Navy Foresters Work to Preserve Oldest Commissioned Warship

(NNS) -- Navy foresters and contractors from Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Midwest's Public Works Department (PWD) Crane began harvesting specially designated trees at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Crane Feb. 20-21 in preparation for the next planned dry-docking repair of USS Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned warship afloat.

PWD Crane forestry program manager Trent Osmon oversaw the cutting down of 35 of the nearly 150 GPS-located mature white oaks set aside for future use by Constitution.

"Everything went smoothly," said Osmon, who manages the base's 53,000 acres of forest. "We have a limited window each year to harvest timber here because of weather conditions and also because Crane's forest is a home for the endangered Indiana Bat."

The trees will be moved to a covered storage area on base, where they will remain until needed. The dry-docking and repair is planned for 2014 through 2018, and now was the time to begin the process of harvesting, milling and shaping the special wood to match Old Ironsides' original white oak. Repairs will be done at Naval History and Heritage Command's Boston Detachment, known as the Charlestown Navy Yard, a 213-year old former Navy shipyard, now part of Boston National Historical Park, which maintains Constitution.

Crane's white oak trees will be used to replace deteriorated hull planking and supporting structures called "knees" on Old Ironsides, which was built in 1797 and was previously brought into dry dock for major repairs in 1991.

Constitution earned the nickname "Old Ironsides" while engaging British ships during the War of 1812. British sailors observed cannon balls bouncing off Constitution's hull and exclaimed her sides must have been made of iron.

Even after more than 200 years, around 12 percent of Constitution's wood is original. According to the ship's caretakers in Boston, the keel, the bottom frames, and the bottom 13 planks of the hull have never had to be replaced.

According to Osmon's research, white oak trees at Crane were first approved to be set aside in November 1973, following work on Constitution with lumber purchased from the private sector, which proved to be very expensive, as white oak of that size is very valuable.

"White oak is one of the more sought-after timber species for its attractive grain and color, and is mainly used nowadays for veneers," said PWD Crane forester Rhett Steele.

A grove of trees at Crane was officially named "Constitution Grove" May 8, 1976, during the United States' bicentennial. This small ceremonial area of trees includes a few white oaks and provides visitors a representation of the base's widely dispersed inventory of the species.

Osmon said that Crane and NAVFAC have continued to support the ship over the years, including for its bicentennial.

"In preparation for the ship's 200th birthday in 1997, the ship was brought into dry dock for repairs in 1991," said Osmon. "When they brought her up, she was in need of more work than originally thought, so Crane was contacted to see if any timber could be provided. Then-forester Terry Hobson located all the suitable white oak trees scattered throughout the base and chose the very best to send."

"We're very proud to be part of this," said Cmdr. James Stewart, commanding officer of NSA Crane. "The ship is such a big deal, such an important part of the Navy's heritage, and Crane is very proud to have this tie to Constitution."

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