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Preserving Old Ironsides

A look at how one remote naval station keeps a national treasure shipshape

It's been quite a while since the days of iron men and wooden ships, but the nation's oldest Navy warship, USS Constitution, still serves as a reminder of America's maritime heritage.

Launched in 1797 and made from southern white oak, "Old Ironsides" now resides at Charlestown Navy Yard, in Charlestown, Mass. Like any modern ship, she requires plenty of care and maintenance. But how do you find the material to repair a 216-year-old frigate? Just ask the folks at Naval Support Activity Crane, Ind.

Naval Support Activity Crane is home to more than 53,000 acres of trees, including the white oak. The oaks are periodically harvested and used during Constitution's maintenance periods, including an upcoming dry dock period scheduled to begin in early 2015.

"We jumped on board in 1973 to begin to be the sole provider of the hull planks and the non-laminate material that goes on the ship," said Trent Osmon, a forester with Naval Support Activity Crane.

The white oak tree was chosen for the overhaul because the tree offers similar properties to the original southern white oaks used in building Constitution in the 1790s. "White oak has special properties that make it more waterproof and rot resistant than other trees," said Osmon.

The Naval History and Heritage Command's Boston detachment, overseeing the overhaul of Constitution, determined how many trees were needed to complete the work.

"We have arrangements with the shipwrights in Boston Harbor who are going to be working on the Constitution," said Cmdr. James Stewart, Naval Support Activity Crane commanding officer. "We have selected 35 [trees for the refit.]"

The oaks go through a long process of getting selected to be harvested for the ship, and not every tree makes the cut.

"When we are doing our normal routine of forest management and we come across a stand of really good white oak, we will GPS that site," said Osmon. "We keep a database of more than 150 white oaks just waiting to get that call."

White oaks are extremely tall and heavy trees, (on average they grow to 100 to 120 feet,) and require heavy equipment to load them onto trucks.

"Once they cut the tops of the logs, they're still anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 pounds," said Osmon. "Normally, trees of that size you're going to have a skid or heavy equipment to drag them out of the woods and to the road's edge, where they load them on [a tractor trailer]."

The trees are then prepared for their journey to Charlestown Navy Yard. The harvesting and storage of the logs can take up to a year to get them ready for Constitution.

"We store the trees on site; we have some warehouses that have some space for the trees," said Stewart. "They will be stored here for six months to a year. As they are required in Boston, we will ship them in lots of five or six trees at a time. They will be shipped as the whole log so they can get milled to shape once they get to Boston."

Because white oak trees are so large, the trees require special equipment in order to mill them to the correct size for the ship, which led to the production of a special saw mill just for Constitution.

Once the trees arrive in Boston, many of them will be cut in into 30 to 40 foot hull planks, which will be six inches thick. The trees used for this refit were originally selected for harvesting in 2012.

According to Constitution's website, the ship's hull "employs a white oak/live oak/white oak sandwich design that repelled gun shot and earned the ship its famous nickname." In some places the hull is as much as 24 inches thick.

Crewed, maintained and operated by active duty Sailors, Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

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