“Old Ironsides” might be the nickname the USS Constitution was dubbed 200 years ago during the War of 1812. And though British cannonballs bounced off the ship’s hull, it’s no secret that its sides were never made of iron.
Old Ironsides had — still has — oaken sides.
The ship is built with massive white oak planks up to 40 feet long: 7 inches thick on the outside of the hull; 5 inches thick on the inside. Sandwiched between the planks are vertical ribs of live oak, 12 inches thick by 6 inches wide, spaced just inches apart. Together, the planks and ribs make the Constitution’s hull essentially solid oak up to 2 feet thick.
So, when the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat comes into dry dock for tuneups or an overhaul every other decade or so — as it will later this month — the shipwrights at the old Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston just can’t drop by the local lumberyard to pick out a few of these choice oak planks.
Fortuitously for the venerable vessel, the Navy has in its back pocket 53,000 acres of prime forestland growing all the white oak timber the Constitution should ever need. That novel natural nursery is the
Crane naval support center in the Hoosier hills and hollows of mostly northern Martin County.
“To be a part of something that was touched — literally — by those who founded the country is pretty cool,” said Trent Osmon, the forester at Crane who manages the white oak trees. “I feel great knowing we’ll be supporting something that’s so important to the Navy and, in a larger sense, the country.”
Situated midway between Indianapolis and Evansville, Naval Support Activity (NSA) Crane specializes in developing advanced electronic systems. But beyond the large Navy and civilian workforce employed at Crane, few Hoosiers are probably aware of the exclusive and proud role Indiana has played for the past quarter century in keeping Old Ironsides, designated “America’s Ship of State,” shipshape.
“I have run into very few people outside of Crane who have any clue what Crane does for the ship,” Osmon noted. “Other than the folks directly in Boston, or perhaps their superiors, it is not widely known [even in the Navy].”
Hoosier hands on deck
The Constitution is scheduled to enter dry dock March 20 at the Charlestown shipyard, officially known as the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Boston Detachment. The shipyard is part of the Boston National Historical Park, which maintains the Constitution. The ship isn’t expected to return pierside along Boston’s Freedom Trail, where a half million visitors tour it annually, till the spring of 2018.
The timber for the restoration was harvested at Crane last February and March. Crane foresters oversaw the felling of 35 mature white oaks set aside for the historic ship. The trees, 110-120 years old and about 40 inches in diameter, were then moved to a covered storage area at Crane, fumigated and covered in plastic.
Tri-State Timber, LLC., based in Spencer, cut the trees for Crane. Brett Franklin, an owner of the family company, said knowing the job was for the Constitution made it a bid they wanted to win. “We just thought it was a proud moment to be a part of history,” he said. “It’s patriotic; everybody wanted to get involved.”
When work begins on the ship, Tri-State will also begin hauling the logs as needed to Boston for the milling and shaping to replace deteriorated hull planking and supporting structures called “knees.”
The custom saw used to cut the timbers into planks for Constitution also came from Indiana. In 1989, the Navy asked Wood-Mizer, headquartered in Indianapolis, to design and build a sawmill that could handle the ship’s giant planks and tall masts. Wood-Mizer’s New Point plant, served electrically by Decatur County REMC, built the saw in 1990. The saw clamps the log in place while the blade moves along a set of rails and down three 24-foot bed extensions.
“Wood-Mizer was honored to have participated in this historic restoration,” noted Chase Warner, public relations specialist at Wood-Mizer.
That was the last time Constitution was in dry dock — in preparation for the ship’s 1997 bicentennial. That was also the first time Crane was tapped for its white oak, supplying 78 trees.
“Every 20 years or so, the ship will go into dry dock,” said Robert Murphy, production manager for the history and heritage detachment. “When it is in dry dock, we remove the copper sheathing around the hull and inspect the hull planking that is below water line.” (Copper sheathing, a mid-1700s British innovation to prevent shipworm and reduce the sea’s corrosive effects, was an original feature on the ship, but it played no role in making Old Ironsides’ hull impenetrable.)
After almost 220 years at sea, the Constitution still has about 12 percent of its original wood, according to the ship’s caretakers. The keel, the bottom frames, and the bottom 13 planks of the hull have never been replaced.
Murphy, who visited Crane in 2012 to help select the trees for the current restoration, said part of their mission is to continue restoring the Constitution to its 1812 configuration as much as possible — which means using solid white oak.
White oak was chosen for the restorations because the tree offers similar properties to the original southern white oaks used in building Constitution in the 1790s. “White oak has special properties that make it more waterproof and rot resistant than other trees,” noted Osmon.
The Constitution was one of the original six frigates authorized by Congress in 1794 when George Washington was president.
Realizing the young U.S. Navy could not yet match in size the fleet of England or France, ship designer Joshua Humphreys recommended building swift but powerful frigates that could both out gun and out run any ships of the line.
To give the ships strength and speed, Humphreys used a hull design considered revolutionary at the time called “frame and space.” The design called for thick oak planking on both the outside and inside of the hull with the frame’s closely spaced ribs in between (please see the photo at right). The design also was long on keel and narrow in width.
The Constitution was built in Boston and launched Oct. 21, 1797.
In its years of active service as a warship, from 1798-1855, the 44-gun frigate fought in several conflicts. In that half century, the Constitution notched a remarkable 33-0 record.
Its claim to fame came from victories against the Royal Navy during the War of 1812. The first of these, Aug. 19, 1812, against HMS Guerriere, was the first frigate-to-frigate victory of the U.S. Navy over the Royal Navy.
While none of its battles were key to the ultimate U.S. victory in the war, the Constitution lifted American spirits and confidence in battling the powerful British.
Constitution received its nickname in the battle with the Guerriere when a sailor noticed Guerriere’s shots failed to penetrate Constitution’s thick oak hull. “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!,” the sailor purportedly exclaimed.
While Old Ironsides was able to resist enemy fire and outpace pursuers, its wood structure couldn’t escape time or the harsh wash of the sea. The ship has needed periodic repairs to keep it seaworthy throughout its long service as a warship, training vessel, barracks, and museum.
Constitution underwent a major overhaul from 1927-31 that replaced over 80 percent of the ship. The 1992-96 restoration is considered the next most important 20th century work on the ship.
Working from original 1794 plans and specifications, that restoration brought back the ship’s structural strength, noted Navy historian Margherita M. Desy. The work enabled Constitution to mark its 200th anniversary by sailing under its own power for the first time in 116 years on July 21, 1997.
As a fully commissioned Navy ship, Constitution’s crew of 73 active-duty sailors participates in ceremonies, educational programs, and special events while keeping the ship open to visitors and providing free tours.
The U.S. Bicentennial celebration of 1976 was a perfect showcase for the USS Constitution as a symbol of the past and an inspiration for the future. As a centerpiece for the upcoming celebration, the Constitution was dry docked from April 1973 to April 1974.
As the Navy began to look for seasoned white oak to replace deteriorated planks, it realized how scarce and valuable timber that size had become. The Navy purchased the needed timber on the open market from a private sector supplier near Piqua, Ohio. The steep price immediately had the Navy looking inward to supply its own oak for future restorations and repairs of the ship.
That’s when Crane entered the picture. Osmon credits Lynn Andrews, a forester at the time with the Navy’s district command in Philadelphia. The district oversaw Navy facilities in 25 northern states — including Indiana.
Andrews, now 67, said the original idea floated by someone higher up in command was for the Navy to grow its own trees for the ship’s future repairs. “That had to be by somebody who didn’t know how long it took to grow trees,” he said.
Instead, Andrews and other Navy foresters knew Crane, by area the third largest Navy base in the world, had plenty of white oak already there. In November of 1973, Crane was designated as the official, sole supplier of solid white oak for the Constitution.
Right about that time, Andrews transferred from Philadelphia to Crane as its natural resources manager. He stayed at Crane until retiring in 1999 and now lives in Bedford.
Coinciding with bicentennial activities happening all across the nation in 1976, a wooded hillside above Crane’s picturesque Lake Greenwood was officially dedicated May 8, 1976, as “USS Constitution Grove.” The ceremonial area includes a few white oaks that someday may grow large enough to be used for the ship, but it mostly provides a representation of the base’s widely dispersed inventory of the species.
“While we have a grove down there,” said Osmon, “what we really do is when we’re out in the woods doing our normal inspections and we come across a stand of really good white oak, we will GPS that site. We keep a database of more than 150 white oaks just waiting to get that call.”
The 39-year-old Osmon, who grew up as a Daviess-Martin County REMC consumer just down the road near Odon, noted, “We don’t have to replant at all. It’s a natural area that grows really good white oak.”
He said oak is a species that benefits from poor soil and the kinds of erosive practices the uplands of Indiana endured from its earliest settlers into the 1930s. The erosion and failed farms brought the federal government into the area during the Great Depression with soil reclamation and reforestation programs to create jobs.
“Oak is a tree that for the first five, six years grows down as opposed to grows up,” Osmon said. “It’s what’s called a ‘taproot’ species.
“Oak is growing down because it knows in the future there’s going to be a drought, and if it prepares itself early on to get a deep taproot, it’s going to be better prepared to live through that drought,” he explained.
“General abuse of the land that comes along with settlement … burning, plowing, animals — horses, cows, goats, sheep — grazing in your forest … your oak is going to have a higher chance of surviving because of that deep root. General abuse of the land is going to select for oak. That’s why we have so much oak in this area.”
While Osmon is excited to have a unique connection to the historic ship, it’s not just the ship’s naval history he appreciates. As a forester and a woodworker, he said he always enjoyed watching Roy Underhill, the host of the PBS series “The Woodwright’s Shop,” who shows viewers how to work wood using traditional hand tools and crafting skills. Certainly, a 1,500-ton wooden ship, originally built from keel to the top of the main mast by hand, is a marvel of craftsmanship.
“My connection to the ship is more from the angle of the wood. That interests me more than the maritime aspect of it all just because it’s the wood that’s more my world.”
Osmon also waxed philosophic about the ship, the forest and time.
“It’s impressive in today’s world, when most people don’t think beyond the next paycheck or our government can’t think beyond the next budgetary battle, … there are still aspects of our society that really do plan ahead.”
He noted in 1973, plans were already drawn for Crane to supply the wood for this year’s restoration.
“I’m the same way as a forester. When I look at everything I do, I look at how it’s going to impact 50 years, 100 years down the road. When I’m looking at this small tree that’s only 16 inches in diameter, let’s say, I think, ‘Well, if I come in here and do thinning, if you will, that will get that tree up to the size here in 70 or 80 years maybe it’ll be a part of the Constitution.’
“It’s a throwback mentality of planning ahead and being part of a process that is bigger than you, older than you and, I hope, will continue on long after I’m gone — in terms of the Constitution. I know the forest is going to continue on after I’m gone.”
The Constitution and Crane: The coupling is an interesting contrast — and, ultimately, a truly befitting bond.
NSA Crane — developer of cutting-edge electronic systems for today’s advanced Navy — is also the natural nursery for the oaken sides of an 18th century warship. But then, when you think about it, who better than Crane to develop such an essential component of a legendary ship — whose cutting-edge design in its time made it stronger and faster?
The advantages of superior naval technology — like a hull so capable of withstanding enemy fire, for example, it bounced cannonballs off its sides and into the briny deep — is another lesson Old Ironsides teaches to this day. It’s a lesson remembered and put into practice daily at Crane — Southern Indiana’s Navy base.
Richard G. Biever is senior editor of Electric Consumer. Portions of this article were edited from news releases and historical information produced by U.S. Navy personnel.