Old warship 'step' closer to new life

Constellation: Due back at the Inner Harbor on July 2, the 1854 vessel is being outfitted with new masts.


From Pier 8 on Locust Point in southern Baltimore, it looked as easy as lifting a drinking straw and slipping it deep into a frosty shake.

With the flick of a lever, Tom Malott of Williams Crane Service hoisted the Constellation's new 14,500-pound main mast high over the cab of his giant crane.

Then, gentle as you please, he swung the 97-foot shaft of Douglas fir out over the old warship, eased it down through three decks and set it softly on its base, or "step."

Five years after the decaying Civil War-era ship was stripped of its rotted masts and rigging as a safety measure, Malott and a gang of restoration workers yesterday "stepped" the new main mast. It was a critical step toward the ship's planned return to the Inner Harbor on July 2.

"Most of us thought it would never come to this point," said longtime Constellation board member Charles F. Hughes of Vane Brothers Towing, who watched the operation.

When his company's tugs moved the sagging old ship down the harbor into dry dock in December 1996, "everybody expected [a] historic sinking," Hughes said. "It's an amazing metamorphosis."

The $9 million restoration is in its final stages. Today, workers are to repeat the stepping process, installing the 1854 ship's new foremast and its mizzen -- the mast [See Ship, 5b] nearest the stern.

All three are the bottom sections of three-piece assemblies. Each will be fitted with new topmasts and slender new topgallant masts rising above those. Finished, the main mast will soar 160 feet into the air.

In the coming weeks, caulkers will continue hammering fragrant oakum into deck seams to seal out the rain. Carpenters are finishing the interior planking on the gun deck. Others are preparing yardarms and the rest of the ship's new rigging.

On the top, or spar, deck, the ship's new hammock rails are getting a coat of paint. They are chest-high storage bins along the ship's railing. Sailors once stored their sleeping hammocks in them. Their bulk also protected the crew from small-arms fire.

The original hammock rails were stripped away in 1970 in an attempt to make the ship look more like the 1797 frigate Constellation, which the 1854 ship replaced.

The new hammock rails were built using the original iron supports. "They were part of our treasure trove," a store of old parts discovered deep in the bilge during the restoration, said assistant project manager Paul G. Powichroski.

The main mast, 32 inches in diameter, is hollow, with 5-inch-thick walls assembled from 16 wedge-shaped sections. The design is calculated to prevent cracking during seasonal expansion and contraction. Powichroski said it's strong enough to sail but is destined for display only.

Before the main mast was stepped yesterday, pupils from Arbutus Middle School in Baltimore County and North Bend Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore set coins on its base. Twelve were vintage 1854 U.S. coins -- seven pennies, three half-dollars, one quarter-dollar and a three-cent piece. They were donated by the American Numismatic Association/Littleton Coin Co., the Maryland Numismatic Association and Bill Gillis of Woburn, Mass.

To those, shipbuilder Peter Boudreau added a 1993 nickel and a 1997 penny.

The coins -- inaccessible until the mast is replaced -- were set beneath the mast in observance of an ancient seafaring tradition drawn from Greek mythology.

If a ship sank and its sailors died without a proper burial, the Greeks believed they would be ineligible to cross the river Styx and enter the underworld. The coins were set beneath the mast to ensure that the ship's sailors could pay Charon, the ferryman, to take them across.

Gail Shawe, chairwoman of the Constellation Foundation, said, "We invited children to participate in this occasion because they are the future caretakers of this magnificent vessel. Hopefully, they will tell their children and grandchildren about today."

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