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Monday, February 5, 2024

I visited Boston and the USS Constitution around 20 years ago. Great long weekend in Bean Town, and I’ve recovered from my concussion on the ship. Be carful on that ship as men were shorter when she first sailed and the ceiling, and the cross  members sporting them, were low. 

I know the Navy works to manage the wear and tear on the Constitution. They sail it once a year, and rotate which side is docked to even out sun and water wear. I heard the Navy had a small forest of white oak to handle the ships repairs and maintenance. Here is the story  oh how that came about.

Where does a 225-year-old working warship get its parts? At the Navy forest, of course

A forest owned by the U.S. Navy in Indiana ensures that the U.S.S. Constitution—named by George Washington and built with bolts forged by Paul Revere—stays afloat and at the ready.

In the early 1970s, as the United States began preparing for its Bicentennial, Boston decided that the U.S.S. Constitution would be a focal point of the city’s anniversary celebrations, with a new museum to the celebrated warship opening at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

The three-masted heavy frigate, launched in 1797, was named by George Washington and built with copper bolts forged by Paul Revere. Black-sided and red-bottomed, with a single, stark white running stripe, Constitution protected American ships against the French in the undeclared Quasi-War of 1798-1800 and quelled pirate attacks in the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War. The armed vessel defeated five British warships in the War of 1812, and it was in the wake of one of those battles—in which the American crew watched enemy cannonballs bounce harmlessly off Constitution’s white-oak hull—that the warship earned its famous nickname: “Old Ironsides...”

...The Constitution fulfilled its last mission, seizing a slave ship near the Congo River, in 1853 but remains today a fully commissioned warship of the U.S. Navy and—225 years after its launching— the oldest warship still afloat anywhere on Earth, moored in Boston Harbor’s chilly waters.

In 1906, after decades of work as a training ship along the east coast, the Navy made its first attempt to restore Constitution to its original War of 1812 configuration. In order to maintain the ship’s seaworthiness, a near-full restoration would need to be undertaken every 10 years.

But when the Navy went looking for materials to repair Constitution ahead of the 1976 Bicentennial, the enormous white oaks needed for the restoration of Old Ironsides were hard to find in the Northeast, so supervisors at the Boston Naval Shipyard scoured the Midwest and eventually bought timber from a private seller in Ohio.

“Someone in the Navy caught wind of it and wondered why they didn’t just come another four or five hours west, where they had fantastic white oak right on Navy property that they could have gotten for free,” recalls Trent Osmon, the environmental manager at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Crane, a Navy installation 35 miles southwest of Bloomington, Indiana.

That pricey decision prompted the Navy in 1976 to begin harvesting white oak for the U.S.S. Constitution at NSA Crane. To celebrate the occasion, they established Constitution Grove, a ceremonial 40-acre dedicated section of forest on the sprawling base where much of the timber that keeps the formidable warship afloat is harvested. Today, NSA Crane is the only forest in the U.S. managed by the Navy to support its fleet...

...In one corner of NSA Crane’s expanse of white oak trees is the 40-acre area known as Constitution Grove. The white oak trees are tall and slender, with branches that start high in the trunk, culminating in a canopy that blocks most sunlight from reaching the ground.

This part of the forest was originally selected by the Navy due to its high concentration of high-quality white oak. And while Osmon and his crew harvest trees from across the Navy base for use on Constitution, most of it is tagged and felled right in Constitution Grove...

...After felling what it needs for Constitution’s upkeep, the Navy sells the rest of its harvest to private furniture and piano makers, and, thanks to tylosis—the unique cell structure that makes white oak waterproof—bourbon cask-making for distillers just a short drive south in Kentucky’s famed bourbon country...

...Maintenance of a 225-year-old, 304-foot-long wooden warship is a constant job, and in the 50-odd years that Constitution Grove has supplied timbers for the maintenance of Constitution, Osmon estimates that 114 white oaks have been felled for the two most recent dry-dock restorations of Old Ironsides.

...In a dry-dock restoration, Constitution is lifted out of the water for examination and repairs of its wooden hull below the waterline under the watchful eye of Robert Murphy, the production manager at Naval History and Heritage Command, Detachment Boston. Then the copper sheathing that protects the submerged section of vessel is removed, allowing Murphy’s team to more closely study the normally submerged section of the hull, looking for sections to repair and potentially replace. Armed with that knowledge, and knowing exactly how much wood Constitution will need, Murphy’s team contacts Osmon with an order for how many trees to fell for restoration of the storied warship...

...In felling trees for Old Ironside’s hull planks, Osmon’s forestry team seeks out mature trees anywhere from 110 to 125 years old and 120-130 feet tall, which are then loaded on commercial trucks and taken to New England. There, the ship’s caretakers mill the enormous white oaks into hull planks that stretch up to 40 feet long, with leftover pieces repurposed for more ornamental flourishes around the ship, such as handrails and trim...

My best friend passed on a few years back. I remember him showing me in Jane's Fighting Ships the one listed "Sail Frigate," the USS Constitution. He was annoyed because he wanted another carrier  named that, but I said no, let's have something historical like this with such a proud name. 

To the men and women who man that ship and work to keep her up, a grateful nation says thank you. 

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