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When Old Ironsides Was Ours

Old Ironsides in Portsmouth HarborHISTORY MATTERS  

A photograph discovered by a reader at a flea market sparks memories of the years when the USS Constitution was the hottest tourist site in Portsmouth Harbor. Was it the lowest ebb for the historic ship, or the end of a patriotic love affair? 

"Lying at the Kittery Navy Yard is an object of great interest," a travel writer boasted in 1895. He was talking about the USS Constitution, built in 1797, and better known as "Old Ironsides." Since 1882 the beloved old warship, "whose deck was covered with the life blood of American soldiers," had been floating peacefully in the Piscataqua River. 

"Hundreds of people visit the old ship every year from all parts of the country, and she is today the leading attraction on the coast to strangers," the guidebook noted. 

One of the first six frigates in the U.S. Navy, "Ironsides" had earned her name in the War of 1812 when British cannonballs appeared to bounce off her hull made of super-strong "live oak" sheathed in copper.  Able to sail at 15 knots, Ironsides became a flagship in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. She made a two-year 52,370 mile trip around the globe in the 1840s, captured an African slave ship in the 1850s, and served as a sail training vessel at Annapolis and Newport during the Civil War.   

Having lived a full life and no longer seaworthy, Ironsides was being used as a "receiving ship" during her Portsmouth years. The frigate was effectively recast as a floating dormitory and assembly hall for transient sailors. She wasn't pretty, but Ironsides was still afloat. And even with a huge ugly "barn" built above her hull, the historic ship still had the power to quicken the pulse of any red-blooded American patriot, especially in a navy town like Portsmouth.

 Ironsides was approaching her 100th birthday when in 1897, to the great sadness of local residents, she was towed back to her home port in Charlestown, Massachusetts where she remains as a museum today.

 Old Ironsides in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard dock / Portsmouth Athenaeum

A haunting old image

When Lee David Hamberg was a Boy Scout in 1969, his troupe hiked the famous Boston Freedom Trail. That was the first, but not the last time, he visited the restored frigate Old Ironsides and later its neighboring museum. As a souvenir, young Hamberg bought a curious item. It was a print of the famous ship "cabbed over" with a wooden building and roof.  A history major and now a restoration carpenter at Old Sturbridge Village, he never forgot that the USS Constitution was once half-ship and half-house.

In 1990 Hamberg was rummaging around at an antique show not far from his home in Southwick, Massachusetts. He was almost out the door and on his way home when he spotted a hauntingly familiar image among a stack of unsorted old photographs.  It was a framed picture of a tall ship with what appeared to be a giant barn built over the deck.  Hamberg knew immediately what he was looking at. The dealer said the picture was from a pile of ephemera that had come from Portsmouth, NH.  

"I asked the dealer what his best price was, and made the purchase without any regrets," Hamberg says today. "I inadvertently forgot to mention to him that the period photo was Old Ironsides."


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