Perhaps the most famous ship in the U.S. Navy, the U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” visited Santa Barbara twice as part of a three-year tour of U.S. ports that began in 1931. The ship’s visits caused tremendous excitement, and a number of special events were planned to honor what one observer called “America’s greatest sea hero.”
The frigate was launched out of Boston in 1797. It was just more than 200 feet long with a displacement of 2,200 tons and carried a crew of 200. Although the ship took part in more than 40 battles, one engagement cemented its place in American naval history.
During the War of 1812, the Constitution met and defeated a larger British frigate, the Guerriere. So crippled was the British ship by the encounter, the Americans had to transfer the Britons to their own ship before burning what was left of their defeated foe. During the action, the cannon shot of the Guerriere did so little damage to the Constitution that the latter acquired the nickname “Old Ironsides.” The victory did much to boost morale in the States, and the Constitution went on to distinguished service during the balance of the war.
The Constitution was not taken out of active service until 1884. The ship was formally recommissioned in 1931 prior to a planned tour of some 90 U.S. ports. Towed most of the time by a minesweeper, the Constitution visited ports up and down the Atlantic coast and then journeyed into the Gulf of Mexico. The ship eventually made its way through the Panama Canal and began its journey up the Pacific coast.
The sun arose over Santa Barbara harbor on March 20, 1933, to reveal the Constitution at anchor. More than 4,500 people, the vast majority of them schoolchildren, had the opportunity during the morning to ride out in a variety of watercraft to get an up-close view of the historic ship. Southern Pacific ran a special excursion train to allow children from the North County to see the ship. Two Coast Guard cutters up from San Pedro shepherded most of the children out to the vessel. Captain Luis Gulliver allowed a small number of children to tour the ship, and he later held a shipboard reception for Santa Barbara mayor H.T. Nielson and other dignitaries. Santa Barbarans could also view the ship from afar atop the bluffs of the Mesa.
One special visitor was William Hogan, who, as a poverty-stricken boy living in Boston, had a paper route back in 1863 that had included the frigate. Hogan was reportedly moved to tears by the chance to once again walk the decks of the ship.
The Constitution then continued its way north. It again stopped at Santa Barbara on October 3 on its return trip down the coast. This visit lasted an entire day, and this time, children from the Santa Barbara and Summerland schools had the chance to board the ship. More than 3,900 people took advantage of the opportunity.
The Constitution weighed anchor after dark on the 3rd to make its way down to Ventura, where another gala welcome awaited it. The ship returned to the port of Boston in May 1934. Today, the U.S.S. Constitution is a major tourist attraction—a floating museum harkening back to the days of fighting sail.
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Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.