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Our Unconstitutional Summer

Ironsides keychain /


It was the summer of 1998 and some of us really believed that Old Ironsides would return once more to New Hampshire. Boy, were we dumb. Once we lost her to Massachusetts, it was all over but the crying. Yet there are things to be learned from a little spilt milk.



When Senator Ted Kennedy's grandfather "Honey Fitz" finagled the USS Constitution out of Portsmouth Harbor in 1897 and back to Boston, one local sailor, distraught over the loss of "Old Ironsides," seized the departing ship and tried to hold her back. For his heroic effort, the anonymous seaman received a sprained wrist and a two sentence report in a long defunct Portsmouth newspaper.

When the US Navy officially cancelled the historic ship's fourth visit to the Piscataqua in the summer of 1998, it felt like we’d lost her all over again. A lot of people logged a lot of hours in prepping for the visit.

Shred the 20,000 boarding tickets, boys! Cancel the 30 buses. Send back the Port-o-potties. Nix the 6,000 barbecued chickens and ditch the 2,500 dignitaries. No need to board 781 crew members and friends. Channel 9 was planning live TV coverage of the event with seven cameras. A local sculptor was forging souvenir plates in solid pewter. A Maine film crew sunk thousands into a planned documentary. Heck, we created an entire frigate web site in anticipation. (click for Old Ironsides homepage)

It was going to be an exciting few days, not just for Portsmouth, but for the nation. Believe it or not, the most popular tourist activity in America today is visiting historic sites. Tourists used to prefer the beach, eating out, going to state parks. Now history is numero uno. Seeing Ironsides on the move again had all the patriotic pathos of watching Lady Liberty step off her pedestal and wade up the Mighty Piscataqua.

But it didn’t happen, boys and girls. My secret maritime contact "Deep Boat" was flat wrong, though he told me right up until the last minute -- "Don't give up the ship." We had to give it up all the same. People around Portsmouth took the bad news with great dignity, I believe. We were crushed, of course, but no one wanted a tourism bonanza if it meant endangering a single reconstructed timber of "Old Ironsides".

The only unkind words I heard back then were attributed to Senator Ted Kennedy who, according to the Boston Globe, said the USS CONSTITUTION had "been saved once again." The reference to his grandfather is clear. Old John Fitzgerald was fond of saying that, without his 1897 intervention, Old Ironsides would have been "at the bottom of Portsmouth Harbor." The senator forgot that, after the Constitution had outlived its use even as a training vessel, that it was kept afloat and on active duty here as a "receiving" ship for incoming sailors. The senator forgot that when Ironsides was towed to Charlestown in 1897, it rotted there for another 20 years, was again targeted for scrap by the Navy, and was finally rescued only with a nation-wide fund-raiser in which kids collected their pennies. He forgot that Portsmouth Harbor was the second port of call for the restored ship's 76-port "Thank You Tour" from 1931 to 1933. In all her years at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in the 19th century, we kept Ironsides alive as well as any port. And for nearly two decades back then, it was fun having her around.

Let's face it, Boston sometimes treats Portsmouth the way Portsmouth sometimes treats Gonic, and nobody wins those territorial skirmishes. Charlestown is Ironsides authentic "berth" place fair and square. Caught up in Constitution hysteria, I visited the floating shrine there again. The USS Constitution Museum is brilliantly put together and worth the easy visit just over the Tobin Bridge. Going aboard the often-rebuilt wooden war ship still gives me goosebumps.

We cane close back in 1998. But it appears unlikely that the fragile floating museum will ever return to New Hampshire. To assuage our grief, I offere the following healing suggestions:


I've got a friend with a lobster boat who thinks, if we muffle the old diesel, he can sidle into Charlestown Harbor, snip a few cables, tie onto Ironsides, and tow her up here quietly in time to pull his morning pots. He wants gas money and six cases of beer. It makes a good back-up plan.


Few people know that when we rebuilt Ironsides at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in the 19th century, there was plenty of left-over white oak, the same hard wood that repelled those cannon balls and earned the ship her name. The wood has been seasoning there in a salt water pool, I'm told, for over a century now. It has to be as resilient as the coating on the Space Shuttle by now. For a few million bucks, we have the talent to build our own look-alike USS CONSTITUTION and park it here permanently. Charlestown’s Ironsides has been rebuilt at least twice since the timbers were stored here. So technically, if we use the old wood from the shipyard, our new boat will be older than the current CONSTITUTION. Wouldn't that curdle Teddy's chowder?


Why not hold an annual Portsmouth Day in Charlestown? I mean, really make a party of it. We'll charter a flotilla of buses, bring our own local microbrew and a bunch of good local rock bands. The military-types can make a few speeches. The history-types can catch a slide show at the Visitor's Center. The structural engineers can take each other's measure while the rest of us take tours and kick back in the park there and climb the Bunker Hill monument across the street.


If nothing else, the aborted visit by Ironsides gave us an excuse to bone-up on our maritime trivia. Ironsides was not, by the way, built to fight the American Revolution. It was among the first six ships created two decades later for the original US Navy at six federal shipyards. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was among those selected in 1897. We built the "sister" ship USS CONGRESS.

Did you know that one of the oldest photographs in the US Naval Archives is a shot of Ironsides being refit here in 1858? And later we sent Piscataqua shipbuilders to assist in later Ironsides work done in Boston.

You may have seen the photos of the "cabbed over" Ironsides with a roof over its deck. When it was in town – since Portsmouth recycles everything – it was used as a dormitory for young trainees.

Did you know that our native Portsmouth son Tobias Lear (secretary to George Washington) negotiated the famous Treaty of Tripoli aboard the Constitution? Tobias and his third wife also enjoyed their honeymoon aboard the famous vessel.

Were you aware that Isaac Hull, the first real commander of the shipyard in Kittery was the same Isaac Hull who commanded Ironsides in the War of 1812?

I didn't know a lot of things about my own back yard until "Old Ironsides" almost came back to town.

Copyright © 2005 by All rights reserved. First published here in 1998. Updated in 2005.

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