Early spring is a quiet time at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Since so much of our campus is outside, most of our visitors come see us in the warm months, when you can arrive at the Museum by boat, or in flip-flops, padding down from St. Michaels’ main historic area. The cold months are usually a planning time, an improvement time, when you can hunker down and research, write grants, develop new programs. This is also a great time to leave St. Michaels and see a little of what the outside world and its historical connections have to offer; to “sharpen your tools”, if you will.
Recently, a group of museum volunteers and I headed over to Baltimore to check out some the vessels and landmarks at Historic Ships of Baltimore. Historic Ships, like CBMM, is a non-traditional museum, where the exhibit spaces are floating in the harbor rather than the stereotype of a single building with art-lined walls. Focusing on ships and artifacts with military history, the collections of Historic Ships are as varied in theme and era as they are location in Baltimore Harbor. They’ve got a sloop-of-war from 1855, a lightship from 1930, and a 19th century lighthouse, and those are just the things we explored. There is a lot more on top of that, if you’re in Baltimore and feeling adventurous: http://bit.ly/8GXNBb
The first one is hard to miss: The USS Constellation. Most interestingly used (amongst other things) to capture illegal slave ships off the coast of Africa, she also has a great story of a double identity: for a long time, she was wrongly assumed to be the frigate Constellation built in 1797, famously built in Baltimore’s Sterret Shipyard and participating in the War of 1812. “Restored” in 1955 to resemble the 1797 vessel, the confusion started with the Navy and continued on down the line, according to the definitve report on the matter, “Fouled Anchors: the Constellation Question Answered.” From the report:
“The first Constellation, was designed by Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox in 1795 and built by David Stodder in Baltimore. Completed in 1797,it saw considerable service before it was brought to Gosport Navy Yard, dismantled in 1853 and her timbers auctioned off. At about the same time, the second Constellation was built in Gosport about 600 feet away. The second Constellation was designed by U.S. naval constructor John Lenthall as a completely new ship. The new ship was built simultaneously with the destruction of the old, and employed the old name.
The second Constellation was commissioned in 1855 and saw long service but by 1909 the Navy had confused the 1855 ship with the 1797 one. In 1946 the Navy decided to scrap the ship but citizens, especially from Baltimore, pressed to save her. In 1948 Howard I. Chapelle. a well-known naval architectural historian, revealed that the present ship was built in 1855. The public was confused and turned to the Navy for advice. The Navy did not investigate historical records thoroughly at this time. It based its opinion on the negative findings that it could not locate a document which specifically said that the first Constellation had been destroyed, therefore the Navy had to presume that the present ship was built in 1797.”
That’s a pretty epic historical “uh-oh, ” and one that, in the public consciousness at least, is tenaciously (and mistakenly) memorable. You can read more about what must have been a pretty embarrassing mix-up on the original document here: www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA241916
Constellation #1 or Constellation #2, we love her either way.
We also had the pleasure of seeing some familiar faces while exploring Constellation #2 and learning about the crew and officers that lived aboard the ship in her heyday with one of their living history programs reenactor, a former (and very talented) CBMM staffer and intern, Marian Robbins.
Can you guess which one is Marian and which one is the author of this blog? Yes, you think so? The one in the black seaman’s attire is Marian? Very good, gentle reader. It appears your eyesight is just fine.
Other captures from the day in Baltimore:
Peerless (but not pier-less) volunteers
View of Baltimore Harbor from the deck of the Constellation, looking towards Federal Hill with the Domino Sugar factory in the distance.
Rakishly handsome and bewhiskered crew members pose in the mid 19th century.
A jungle of hammocks swing from a lower deck.
Listening to the audio tour. It was like touchdown at the airport- everybody was on their own cell phone.
The lightship Chesapeake
Seven Foot Knoll lighthouse, which once housed a head keeper, an assistant keeper (who was also the head keeper’s wife), their four children (one of whom was born in the lighthouse and was summarily nicknamed “Knollie”), and another assistant keeper, is the oldest example of a cast-iron screwpile lighthouse in Maryland. While the interior was much more spacious than our own Hooper Strait Lighthouse at CBMM, it was hard to imagine the keeper and his ever-growing family suffering through an intensely humid Chesapeake summer in the stifling hotbox the iron lighthouse must have become. Also, the idea of being that second assistant keeper, stranded out in the middle of the Chesapeake with another keeper’s small, energetic children, nursing wife, and wailing baby seemed like the best reason for cabin fever and/ or a nervous breakdown that I can imagine.
All in all, it was a wonderful day spent, as the Water Rat said in Wind in the Willows, “simply messing about in boats.” Like every trip away, as much as we enjoyed soaking up the salty history of Baltimore, everyone sighed with satisfaction as the gently curved twin spans of the Bay Bridge and the Eastern Shore, with our own slice of Chesapeake maritime culture, came into view.
So long, Baltimore!