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Collected for the first time on the Internet,
the earliest photos of "Old Ironsides"

See rare early "color" postcards

Gloss photo First launched in 1797, by 1830 the USS Constitution had served her country well in the West Indies, in Tripoli and the War of 1812 -- and was ready for the scrap heap. Enter Oliver Wendell Holmes, a 21-year old Boston student whose poem "Old ironsides" reversed the ship's fate. After repair, Constitution served in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Pacific, in the East Indies, off Brazil and then Africa. After a short lay up in New York, she made a final trip as a flagship to the Mediterranean.

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Visit One
In 1855 the frigate arrived at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard again in need of extensive repairs. Pictures of the dry-docked ship, seen below, are among the very first photographs in the American naval image archive. Here Ironsides was fitted out as a school ship. After a complete reconditioning, Ironsides was launched from Portsmouth Harbor to serve at Annapolis in 1860.

Visit Two
For the next 25 years the USS Constitution served primarily as a school ship at Annapolis and in Newport, RI. By now, a valuable symbol of an evolving America, Ironsides played a low-key role in the Civil War. Afterwards, she was hauled out and rebuilt at the navy yard in Philadelphia, serving again as a training ship there. Then it was one final trip across the Atlantic in 1878 carrying the American exhibits for the French Exposition in Paris. Returning, Ironsides was caught on a sandbar and rescued by the British Navy, which she had so effectively battled decades earlier.

After a few more years as a training ship for boys, the world weary vessel was towed into Portsmouth Harbor in 1882 where she would reside for the next 15 years. Searching for reasons to keep the famous ship active, the Navy ordered Ironsides to be cabbed over, her famous lines covered by what looked like, and functioned as, a floating dormitory. The receiving ship was a popular Seacoast tourist attraction, until it was towed to Boston to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1897.

Visit Three
There was life yet in Old Ironsides. Early attempts to raise money flopped and by 1906 the Navy was ready to use Ironsides as target practice. Finally Congress allocated $100,000 and the rest of the funds were raised by private conscription. Restoration was completed in 1930 and in 1931 the reconstructed tall ship returned to the Piscataqua as part of a tour that included 44 ports along the East Coast to Corpus Christi, Texas. Along the way, 2, 016, 299 visitors came aboard for tours. Tied up once again at the naval shipyard in the summer of 1931, the local celebration was a proud moment for Seacoast children who had contributed pennies towards its Boston refit, and for adults who had grown up seeing Ironsides across the river in Portsmouth Harbor.
J. Dennis Robinson

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Early Photos of "Old ironsides"
on the Piscataqua River

Click on the following thumbnails for larger images and further details on the USS Constitution during its three visits to the Portsmouth-Kittery region. Click for a recently discovered photo.

Image 1 Image 2 Image 3
Image 4 Image 5 Image 6
Image 7 Image 8 Image 9
Image 10 Image 11 Image 12

Photos courtesy the US Navy and the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Duplicate images may also appear in other archives including the Patch Collection at Strawbery Banke and the Portsmouth Public Library. is currently working to collect more images of the USS Constitution during its visits to the region for educational use. If you know of additional photos, please contact us.

Also in our Early Photo Series:

  • 1886 Ice Storm
  • Attractive Bits Along the Shore
  • Gosport Harbor, 1860s
  • Hampton and Hampton Beach
  • Old Dover Scrapbook
  • "Old Ironsides"
  • "Old Town by the Sea"
  • Victorian Portsmouth

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