Find the Bones of ‘Old Ironsides’ in an Indiana Forest
The USS Constitution and her sister ships solved a serious problem for the early United States: how could a newborn nation hope to defend itself against both the superior European navies and the scourge of Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean? The solution was the first class of American frigates, appropriately called the United States class. With 44-50 guns and a top speed of 13 knots, these fighting ships were powerful enough to take on almost any warship afloat and fast enough to outrun the rest. Of those six frigates, only the USS Constitution remains.
Originally laid down in 1794, she endures as the world’s oldest commissioned vessel afloat today. A ship that old needs a lot of TLC, and when it comes time to repair or rebuild this symbol of American patriotism, its builders will turn to a grove of tall, broad-topped white oaks in an Indiana forest called the Constitution Grove.
Since 1797, the USS Constitution has served in a variety of roles. She fought as a warship, circled the globe for exploration, carted America’s contributions to the Paris Exposition of 1878, and provided Civil War sailors with much-needed training for naval combat. She served most famously during the War of 1812. By then almost 20 years old—old by naval standards—she pummeled five British warships, and earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” for her seemingly-impervious hull.
The durability of the USS Constitution‘s hull was no myth. The ship’s celebrated fortitude came from two elements: its design and its material. Ship design in Colonial America typically had the riders of the ship perpendicular to its keel (think of the riders as ribs and the keel as its backbone). Workers mounted the heavy planking on these riders, usually with pegs, and then caulked the entire ship with oakum (pieces of hemp rope saturated with pitch pine).
The designer of the Constitution mounted the ships riders diagonally from the keel. While odd-looking, this added more strength to the hull and provided more surface area to mount the ship’s planking. THIS prized frigate had a hull of white oak nearly two feet thick. It’s no wonder cannonballs bounced off harmlessly.
White oak is prized among woodworkers for its beauty, especially when quartersawn. It’s also practical. White oak lumber’s ability to resist rot or damage in water or from insects made it popular among shipbuilders. And, unlike cedar, white oak is exceptionally strong.
Even with its thick skin and strong bones, a two-and-a-half century life is long for any ship. Anticipating the USS Constitution’s future needs, shipbuilders and arborists worked together to earmark 150 white oaks in the 64,000 acres of forest surrounding the Crane Naval Base in Crane, Indiana. In 1976, the US Navy dedicated the forest surrounding these oaks, dubbing it “Constitution Grove.”
The removal of these oaks does not harm or diminish the forest to any degree. Although harvesting has taken its toll on Indiana’s lumber resources, the state still has almost 5 million acres of forested land. Indiana’s lumber industry has grown in the last decade, but statewide conservation efforts have added almost 30,000 acres of forest in the same period.
In 2015, the USS Constitution underwent extensive restoration, replacing the rotted planking with white oak planking harvested directly from these Hoosier trees. It took nearly two years to complete the restoration, and 35 of the 150 white oaks were milled into boards.
Today, over 100 of these white oaks remain in Constitution Grove. Since the life of a white oak is measured in centuries, they’ll still be there the next time the Constitution needs a facelift.