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Two Rare USS Constitution Photos Found

USS Constitution (c) Sarah Hensz /

By sheer concidence we stumbled on two more fascinating photographs of "Old Ironsides" during her lengthy stay at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. One came from a Texas reader. The other turned up in a file in the local library a few years ago. Here are both images, published for the first time and available exclusively on your favorite history web site.


Visit our Old Ironsides section

Texas Reader Finds Piscataqua Image

Ironsides (c) Sarah HenszSarah Hensz of College Station, TX wrote recently to say she had what appeared to a picture of Old Ironsides in Portsmouth, NH. We agree, although no experts have documented the photo yet. The cabbed-over USS Constitution appears to be located near the famous Franklin Shiphouse at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, ME. The interesting thing about this image is that Ironsides is not the focal point of the photo which appears to be taken from the Portsmouth side of the river. Most images we have seen are framed exclusively on Ironsides, and thus we can see here, more clearly, where the ancient ship was docked during its lengthy term of service here in the late 1800s.

Sarah told us about her find in an email to Here is her message:

"My mothe-in-law bought the framed picture at an antique shop in the late 1960's when my father-in-law was stationed at Pease AFB. Recently she decided to put a new print into the old frame and even considered throwing away the photo, but since she knew we liked maritime things, saved it for us. I'm glad she did!!! I called her this evening to tell her about the info you sent today and she was amazed!!!! I've printed the info about the Ironsides from your web site to send to her as well."

Old Ironsides in Portsmouth (c) Sarah Hensz

The detail of the photo above shows the distant image of Old Ironsides more clearly sometime before 1897 when it was removed to Boston where it remains today. In an even larger version of the photo we can even see people walking on the ship in the foreground. Sarah says her search for the content of the photo began when she asked herself --- What was this really a photo of? She searched online, found our web site on Old Ironsides and contacted us. We don't know what the photographer was aiming at, but it i a fascinating perspective all the same.

Copyright © 2002. Photo used courtesy of Sarah Hensz, Updated 2005. 

Unpublished Ironsides Found in Library Files
USS Constitution /

As far as we know, this picture has rarely been seen and never published. It was discovered by former special collections librarian Sarah Hartwell. Sarah's brilliant command of the History Room at the Portsmouth Public Library often saved a zillion hours of aimless searching. This photo, which as you can see is cracked and flaking, was found in the vertical file in a manila folder. This one appears to be an original and we have never seen it in any other collection.

The photo dates from between 1882 and 1897 when "Old Ironsides" was used as a receiving ship for seamen at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. This unique sea level viewpoint shows three men, apparently sight seers, getting a closer look at the famous old frigate. It appears to have been "Kodaked" from another boad, although the image is especially clear and level if that is thecase.

Unlike most official photos from this era, this shot includes people in the foreground and nicely captures the water. A number of other figures are visible on the ship and to the right. Despite its "housed over" appearance, the lines of the famous war ship are still visible. The ship looked like this when it was towed to Boston from Portsmouth Harbor in 1897 for a 100-year birthday celebration. Ironsides spent a total of 20 years at the shipyard and Portsmouth was its second port of call in 1931 after restoration was completed. The earliest images in the archives of the US Navy show Ironsides in Portsmouth in the 1850s.-- JDR

Photo courtesy © 2002 Portsmouth Public Library / Updated 2005.

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