After 160 years, USS Constellation showing her age

The Constellation, an 1854 sloop-of-war, will undergo a $2.25 million renovation in late October to restore its hull and rigging.

By Jenny Hottle, Daily Record Business Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2014
Originally published on

A Baltimore icon will be missing from its berth at the Inner Harbor this fall as the USS Constellation heads into dry dock for what ship museum officials say are critical maintenance repairs.

The Constellation, an 1854 sloop-of-war, will undergo a $2.25 million renovation in late October to restore its hull and rigging, said Chris Rowsom, executive director of Historic Ships in Baltimore.

The museum still needs about $250,000 for the restoration project before it transports the ship to the U.S. Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, Rowsom said. The state allotted $1.25 million for Constellation improvements in the fiscal year 2015 budget, and the city of Baltimore contributed $750,000. And recently, nonprofit Baltimore Heritage Area Association awarded the museum a $10,000 grant to help replace the ship’s main yard.

This fall marks the ship’s second move to dry dock in four years. The Constellation and its submarine neighbor, the USS Torsk, went to the Sparrows Point shipyard in 2011 for planned maintenance. During the project, workers realized freshwater seepage had caused the ship’s laminated hull planking to rot below the waterline.

“We found one little spot that was rearing its ugly head, and it turned into a 60-foot hole,” Rowsom said. “We didn’t have the time or money to do the whole job. We basically patched up the big hole and started to plan the next dry docking.”

Workers in 2003 first noticed some deterioration along the top edge of laminated hull planking that had been added during a $9 million restoration project between 1996 and 1999. The top edge, they learned, had not been correctly constructed. Though workers repaired the edge to prevent further seepage, the damage had already weakened the ship’s frame — and the rot will keep spreading until workers move the ship out of water.

“We fixed the cause of the problem, but we didn’t realize how invasive it had actually become,” Rowsom said. “It was sort of like a malignancy.”

The issue is serious, Rowsom said, but the ship is not in any sort of immediate danger. Museum staff members want to correct the problem before the rot gets into the ship’s remaining historic fabric.

During the upcoming renovation, workers will replace about 6,000 feet of hull planking and the ship’s 85-foot-long main yard. About 40 people from the museum and the Coast Guard will spend four months on the project.

“It’s a fairly straightforward project, but it requires a lot of time and manpower and the funding to get it done,” Rowsom said.

Commissioned in 1855, the Constellation was the flagship of the U.S. African Squadron and helped to capture vessels engaging in illegal slave trade. In the 1870s, the Constellation became a training ship at the Naval Academy, and it later served as the flagship of the U.S. Atlantic fleet for about six months during World War II.

The ship arrived in Baltimore in 1955 and has since become landmark for city tourism. About 140,000 people visit the Constellation and the museum’s other vessels annually, Rowsom said. Thousands of students and scout groups attend overnight programs aboard the Constellation to learn about the lives of the sailors who served years ago.

Patricia Clarke, of Pittsburgh, recently toured the Constellation with her sister, passing the ship’s sleeping quarters and pausing in the kitchen. Their great-grandfather and his brother were cooks aboard the ship during the Civil War.

“It was so moving to go on the ship and walk where our ancestor walked,” Clarke said. “You just can’t believe that this wood ship crossed the high seas so many times and fought battles. It just blew me away.”

The Constellation and the Torsk are the museum’s top attractions, but Rowsom doesn’t expect the ship’s repairs to have a strong impact on business because the renovations are scheduled during the tourism off-season.

But the ship will be missed during that time, some tourists said this week.

Catonsville resident Sheila Wheltle, who visited the Constellation with her family in May, said the ship offers visitors a “strong sense of history.”

“You have a unique view of Harborplace from the side of the ship,” said Wheltle, of Catonsville. “It’s fun, a really neat signature part of the Inner Harbor. It’s an enjoyable tourist attraction for the city.”

Leave a note

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s