The USS Constitution, or Old Ironsides as she’s sometimes called, has the distinction of being the oldest naval ship anywhere still to be sailing the seas. This magnificent vessel with her three masts and timber hull was launched in 1797, seven months after George Washington’s second presidential term ended. Indeed, it was he who ordered the ship’s construction and coined her name.
Construction of the Constitution started in 1794 at the Boston, Massachusetts shipyard of master carpenter Edmund Hartt. Designer Joshua Humphreys specified that the tall ship’s hull timbers should be 21 inches thick, that she should be 204 feet from bow to stern; and just over 43 feet across the beam. Some 60 acres of mostly oaks and pines were felled to build her.
Constitution’s planned purpose had been to combat the Barbary pirates sailing out of North Africa, especially Algiers, who had caused much grief to U.S. merchant shipping in the Mediterranean. The pirates took 11 U.S. ships in just one year, 1793. However, a 1796 peace treaty with Algiers made that purpose redundant and even halted construction of Constitution for a time.
But Constitution’s opportunity to show her worth came in the 1812 War with the British. Under the command of Commodore Isaac Hull Constitution defeated and destroyed the British frigate HMS Guerriere after a fierce battle in August 1812. Then in December, Constitution attacked and destroyed another British warship, HMS Java. Her reputation as a formidable fighting ship was secured.
Constitution continued in uneventful service sailing in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Pacific through the 19th century until 1857, when she took on a new role as a training vessel. In the 20th century her fortunes were mixed – she came close to being used for target practice. But eventually she was saved for the nation. Incredibly, today she is still seaworthy and visitors can tour the ship at her mooring in Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard.