On June 9, 2015, CDR Sean D. Kearns, the 73rd Commanding Officer of USS Constitution, and USS Constitution Museum President Anne Grimes Rand, ceremoniously removed the first sheet of copper from the ship’s hull. This ceremony, akin to a ground breaking, commemorates the start of restoration work for Old Ironsides.
The ceremony was attended by USS Constitution crew, staff of the USS Constitution Museum, Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston, and Boston National Historical Park, and members of the media.
Constitution‘s hull is layered with 3,200 copper sheets that are secured with half a million copper bolts, weighing over 11 and a half tons. These sheets protect the ship against boring mollusks, such as shipworms, and other marine organisms that eat away at wooden hull planking and can ruin a ship’s structural integrity. The copper oxidizes and turns green overtime and must be periodically replaced.
England’s Royal Navy began copper cladding its warships in 1758 and found it extended the life of the ships by preventing organisms from destroying the wood. Copper sheathing also allowed for greater ease in cleaning barnacles and crustaceans from ships’ bottoms. Following this example, each of the first six frigates that made up the new U.S. Navy in the late 1700s, including Constitution, were “copper bottomed”, that is, covered below the waterline in thousands of overlapping copper sheets. Because rolled copper sheathing was not yet manufactured in America, Paul Revere, a 60-year old silversmith, merchant, and foundry man of “Midnight Ride” fame, became the “middle man” and acquired English sheet copper that was then sold to the U.S. Navy. Revere also provided the original copper bolts used to secure the sheets in place.
Throughout history, Constitution’s copper sheathing has been periodically replaced and the old copper fashioned into souvenirs. This process was last completed during the ship’s 1992-1996 restoration in the Charlestown Navy Yard. Overtime, it became customary for the Commanding Officer to ceremoniously remove the first piece of copper to signify the start of the restoration period. In 1992, CDR Richard Bradford Amirault performed this duty.
Following the June 9, 2015 ceremony, CDR Kearns and guests returned to the USS Constitution Museum to etch their names into a new piece of copper that will be used to re-copper the ship’s hull near the end of the restoration. The old sheet is on display in an exhibit at the USS Constitution Museum, titled Making Old Ironsides New.
Manager of Curatorial Affairs, USS Constitution Museum
Kate Monea is the Manager of Curatorial Affairs at the USS Constitution Museum.