`Jewel' of the harbor returns

1854 Constellation tugged to berth after 2 1/2-year restoration

Return Of The Constellation

July 03, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A fit and spiffy Constellation came home yesterday, welcomed by the cheers and applause of thousands who lined the promenades along the Inner Harbor.

Its flags and streamers snapping in a southwest wind, the 1854 warship tied up at the end of Constellation Dock at 11: 45 a.m., ending 2 1/2 years of repairs and a careful restoration to its Civil War appearance.

"It gives you goose bumps to watch the old ship cruise into the harbor," said Ray Wimberg, 52, a computer scientist from Kansas who was among the thousands watching from shore.

It was a journey that seemed implausible in November 1996, when the faded and sagging relic -- trussed up and bereft of rigging -- was towed into dry dock at the Fort McHenry Shipyard.

But the sloop of war was back yesterday, freed of rot, on time and under budget.

"Three years ago, I didn't think I'd be standing here as ready as we are -- more ready than we thought," said shipbuilder G. Peter Boudreau, 44, who designed and managed the repair for the Constellation Foundation.

Gail Shawe, who chaired the foundation's board and drove its effort to raise nearly $8 million in public and private funds for the work, credited her success to Boudreau and his crew of craftsmen and shipwrights.

"There was a time when even we doubted whether this day would ever come," she said. "It was Peter's genius and talent that allowed us to save the Constellation."

As the tugboats Vane Brothers and Elizabeth Anne eased the warship into the Inner Harbor Basin, the Naval Academy Band played "Anchors Aweigh," and the Maryland Army National Guard fired a 19-gun artillery salute from Rash Field. The thundering blasts shook the ship and rattled high-rise windows all around.

And as the salute rang out, two Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets roared over the harbor in a modern welcome to the Civil War veteran.

"It makes you kind of patriotic," said Catherine Peters, who was on board yesterday for the two-mile ride from Locust Point. Peters, from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., declined to give her age, but she is the granddaughter of a U.S. Marine who served on the Constellation during the Civil War.

Marine's descendent

Her grandfather, Timothy Whelan, was an Irish famine refugee. He joined the Marines in 1860 and shipped out on the USS Constellation from Portsmouth, N.H., in 1862.

The ship was bound for patrol in the Mediterranean Sea and, later, the Gulf of Mexico. Whelan recorded each of the ship's ports of call in a journal that Peters' family has. She had the fragile volume on board with her yesterday. Her family hopes to lend or donate it to the ship.

"I'm trying to imagine what it was like," said Peters, after a quick look below decks. She never got the chance to talk with her grandfather. He died in 1907, before she was born. "It's more primitive than camping out. I can't imagine being on the high seas."

The sloop-of-war Constellation was built in Portsmouth, Va., and launched in 1854, replacing the frigate Constellation, which had been built in Baltimore in 1797.

The new ship served from 1859 to 1861 as flagship of the Navy's African Squadron, which intercepted slave ships off West Africa and released thousands of captives.

After the Civil War, the Constellation served on a variety of diplomatic, relief and training missions. It was brought to Baltimore in 1955 and has served since 1968 as a tourist attraction and centerpiece for the harbor's renaissance.

'The best of America'

"She represents the fairness that is the best of America," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said. "It's good to have the jewel of the Inner Harbor back again."

Privately, the governor promised to ask the next General Assembly to appropriate the last $500,000 of its $3 million contribution to the ship's restoration. The work will continue under the auspices of the Living Classrooms Foundation.

"There is such strong support, I don't think there will be any problem at all," the governor said.

On board the Constellation yesterday were all the politicians, board members, donors, reporters and restoration crew members the Coast Guard would allow.

After Glendening lathered his face with sun block, Boudreau delivered the obligatory Coast Guard safety briefing and life vest demonstration. Then he warned his passengers sternly about lighting up on the laboriously restored wooden ship. "No smoking, at any time, forever," he said.

The tug Vane Brothers pulled the warship from the pier, and soon it was moving downriver at about 4 knots. Under gray skies at Fort McHenry, more than 200 people -- many with folding chairs and cameras -- lined the bulkhead to watch the ship turn off Lazaretto Point.

"It's quite an achievement -- we've brought the past forward into our own time," said Chris Kavulich, 16, of Carlisle, Pa., who watched from the fort's lawn.

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