USS Constitution -Original Equipment

Today, October 14, is the 235th anniversary of the launching or commissioning of the “terrible heavy frigate” USS Constitution. I can’t help but wonder (and am too lazy to research) to what extent the original fabric of the ship has survived. I remember that when a hurricane took down some live oak trees in the Carolinas a number of years ago the wood was salvaged to repair the ship. Over the years you would think, what with routine refittings while she was in active service and the ravages of time and salt water, much of the old ship has been replaced. What is left of the ship that Hull and Decatur may have laid hands on?

Isn’t the USS Constitution still a commissioned US Navy ship?

Yes, she’s still commissioned, and still up in Boston. As to how much of her is original, I don’t know, but I do know that they took out enough white oak when they were refurbishing her that they can sell fountain pens made from the original wood in the gift shop – one of which I bought. If I were to guess, I’d say most or all of the decks have been replaced. I believe they told us on the tour that the main deck had been completely replaced recently. I suspect the live oak portions have held up better than the white oak portions, but that’s just speculation.

A detailed rundown of the refurbishing and materials used is here.

I tried to Google up a reference and failed, but isn’t this the “my grandfather’s hammer” conundrum? (The old gag where the beloved hammer has had the head and handle replaced several times, but is still believed to be the original tool in some sense).

There are parts of the ship that are likely to have been replaced over 235 years. Like the outer hull boards (exposed to seawater, barnacles, etc.) and the upper deck boards (exposed to weather & wear), and of course the sails, ropes, etc.

But it seems like various internal structural parts would have survived fine. Like the major beams inside the ship. Those are made from really big pieces of wood, and are in a fairly protected location inside the ship. I don’t see why they wouldn’t still be the originals. (Are termites a problem in ships as far north as Massachusetts?)

The Constitution has neither always been in MA waters nor always been a carefully-conserved heritage piece. At times, she was used as a hulk or school ship, and languished with little maintenance for long periods. She had at least five major yard periods during her active service life, and at least 6 restorations since. She is undergoing another major restoration as I type. Some of these prior “restorations” were such in name only, with very little effort dedicated to preserving the historical fabric of the vessel. The 1992-1996 major restoration that made her able to sail under her own power again was especially extensive. It did, as Spavined Gelding recalls, use “hurricane kill” oak from South Carolina that was killed by Hurricane Hugo.

At this point, it’s safe to say that, like the Ship of Theseus, very little of the “original” wood remains. All of the deck planking and all of the hull planking has been replaced at some point along the line. The spars and rigging have been replaced. Many ribs, most of the deck beams, all the knees (the pieces of wood that support the deck beams) and even pieces of the keel have been replaced in recent times.

That said, there are some pieces of the vessel that date back not merely to Decatur, but are the very same as when she slipped down the ways at Edmund Hartt’s shipyard. Most of the metal rods/bolts/etc that held the hull together are original and over 200 years old. These were all inspected intensively during the 1992-1996 restoration and although some needed to be replaced, most were still in very good shape.

So, on a literal level, the actual decks that Decatur and Hull trod are long gone. Whether you think this is still “the same” ship as they captained, however, depends on how you answer Plutarch and Hobbes.

Only the keel is original. Every other part has been replaced.

ETA: As of the last time I was there, probably 20 years ago.

Actually, it’s not quite that simple. As I said, some of the hull fastenings are original, and some of the keel is not, and some other frame members nearer to the keel that were spared the destructive “restorations” of the earlier 20th century are.

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