Constellation makes voyage to Baltimore


Back Story

Taking Note of History

July 23, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

With a stroke of his pen July 23, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower set in motion the process that returned the venerable Constellation to Baltimore the next year.

The decrepit vessel arriving in the city from the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston was thought at the time to be the same one that had been built in 1797 at the Sterrett Shipyard on Harris Creek off Boston Street in Baltimore.

But, after an illustrious career, the first Constellation, a frigate, was laid up at the Gosport Naval Shipyard in Virginia and scrapped in 1853.

The vessel heading toward Baltimore in a huge floating Navy dry-dock - the ARD 16 - was the second Constellation, built in the same shipyard where its sister was scrapped.

Launched in 1854, the sloop of war was the Navy's last all-sail fighting ship, and while serving from 1859 to 1861 with the African Squadron off the West African coast, stopped westbound slavers and freed their human cargo.

During the Civil War, the Constellation protected Union merchant vessels from Confederate attacks.

When modern steam-powered vessels with iron hulls brought an end to the romantic era of creaking wooden ships and canvas sails, the old Constellation was sent to the Naval Academy where it served as a training ship for first- and third-year midshipmen.

Decommissioned in 1893, the Constellation was sent to Norfolk, Va., where it was converted to a stationary training ship and then towed to Newport, R.I., Naval Training Station, where it was based for 50 years.

In 1935, Mayor Howard W. Jackson sent telegrams to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Navy Secretary Claude A. Swanson, asking that the Constellation be returned to "her home port in Baltimore."

In a return letter, the president wrote that "it is contemplated building a ship memorial basin in the Potomac River, in connection with the Washington park system. Should this memorial basin materialize, the Constellation probably will be placed there, together with other historic vessels."

With the coming of World War II, the ship remained in Newport until being towed to Charlestown Navy Yard in 1946. It was confined to a backwater to rot for nearly a decade before being fetched from obscurity and ultimately the breaker's yard by the Constellation Commission of Maryland.

The group, headed by Sun executive editor Neil H. Swanson, who had successively lobbied for the Constellation's return to the city for preservation, rejoiced when on Aug. 5, 1955, the ship was placed in the ARD-16 and left Boston.

Towed by the diesel-electric ocean-going tug Nipmuc, the ship traveled down the Atlantic coastline at a speed of 8 knots. Mariners were hoping to safely deliver the Constellation to her new home before Hurricane Connie rolled up the coast.

Riding through 15-mph winds, the ship passed off Seven Foot Knoll at 10 a.m. Aug. 9 and was greeted by a flotilla of state and city yachts, spouting fireboats, tugs, the icebreaker Latrobe and recreational boaters.

Freighters in the harbor gave three blasts on their steam whistles - an honor similarly accorded new vessels arriving in port on their maiden voyages.

Gov. Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin and Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. were aboard the state yacht Potomac.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad glee club, aboard the Latrobe, provided a musical background, singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Maryland, My Maryland" and "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean."

Helen Delich Bentley, then The Sun's maritime editor, rode out to Fort Carroll on a tug. There after meeting the ARD-16, she jumped aboard and scrambled up a ladder.

"I had on a pair of shorts because it was such a hot day, and I was the only member of the press who got on board," Bentley, a former congresswoman, recalled. "I later heard that Mayor D'Alesandro looked up and saw me, and said, `How the hell did she get up there?' It was quite a thrill."

Bentley also added that the Women's Advertising Club had donated the proceeds from two of the organization's Mad Hatter Balls to help replace the vessel's five masts.

Originally the plan was to place the Constellation on land in a bed of gravel at Fort McHenry, like the 1906-built, 220-foot steamboat Ticonderoga at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.

The ship's new home was to be a 203-by-50-foot earthen berth that would have required 332 tons of steel piling filled by gravel to make a firm foundation. Cost of the project was estimated to be $100,000.

At the groundbreaking ceremony Sept. 12, 1955, officials forgot to bring a spade, and Swanson's World War II British-made penknife was pressed into service to scratch out a few clumps of earth for the project, which was never completed.

Outside of several dry-dockings during the past 50 years, though, the hull of the Constellation has been caressed by the waters of the Patapsco.

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