It was a cold and overcast day in Boston on October 21, 1797. The dismal weather must have been well matched to the anxiety of George Claghorn as he stood on the wharf of Hartt’s Shipyard in the North End of Boston, waiting for high tide.
Nearby, the newly completed hull of the U.S. Navy frigate Constitution sat on the shipyard’s ways, while Claghorn, who led the construction of the ship, prepared to launch it — again.
Constitution had been stuck there for the past month since failing twice to launch on the September spring tide. The carefully calculated slope of the ways had settled during the ship’s construction, making them too flat for the ship to slide. With another new moon and higher than normal tide on October 21, a third effort at launching the ship would be made with steeper ways having been built up.
There had been extensive promotions of the September launch that attracted many dignitaries, including the President of the United States as well as thousands of Boston residents. They had all left disappointed. On the October tide, Claghorn had one of the ship’s guns – still located on shore – fired as a notice to the surrounding town that another launch attempt was soon to occur. Fewer people came back down to the water than had been present in September, but those that did got to see the massive new ship finally slide flawlessly into Boston Harbor.
[George Claghorn grapples with how to launch USS Constitution in this short video. Illustrations by Stephen Biesty and animation by Anna Lindemann.]
In this inauspicious, somewhat anti-climactic fashion, USS Constitution was launched over 200 years ago. Certainly, none of the people present could have imagined that the ship they saw enter the water that day would still be afloat today. No ship was ever expected to last a fraction of this long, and precious few have.
On October 21, 2017, we celebrate the improbable 220th birthday of “Old Ironsides.” The ship has not only survived the long centuries, but continually contributed to the United States in ways far beyond its original mission. Among the first warships built expressly for the new United States Navy, Constitution and its exploits quickly became the wellspring of a naval legacy still embraced by sailors today. The ship’s victories over the seemingly indomitable British Royal Navy in the War of 1812 dramatically recast Americans’ belief in the strength of their own navy, and by extension, their country.
USS Constitution has sailed the world’s oceans, hosted royalty, and housed cadets. But in the most dire moments of its long life, it was kept afloat by the passion of poets and schoolchildren who rallied to its aid. Always, it has both represented and fostered the resilient spirit of America. Today, the ship remains an icon of national pride, whose imposing wooden walls and soaring rigging still astonish half a million visitors a year from around the world.
Those visitors are welcomed aboard by an active-duty crew ranging from young sailors for whom Constitution is their first assignment out of boot camp to officers who come to Constitution from multiple commands across the fleet. As the oldest commissioned warship in the U.S. Navy, the ship is still a training ground for newly minted Chief Petty Officers who come each year to be immersed in the traditional skills and chores of the navy. But Constitution is also a place of reflection for navy veterans and their families who gravitate to its decks as a place to celebrate milestones of life or be remembered in death.
Following extensive restorations in the 1990s and 2000s, USS Constitution is well set to continue its service for the foreseeable future. As we celebrate this anniversary of the ship’s launch, shipwrights and riggers with the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston are completing the most recent restoration of the hull and rigging, while continuing the ongoing tasks of maintenance and repair. Here at the USS Constitution Museum, we continue to collect, preserve, and share the stories of the ship and the people associated with it, while always marveling at how much more there still is to learn and tell about the ship’s history. It is unlikely we will ever finish, for Constitution‘s story and impact continue to grow with every new year the ship continues to serve.
If only George Claghorn could have known all we do now, maybe that cold fall day in 1797 would have been easier for him. His delayed launch turned out to be quite a success after all.
Public Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Carl Herzog is the Public Historian at the USS Constitution Museum.