When Old Ironsides Was Ours
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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."


USS Constitution as receiving ship / SEACOASTNH.com

The reluctant Navy

It is easy to forget that the founders did not envision the new United States as a global military power. We were a commercial nation, a land of buyers and sellers. Our first three presidents, two of whom were wealthy slave-owners, wanted to steer clear of foreign wars and did not want to waste money building and supporting a navy or an army. We were a country of  few roads and many seaports, with a merchant elite making money hand over fist. Half of all Americans lived within a day's ride of the ocean.

Then Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean began to disrupt our lucrative trade, capturing merchant ships and ransoming or enslaving hostages. Only then did America warm to the idea of expensive warships. The "business" of the Mediterranean region was piracy. And while the attacks were couched in religious terms, as everyone in power knew, the conflict was all about money, not about politics or religion. If America would simply pay her annual tributes and bribes to the pirate nations, her merchant ships would go unmolested.

John Paul Jones had predicted this would happen, but his suggestion that America should quickly build a strong navy and wipe out the pirates was ignored. Founder John Adams felt Americans had no stomach for a war in the Middle East and advised against taking on the Algerian pirates. "We ought not to fight them at all," he wrote, "unless we determine to fight them forever." Congress was so puny, bickering, and indecisive, Adams told Thomas Jefferson, that they could get nothing done.

Our former French allies, meanwhile, were suddenly attacking American merchant ships with their privateers. The British, once our protective mother country, were happy to sit back and watch the "American experiment" fall to pieces. Things had not been going smoothly in "the land of the free" and it was rumored throughout Europe that Americans were growing weary of their independence.

So 220 years ago, on March 27, 1794, Congress reluctantly authorized  the building of the first six frigates in the United States Navy at an estimated cost of $688,888.82. The first big "pork barrel" federal expenditure called for warships to be built at six key seaports at New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and at Gosport, Virginia and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

To make it clear that the United States was not building a permanent navy, Congress stipulated that the six frigates were to be used solely to defend American ships against piracy in the Mediterranean. If we signed a treaty with the Barbary Pirates, or paid their "diplomatic tribute," then all work on the six frigates would immediately cease. Portsmouth went on to build the frigate USS Congress that survived until  it was broken up in 1834. Our neighbors at Charlestown build the USS Constitution, that was still afloat almost 100 years later.

 Old Ironsides detail / SeacoastNH.com courtesy Lee David Hamberg

We loose an old friend

Portsmouth has a long history with Ironsides.  One of the oldest photographs in the U.S. Naval Archive shows her "in ordinary" or out of the water and under repair at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1855. Ironsides was already an American icon by then, but also an antique. Although "cabbed over" at Portsmouth for 17 years, Ironsides remained in use and, therefore, was not retired or broken up like many of her sister ships. In 1889 Navy officials considered moving her back to Washington, DC, but no one wanted to pay the $1,000 required to tow her there.

While cherished locally, others considered Ironsides to be "rotting away" at Portsmouth. Repairs were haphazard and underfunded. Cement was used for patching and new boards were simply nailed over old rotted ones.

Then in 1896, Massachusetts Congressman John F "Honey" Fitz reportedly read an article claiming that Ironsides was on the verge of sinking into the Piscataqua.  Fitz (the grandfather of future president John F. Kennedy) visited Portsmouth and confirmed that Ironsides was in sad shape. Fitz managed to get enough money from Congress to prepare the historic ship for her journey home.

 Ironsides model / J Dennis Robinson photo

Thanks for the memories

"Although a big effort has been made to have her removed to other stations," the 1895 Portsmouth guidebook said of Old Ironsides, "the people of this state have succeeded in keeping her here."

Despite protests from the NH Sons of the American Revolution and others, the USS Constitution, with a temporary crew of  30 sailors, was soon ready to depart from Portsmouth Harbor. On September 20, 1897 Old Ironsides was ignominiously towed to the Boston Navy Yard in an 18-hour journey. One anonymous Kittery sailor seized the departing ship in desperation and, while trying to hold her back, received a sprained wrist.

A month later Charlestown celebrated the 100th anniversary of the launch of Old Ironsides. She still looked like a house glued to the hull of a ship and despite the fireworks and brass bands, the USS Constitution continued to rot away in Boston for another decade. In 1907 the housing was removed and new rigging and replica guns were added at a cost of $97,800.01.

It wasn't until 1927 that the true restoration began with public funds. Even while the historic ship lay in Charlestown, the Navy briefly considered using her as a target ship and offered only token funds for restoration. But the removal of the barracks, fresh public financing, and renewed interest by Congress and Boston restorers finally did the trick.

Early in the 1930s Ironsides was towed around the coastal United States, starting with a return visit to Portsmouth, NH. In 1998 locals prepared for a much-publicized visit from the famous frigate, but the trip never came off.

What remains are the pictures of a strange-looking vessel and a footnote to Portsmouth history. An unpublished photo turned up 15 years ago in the files of the Portsmouth Public Library. It shows visitors rowing in the Kittery Back Channel of the Portsmouth Navy Yard, ostensibly to touch the hallowed hull of the ancient warship. Ten years ago a woman from Texas found another rare image of Old Ironsides docked in Portsmouth. She searched the Internet and contacted the author of this article by email. Lee David Hamberg did the same. After finding similar pictures online, he decided it was time for his historic photo of Old Ironsides to return to its rightful home. This week he carefully packaged his unique relic and shipped the image from Southwick by priority mail. Hamberg donated it to the permanent collection at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

Piece by piece the forgotten bits of history come together. And in Portsmouth, those scraps very often lead us to the swirling Piscataqua River and out to sea. 

SOURCES: (1) A Most Fortunate Ship (1997) by Tyrone G. Martin; (2) Six Frigates (2006) by Ian W. Toll; (3) Attractive Bits Along the Shore (1895) by H. Wilbur Hayes. 

Original work copyright © 2014 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS, available in local stores and on Amazon.com.