The historic USS Constitution has been tied to Maine history since 1796, when her original eastern white pine masts were hauled out of the woods of Kennebec County.
According to an article published in the Bangor Historical Magazine in 1891, trees for the masts were cut in the town of Windsor, on the north side of Augusta Road between Cooper’s Mills and Bryant’s Corner. “Thomas Cooper, of New Castle, and a man named Gray, who afterward moved to Windsor or Whitefield, cut them and got them to salt water by swamping a road to Puddle Dock (Alna) during the winter of 1796/97.” The following spring, the trees were taken to Wiscasset, where they were yoked together with oak mortises and towed down the coast to the Boston shipyard of Edmund Hart.
Young Edward Preble, of Portland, watched his hometown burn to the ground at the hands of British Navy Commander Henry Mowatt in 1776. On that day he vowed to join the United States Navy to defend his country. By the time the First Barbary War broke out, Commodore Edward Preble was already a seasoned veteran. He was sent to Tripoli in 1803 as commander of the 3rd U.S. squadron, with the frigate USS Constitution as his flagship. The Maine commodore ordered the strategic burning of the USS Philadelphia when it fell into enemy hands.
The USS Constitution served her country nobly during the War of 1812. She earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” when fire from the HMS Guerriere literally bounced off her 21-inch-thick, live oak hull.
On June 2, 1855, Old Ironsides sailed into Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery for repairs. Her arrival caused quite a commotion on both sides of the Piscataqua River. Her Navy sailors, on leave after long, loyal service, enthusiastically drank, gambled and caroused. Petty Officer Edward Welch became intoxicated and fell to his death through the hatchway of Old Ironsides. Other sailors were cheated out of their pay in a rigged card game onboard, and the swindlers were chased all over town. Local reporters wrote that the police would have their hands full until the seamen dispersed.
On June 2, 1858, an article appeared in the Charleston Mercury indicating that the frigate Constitution was on the ways at Kittery, having been thoroughly repaired and coppered: “Planking inside and out has been taken off and between six and seven hundred timbers have been replaced. She is now as good as new when first launched in Boston sixty years ago.” Old Ironsides was already regarded as the oldest ship in the Navy when she served as a training vessel during the Civil War.
The old girl returned to Kittery in 1882 after completing her final high seas training cruise and suffered the indignity of being reconfigured into Navy receiving barracks. A large, barn-like structure obscured her graceful lines. On one occasion in 1891, she was adorned with paper lanterns and transformed into a dance hall for the ladies of the G.A.R..
Congressman John F. Fitzgerald of Massachusetts infuriated Portsmouth and Kittery natives in 1897 when he declared the Navy frigate to be on the verge of sinking at her Kittery pier. Her removal to Boston for her 100th birthday was begrudgingly announced in local papers with the caveat, “they had better return her to her rightful home after the celebration because her deteriorated condition has been exaggerated for political reasons.” Old Ironsides would not return to the Portsmouth Navy Yard for another 35 years.
The public was outraged to learn that the Secretary of the Navy recommended the tattered USS Constitution be towed out to sea and used for target practice. Fundraising efforts were undertaken to provide for her complete restoration. Schoolchildren sent in their hard-won pennies and the silent film “Old Ironsides” was produced to raise awareness about the historic ship. Over $600,000 in private funds was raised and Congress approved an additional expenditure of $300,000 to complete the project.
John Abel Lord of Bath, ME was put in charge of rebuilding the USS Constitution in 1925. He researched 18th-century shipbuilding tools and techniques extensively before handpicking skilled shipwrights from Bath to do the work.
The new Secretary of the Navy, Charles Francis Adams, recommended that the restored vessel be towed from port to port to show the people of the United States what their pennies had bought.
Old Ironsides made the first stop of her national tour at the Portsmouth Navy Yard on July 3, 1931. Captain Louis J. Gulliver, of Portland, was at her helm. Some 32,000 people came to see her during the week she spent at Kittery. She was next towed to Bar Harbor and then to Bath, where a huge celebration honored the home boys who had rebuilt her. Old Ironsides spent another week tied up to the Maine State Pier in Portland before being towed away from Maine for the last time.
Many penny donors were disappointed to see Old Ironsides towed on her national tour. Authorities had not thought it prudent to sail the 134-year-old vessel. On July 21, 1997, she finally did sail under her own power for the first time in 116 years, flying a suit of sails made by Nathaniel S. Wilson of East Boothbay.