.
"Enough seamen to enable him to muster a crew of 475 men and enough liquor to allow each man a half a pint a day -- the spirit ration fixed by Congress -- were sent down to Captain Hull from Baltimore. The liquor was no mean item, for the crew drank a barrel a day," reported The Evening Sun.
"The old man-of-war's bright works gleamed through a light-gray mist off Lazaretto about 9 o'clock this morning, three good hours before the official reception committee had expected her," reported The Evening Sun.
JTC "Less than an hour later she was tied up at the west side of the Broadway pier, her great bow sprit sheering high above Thames Street. Thames Street hadn't seen a frigate for many a day, but Old Ironsides' arrival was witnessed by possibly a hundred people who had gathered along a sea wall to see her drift in."
In an editorial welcoming the ship to Baltimore, The Sun said, "When the frigate Constitution, a floating storehouse of history and romantic memories, came to Baltimore yesterday, she was returning to a port to which she is tied by more than the material devices for making fast a vessel in the harbor. Not only is her early career as a proud, well-designed and most successful fighting ship linked to this city's by virtue of her first effort -- 119 years ago -- to make port here. The frigate is also intimately connected in history with one of the famous naval families of Maryland -- the Nicholsons.
"In the history of Maryland the name of the 'Navy Nicholsons' is a remarkable one, fit to match the name of the great frigate herself. And there is something especially pleasant in the fact that in returning for Navy Day the Constitution, sound and bright after more than a century, looking just about as she did when she helped bombard Tripoli, and fought the Guerriere, the Java, the Cyane and the Levant, is returning to a State where the great tradition of her first commander is no less."
A dinner for which Mayor Howard W. Jackson was the host was staged on its decks and was attended by Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams and Gov. Albert C. Ritchie while a United States Naval Academy Band concert was broadcast over radio.
During the ship's weeklong Baltimore stay, 74,953 visitors toured the ship, including Alfred Zimmerman, 71, who had served on Old Ironsides 50 years earlier, and hadn't seen the vessel since his discharge in Norfolk in 1870.
"Everything looked pretty much the same as in olden days, Mr. Zimmerman thought, except that the ship's lifeboats today are hung from davits and not out from the side of the ship," reported The Sun.
Zimmerman recalled a voyage from Panama when storms destroyed most of the ship's lifeboats and broke one of the topsail yardarms. Sailors dined on a steady diet of pork and beans.
"It's all very well to get sentimental about the life of the sailor in the old times," Zimmerman told The Sun. "After all, the life of the sailor today has its advantages. For one thing, the salary of a first-class sailor was $21.50 per month, and my own salary was $10.50."
After leaving Baltimore, Old Ironsides was towed by the minesweeper Grebe to Annapolis, where the ship was inspected by curious midshipmen.
Pub Date: 8/10/97