Constitution comes to New London

Photograph of USS Constitution during the National Cruise, 1931

USS Constitution during the National Cruise, 1931

Three photographs:  Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library

Stern view of USS Constitution during the National Cruise, 1931

Stern view of USS Constitution during the National Cruise, 1931

Photograph of Louis J. Gulliver, Commander of USS Constitution during the National Cruise

Louis J. Gulliver, Commander of USS Constitution during the National Cruise

By the 1920s, USS Constitution, with more than a century of service as a warship, classroom for the Naval Academy, receiving ship, and naval museum, was beginning to show effects of her age and extended use. A 1924 survey conducted by Chief of Naval Operations Edward Eberle and the Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey revealed a grim picture - years of neglect and the effects of Boston’s harsh weather left the ship sagging, riddled with rot, and shipping more than two feet of water per day. Despite the extent of the damage, the Board recommended that Constitution be “rebuilt and refitted, and preserved and put in a condition for preservation for the greatest length of time practicable as a seaworthy vessel.”  

Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur agreed, and petitioned Congress to authorize restoration efforts, initially estimated at $400,000. In 1925, Congress approved the restoration, but appropriated little federal funding for the work. Instead, a public fundraising effort - the “Save Old Ironsides Campaign” - championed the cause, raising $985,000 between 1927 and 1931 through foundational support, individual donations, the sale of souvenirs fashioned from material removed during the restoration work, and a pennies campaign spearheaded by schoolchildren across the nation. In 1931, the Navy recommissioned Constitution in an inactive, exhibition status, and plans were made to tow the ship along the East, Gulf, and West coasts of the United States as a gesture of thanks to the public who saved her.

On July 2, 1931, USS Constitution and a crew of 81 sailors, officers, and Marines set off from Boston, towed by USS Grebe, a Lapwing-class minesweeper. Over the course of the three-year, three-coast, 22,000 mile cruise, Constitution made 96 total port stops, including 70 open to visits from the public, and saw 4,614,762 visitors cross her decks. In each port, the crews of Constitution and Grebe greeted thousands of visitors each day, demonstrating ship handling techniques, giving talks and lectures, making public appearances, performing radio dramatizations, and hosting a variety of cultural figures and political dignitaries.

Constitution pulled into New London’s deep harbor on August 12, 1931. The August 12 issue of The Day described the scene:

“As the frigate was moved up the harbor, whistles on vessels shrieked in salute and the city's fire alarm was heard. Many persons along the waterfront watched the progress of the craft. When the Constitution approached the state pier, which will be her berth during her stay here, navy and coast guard tugs went out to assist in moving her in alongside the pier.

When the frigate was finally moored across the southerly end of the pier, with her bowsprit pointed towards Groton shore a reception committee, headed by Mayor E. Frank Morgan, went aboard to welcome Commander Gulliver. In the committee were City Manager William A. Holt, members of the city council and officers of civic and patriotic organizations.”

Constitution spent more than a week in New London, where she was visited by 26,211 people from across southeastern Connecticut. Officers of Constitution and Grebe were feted with a dinner at the Mohican Hotel, sponsored by the chamber of commerce and Rotary and Lions clubs and attended by city officials and commanding officers of coast guard and navy units, as well as a program of entertainment organized by city residents.

Constitution finally returned to her home berth in Boston on May 7, 1934. A month later, she was once again placed out of commission, and efforts began to turn the ship into a floating museum.

Constitution comes to New London