- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2004

BALTIMORE — The U.S. Navy’s last all-sail vessel, now berthed in Baltimore harbor, is 150 years old and continuing its latest mission as a history lesson for about 100,000 visitors and students every year.

Thursday was the 150th birthday of the launch of USS Constellation in Gosport Navy Yard at Portsmouth, Va. About 50 descendants of some crew members from the previous two centuries converged on the Inner Harbor yesterday to celebrate.

Men in sailor uniforms of the Civil War era enacted some of the duties performed on sailing ships. Some carried polished muskets. They represented a fraction of the 300 sailors assigned to the Constellation when it was a fighting ship.

But there was the four-foot upright wheel, like those in the movies, which turned the Constellation to port, or left, and starboard, right.

There were the three tall masts.

On a lower deck was the capstan, or winch. Eight 10-foot-long metal bars are slotted into the capstan so sailors could turn it to raise the anchor.

“The 1850s were the great era of sail,” said Christopher Rowsom, 45, executive director of the USS Constellation Museum, who has been in the sailing business, especially education, for 25 years.

The Constellation is still undergoing restoration work that began eight years ago in the nearby Fort McHenry dry dock. The U.S. Navy condemned the Constellation as unsafe in 1994.

The center of the block-long Constellation had raised 38 inches higher — which is called “hogging” — than the keel and the bow, indicating that rotten timbers might soon break. As much as possible, lumber and authentic period materials have been used to restore the ship.

Some modern materials were used, Mr. Rowsom said, because “if we had to use materials of that kind, we would have no ship at all.” About 50 percent of the original Constellation remains.

Already restored is the ship’s hospital, with old surgical tools displayed, and the brig, including three copper-lined cells. “They were called sweatlands,” Mr. Rowsom said.

After its launch, the Constellation was assigned to the Mediterranean as the flagship of the African Squadron, protecting shipping and intercepting slave ships. She and her crew captured three ships bound for Cuba, including one with 694 surviving Liberians. The Constellation returned to the East Coast at the start of the Civil War in 1861 to blockade Confederate ships.

The Constellation has 22 cannons, including some Parrot rifles, able to fire cannon balls containing powder that would explode upon striking a target.

Between 1871 and 1933, the Constellation frequently served as a training ship at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and Naval Training Station at Newport, R.I.

In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the Constellation recommissioned. She became the flagship, non-seagoing, of Atlantic Fleet Commander Adm. Royal E. Ingersoll, directing the fight against Nazi submarines in the Atlantic.

During World War II, Kate Smith came aboard to sing “God Bless America.” After the war, the Constellation was docked in the Boston Navy Yard, returning to Baltimore in 1955.

Now, in addition to serving as a museum of U.S. naval history, the Constellation is frequently a classroom.

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