Frigate USS Constitution, on a tour of Pacific Coast ports, arrives in Seattle on May 31, 1933.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 12/22/2012
  • Essay 10269
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On May 31, 1933, the historic frigate USS Constitution arrives at the Port of Seattle, under tow of the mine sweeper USS Grebe (AM-43). After making a grand circuit of Elliott Bay, "Old Ironsides" is moored at Pier 41 in Smith Cove. The visit is part of a three-year tour around the United States, a public "thank you" to everyone who, from 1925 to 1930, helped raise almost $1 million to completely restore the deteriorating vessel. The Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world, will be  the centerpiece of Seattle’s "Gala Days" and will be open to the public for two weeks.

Old Ironsides

The USS Constitution is a 2,200-ton, 175-foot, wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate, built in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Edmund Hartt Shipyard. Launched in 1797, she was one of six frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Armament Act in 1794. Named by President George Washington (1732-1799), the Constitution is most famous for her actions against the British Navy during the War of 1812. She earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” in an engagement with the HMS Guerriere, a frigate mounting 49 guns. During a 20-minute, close-quarter battle, the 44-gun Constitution, disabled, captured, and then sunk the British warship, while her thick, oak hull sustained relatively minor damage from cannon balls. It was a great moral victory for the fledgling United States Navy against the most powerful naval force in the world.

After the war (1812-1815), "Old Ironsides" was refitted and served as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron. A survey in 1830 determined the frigate was unseaworthy and Congress considered relegating her to the scrap yard. But public sentiment and Oliver Wendell Holmes’ memorable poem "Old Ironsides" saved the ship from destruction. The Constitution was repaired, refitted, and returned to commissioned status four times between 1832 and 1907. From 1897 to 1925, she was on exhibition at the Boston Naval Shipyard.When a survey in 1924 determined that "Old Ironsides" was again in dire need of repairs, Congress authorized her restoration by public subscription and Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur (1867-1954) initiated a national voluntary campaign to raise the necessary funds.

On March 15, 1930, the Constitution left dry-dock with major repairs completed. The total cost of this extensive restoration was close to $1 million. Approximately two-thirds of the money had been raised by patriotic organizations and school children, and the remainder, needed to complete the restoration, was appropriated by Congress. On July 2, 1931, after sitting for 34 years at the Boston Naval Shipyard, the USS Constitution, under the command of Commander Louis J. Gulliver (1884-1962), set sail on a goodwill tour of New England ports. The voyage proved so popular that the historic warship was sent on a tour of all the coastal states of America.

A Historic Vessel

Between July 1931 and May 1932, the USS Constitution visited every port on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts with water deep enough to accommodate her 23-foot draft. She was then towed to the Washington Naval Shipyard to prepare for the long expedition to the West Coast. On December 8, 1932, “Old Ironsides,” under tow by the 188-foot, mine sweeper USS Grebe (AS-43) set sail for the Pacific Coast, with week-long visitations scheduled at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Cristobal and Balboa, Panama.

The two ships transited the 48-mile-long Panama Canal on December 27 and arrived in San Diego on January 21, 1933. During the Winter and Spring of 1933, the Constitution and Grebe slowly worked their way up the coastline toward Washington state. En route, the ships called at nine major ports, including Grays Harbor (Gray’s Harbor County), arriving at Port Angeles (Clallam County) in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on May 27, 1933. The historic vessel was on exhibition there for four days before departing for Seattle.

Gala Days

On Wednesday afternoon, May 31, 1933, the USS Constitution, under tow by the USS Grebe, entered Seattle’s Elliott Bay and made a grand tour of the inner harbor from West Point to Duwamish Head. The warships had been convoyed from Hood Canal to Seattle by the Black Ball Line’s 221-foot steamship Tacoma and a flotilla of smaller vessels. The fireboats Alki and Duwamish were on hand, whistles blowing and monitors streaming water, to welcome "Old Ironsides" while a squadron of U.S. Navy Berliner-Joyce OJ-2 pursuit aircraft from Sandpoint Naval Air Station circled overhead. Following the pageant, Foss Maritime Company tugboats escorted the warships to Smith Cove where they moored at the south end of Pier 41 (now Pier 91).

Generally, the public was not pleased that the Port of Seattle had chosen Pier 41 to exhibit "Old Ironsides." Lake Union would have been a more convenient location, but the ship’s mainmast, 220 feet tall, could not pass beneath the 150-foot-high arch of the new George Washington Memorial Bridge (commonly known as the Aurora Bridge) over the Lake Washington Ship Canal. The weather for early spring was unseasonably warm and the hike from the nearest streetcar stop, at 15th Avenue W and W Garfield Street, to the Constitution at the south end of Pier 41 was approximately one mile. Only vehicles with a “special permit” were allowed on the pier and parking space nearby was woefully lacking. Concessionaires, following the Constitution from port to port, were not allowed onto the pier and made to hawk their souvenirs on the Garfield Street Bridge (now the Magnolia Bridge) or near streetcar stops along 15th Avenue W and Elliott Avenue W.

The public’s interest wasn’t diminished, however, as approximately 14,000 persons a day lined up on Pier 41 to see “Old Ironsides.” Visiting hours were from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day the ship was in port. Rope barriers along the pier funneled the crowd to and from the ship. Gangplanks were positioned, fore and aft, to facilitate the flow of traffic through the historic vessel. The Seattle Police Department stationed patrolmen on the pier and at the ship’s side to ensure order and the Seattle Fire Department parked an engine nearby to cover any fire emergencies.

Honoring the Old Warship

Early Thursday morning, June 15, 1933, two Foss Maritime Company tugboats accompanied the USS Constitution to Tacoma for a one-week visit. A large crowd was on hand at Pier 41 to bid the frigate farewell. During her two-week stay in Seattle, "Old Ironsides" had been toured by 201,422 people. At the Port of Tacoma, the frigate was moored at the McCormick Steamship Company Pier on Dock Street where she was visited by over 84,000 people.

After departing Tacoma on June 22, the Constitution visited the ports of Bremerton, Everett, Bellingham, Anacortes and Port Townsend. On July 30, 1933, the Grebe and Constitution left the Strait of Juan de Fuca and sailed south. At the Columbia River "Old Ironsides" made calls at the ports of Astoria and Portland in Oregon, and Klama and Longview in Washington. On August 26, the Grebe and Constitution crossed the Columbia River Bar and headed toward California. They visited 10 more ports in California before finally reaching San Diego on November 3, 1933.

The USS Constitution wintered at the San Diego Naval Base, making repairs and provisioning for the long voyage back to the East Coast. On March 20, 1934, she departed San Diego harbor, under tow by the 350-foot submarine tender USS Bushnell (AS-2), en route to the Canal Zone. South of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, off the coast of Mexico, the Bushnell transferred "Old Ironsides" to the USS Grebe for the passage east through the Panama Canal. Back on the Atlantic Coast, the Constitution called at Saint Petersburg, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina, before returning to Boston.

Serving at Home

Between 1931 and 1934, “Old Ironsides” traveled 22,000 miles, called at 76 ports in 21 states and was visited by over 4.6 million people. She returned home to the Boston Naval Shipyard on May 7, 1934, and has remained on permanent exhibition there ever since. The Boston Naval Shipyard, one of the first shipyards built in the United States, is on the National Park Service, Register of Historic Places (NR No. 66000134), that includes "Old Ironsides," the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy.

On October 28, 2009, President Barack H. Obama (b. 1961) signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (HR 2647), which in section 1022 designated the USS Constitution as "America's Ship of State," or flagship. According to the act, the ship should be used to conduct pertinent matters of state, "such as hosting visiting heads of state, signing legislation relating to the Armed Forces, and signing maritime related treaties." The primary mission of the USS Constitution, however, remained education and public outreach.

Sources: Karl Heinz Marquardt, The 44-Gun Frigate USS Constitution: "Old Ironsides" (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006); David Fitz Enz, Old Ironsides: Eagle of the Sea (Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004); "Old Ironsides to Sail to the Pacific Coast," The New York Times, November 1, 1932, p. 30; "Pacific Visit Ordered for Old Ironsides," Ibid., November 27, 1932, p. 8; "Planes Salute ‘Old Ironsides,’ Passing Through Panama Canal," Ibid., December 28, 1932, p. 19; "Ironsides Week Opens," The Oregonian, October 25, 1925, p. 1; "Historic Warship Slips into Harbor," Ibid., August 3, 1933, p. 1; "Constitution May Sail Again Before Making Her Last Trip," The Springfield Republican (Massachusetts), April 28, 1934, p. 1; "Old Ironsides Back at Boston after Three Years of Wandering," Ibid., May 8, 1934, p. 12; "Pennies, Nickels Donated to Save Old Ironsides," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), October 20, 1925, p. 16; "Seattle to Help in Saving Old Frigate," The Seattle Times, May 14, 1927, p. 5; "Rejuvenated Ironsides Once More Rides Waves in Majesty," Ibid., March 17, 1930, p. 4; “Launched Again After 132 Years,” Ibid., March 21, 1930, p. 4; “Old Ironsides,” Ibid., June 28, 1930, p. 6; "21,000 Seattle Children to See Old Ironsides," Ibid., May 28, 1933, p. 14; "Program of Gala Days While Ships Are in Port," Ibid., May 28, 1933, p. 2; "History of Famous Vessel Tells of Many Victories," Ibid., May 30, 1933, p. 14; "Famous Frigate Will Visit City for Two Weeks," Ibid., May 30, 1933, p. 14; "Famous Ship’s Story Told in Brief Outline," Ibid., May 30, 1933, p. 15; "Schools to Be Shown through Old Ironsides," Ibid., May 30, 1933, p. 15; "Historic Old Ironsides to Arrive Here Late Today," Ibid., May 31, 1933, p. 1; "Ironsides, at Berth, Visited by Awed Pupils," Ibid., June 1, 1933, p. 1; "10,000 Persons Are Visitors to Frigate in Day," Ibid., June 2, 1933, p. 9; "Interesting Old Warship," Ibid., June 4, 1933, p. 4; "Tomorrow Is Last Chance to Visit Frigate," Ibid., June 13, 1933, p. 5; "Flag Day Ends Seattle Visit of Old Ironsides," Ibid., June 14, 1933, p. 10; "Old Ironsides Off for Tacoma," Ibid., June 15, 1933, p. 16; "Old Ironsides Is Home," Ibid., May 8, 1934, p. 21;"“Old Ironsides tied Up After Long Cruise," Ibid., June 9, 1934, p. 9.

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