The USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides, is the sole survivor of America’s first naval fleet of six frigates. She was first launched in 1797 and has served ever since in active duty, as a receiving ship, museum, and naval ambassador, all through numerous renovations and restorations.
The ship first saw action during the Barbary Wars of 1803-1805. She gained prominence and the nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812 by defeating the British frigate HMS Guerriere. The USS Constitution’s solid oak frame withstood numerous cannon volleys, reportedly causing an unnamed British sailor to exclaim “Her sides are made of iron!”
The USS Constitution was thought to be headed for scrap metal in 1830 but writer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. penned a poem honoring the ship, which raised public awareness. Congress soon made restoration funds available and the ship served actively for nearly 50 more years, searching for illegal slave traders on Africa’s west coast, and then as a training ship for naval cadets before being decommissioned in 1882.
The ship was brought home to Boston for its centennial in 1897. She was restored in the late 1920s and toured the coasts of America, towed by a minesweeper. Yet another restoration in 1995, this one more extensive, prepared “Old Ironsides” to be able to sail under her own power for her bicentennial in 1997.
Today the USS Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat and is America’s “Ship of State.” She visits various American cities for Navy Week activities. During these stops her sailors perform volunteer work and good will visits, such as teaching school children about naval history, visiting veterans and children’s hospitals, and assisting with charitable causes like Habitat for Humanity or the Ronald McDonald House for families of children with life-threatening illnesses.
The ship and her crew also offer free tours to members of the public, both while visiting ports and when the USS Constitution is berthed at her homeport of Charlestown Navy Yard in Charlestown, MA. A museum focusing on the ship’s history and heritage is in Building 22 at Charlestown Navy Yard, just across the pier from the USS Constitution.