You might not believe that this odd-looking contraption could intimidate the mightiest frigates of the British navy, but in fact the USS Constitution had done precisely that some eighty-five years before an unknown photographer snapped this photograph of her moored at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. In the years following the War of 1812 and after scores of voyages around the world Constitution had seen her spar deck covered over by a two-story barn that housed offices and a dormitory. Windowpanes instead of thundering twenty-four-pounders now fill her square cannon ports, just left of center. Her foredeck, at center, has been encapsulated to allow sailors to use the "head," or toilet, in more privacy than they might have at sea, though the vertical pipe barely visible at center may indicate that plumbing lines still drained directly into the ocean.
What is most striking about this scene is not how much has changed on board America's greatest ship by 1897 but rather how much has been preserved, even though the grand age of sail had already turned to steam and Constitution was little more than a floating barracks. The mizzen, main, and foremast remain standing above the barn roof, their shrouds still secured to the ship's topsides, and the spencer gaffs, at upper left, appear ready to set sails. An anchor hangs from the carved cathead, left of center, its chain feeding into the twin hawser holes. The carved billethead on the bow appears intact, and while the round jibboom above has been slid off the larger bowsprit below, the martingale stays and other standing rigging remain at the ready, as if the ship might set sail at any moment.
In fact, Constitution appears to be preparing for what might easily have become her last voyage when this photograph was made during the summer of 1897, as the white oak planking, wood so tough it repelled British cannonballs and earned the ship it's moniker of "Old Ironsides," has been removed, at far left, to expose her live oak frames. Such an examination was necessary to determine if she could endure the eighteen-hour trip from Kittery to Boston, where she would eventually, after a national campaign to gather pennies as well as federal funds, be dry-docked and rebuilt. The workers at center and left, and the individuals barely visible in the dinghy at lower right, appear to be taking one last look at the ship before she departs. How pleased they would've been to know that she would return to Maine waters again, in 1931 after her restoration was complete, and that a full century later she would still be moored and open to the public in Boston, her hideous deckhouse removed and her dignity restored.