USS Constitution to get a tuneup, using white oak trees from Indiana

Robert Murphy and Dwight Demilt of the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston, along with Rhett Steel and Trent Osman, Navy foresters, examined white oak trees at the Crane, Ind. facility.
Robert Murphy and Dwight Demilt of the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston, along with Rhett Steel and Trent Osman, Navy foresters, examined white oak trees at the Crane, Ind. facility. –Bill Couch/US Navy

The USS Constitution may be the oldest commissioned warship still afloat in the world, but even “Old Ironsides’’ needs a tuneup every so often. Earlier this month, officials from the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston traveled to Indiana to scout trees they will use for upcoming repairs to the 214-year-old warship.

The trees, specifically white oaks, are growing at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Ind., and will remain there until 2015, when the Constitution will be placed in dry dock and restoration crews are able to inspect the ship’s hull.

“Every 20 years or so, the ship will go into drydock,’’ Robert Murphy, production manager for the detachment, said. “When it is in drydock, we remove the copper sheathing around the hull and inspect the hull planking that is below water line.’’

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Murphy said the group chose trees that are tall and straight, so they can get multiple planks out of each one. The trees will be cut, harvested, and stored in Indiana until crews have a chance to assess what needs to be replaced.

Part of the detachment’s mission is to repair and restore the Constitution to “as close to its 1812 configuration as possible,’’ according to its mission statement. White oak trees were specifically selected to stay true to the ship’s original material. Last time the Constitution was drydocked, between 1992 and 1995, some white oak trees from Indiana were used for the same purpose.

“White oak is great because it is rot-resistant, so it is great around water,’’ Margherita Desy, historian for the detachment, said. “It used to be a readily available material for shipbuilding.’’

The Constitution, built in Boston and launched in 1797, earned the nickname “Old Ironsides’’ for its seemingly impenetrable wooden hull. Cannonballs literally bounced off of it. The Constitution won 33 engagements and never lost a battle. Now, the ship is a destination for tourists and locals, and will be open for tours during the restoration.

“There are other jobs that will be happening,’’ Murphy said. “The ship will still be open to the public, though. People like to see it torn apart and put back together again.’’

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This summer, the Constitution will play a large role in ceremonies commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812, beginning with Navy Week events beginning June 29.

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