The USS Constellation was about 800 miles off the U.S. coast and bound for Europe when a ferocious Atlantic gale bore down, churning the sea until it was "boiling at the bows and breaking into sheets of spray that drove on board in clouds," wrote Cmdr. Caspar F. Goodrich.
It was the fall of 1892, and the Constellation was on its final transatlantic voyage. The sloop of war -- the last all-sail warship built for the U.S. Navy -- was almost 40 years old and not in pristine condition. But, Goodrich wrote, the Constellation was a "gallant craft."
"It was an anxious moment which I could never forget," Goodrich wrote of the unexpected gale. "I saw to my horror, two mighty, overwhelming wave crests rush together, leap up and sweep down upon the Constellation. . . . Frankly, I had thought her done for."
Goodrich, who died in 1925, was neither the first nor the last to incorrectly sound the ship's death knell. In 1889, the ship nearly foundered off Cape Henry near Virginia Beach. The ship sailed under its own power for the last time in 1893. By 1954, it was taking on thousands of gallons of water a day as it sat, essentially abandoned, in the Boston Naval Shipyard.
In 1955, it was tugged in a dry dock to Baltimore, where it eventually decayed to the point that it was condemned by the Navy in 1994.
"Basically, she was about to fall apart," said Chris Rowsom, executive director of the USS Constellation Museum in Baltimore, of the ship's condition that year.
But this year, on the 150th anniversary of the ship's construction, the Constellation has undergone something of a renaissance. On Oct. 26, aided by tugboats, it ventured past the Key Bridge and into the Chesapeake Bay for the first time in a half-century, then docked at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where it was open to the public. On Monday the Constellation left Annapolis, making its return trip to Baltimore.
The ship "really is the pinnacle of the sailing warship design," said Kennedy Hickman, curator of the USS Constellation Museum. "It represents the end of the age of sail in the U.S. Navy."
In the past 10 years, the 1854 ship has been largely rebuilt, restored to what it probably looked like during its heyday. Some of its cannons are made of fiberglass, and the masts and bowsprit are reconstructions. Much of the ship's hull is made from multilayered wood laminate. But the timber that makes up its skeleton is original, as is much of the ship's interior, including finely wrought -- though extensively weathered -- officers' quarters.
About 50 percent of the ship is original, Rowsom said. "Basically the ship on the outside has been restored, and now we're working on the inside," he said.
For years, Constellation enthusiasts, and even many naval historians, believed that the ship in Baltimore's Inner Harbor had been built in 1797. A 1991 report by the David Taylor Research Center in Bethesda cleared up the controversy of the Constellation's origins. It said that the ship in Baltimore had been built in 1853 and 1854 and that the original USS Constellation, built in 1797, had been scrapped in 1853 and its parts sold at auction.
The report concluded that the root of the misperception lay partly in honest mistakes -- and in some outright deception. Advocates for bringing the ship to Baltimore in 1955, and for having it declared a National Historic Landmark, forged documents "proving" that the ship in Baltimore's harbor was the 1797 ship. Many of the forgeries "had been planted in the archives and continue to be erroneously considered bona fide," the report's author, Dana M. Wegner, wrote.
The report's conclusions stripped away some of the reasons the ship was brought to Baltimore in 1955. Although the 1797 ship had been built in Baltimore, the 1854 Constellation was built more than 200 miles away, in Norfolk.
As a young seaman trainee in 1940, John Bryant was regaled with all the tales of the 1797 warship and believed the ship, as many did, to be the original Constellation. At the time, the Constellation was docked at the Newport Naval Station in Rhode Island, where it served as barracks for enlistees.
Bryant remembers staying on the ship for a few weeks, after he finished his training and before he was assigned his first duty.
"We thought it was a ship that had done all this heroic stuff on the Barbary Coast, so we talked about that," said Bryant, 82, who now lives in St. George, Utah.
The original Constellation did fight in the Barbary War of 1801-1805. The 1854 Constellation's exploits were also far-flung. It was dispatched to the Mediterranean from 1855 to 1858 and served as the flagship of the African Squadron, and it was on anti-slavery patrol in the Atlantic from 1859 to 1861. During the Civil War it again served in the Mediterranean, protecting U.S. merchant shipping.
After 1865, the ship became a training ship at the Naval Academy. Cadets learned the basics of sailing by taking the ship on summer cruises in the Chesapeake and beyond. It was on one of those trips, in 1889, that the ship ran aground off Cape Henry.
In a letter to his mother that year, midshipman William A. Moffett wrote that the ship "was in a dangerous position -- one of the most dangerous on the whole coast."
"The sea was rolling very high, and the wind was blowing about 30 miles an hour," he wrote. "If either sea or wind had risen we would have gone to pieces in a little while."
The ship was converted to a stationary training ship in 1894. Thousands in the Navy passed through the ship for training or simply for a place to sleep.
Many of the descendants of those who served on the Constellation have found the museum on the Internet or in person. The museum's list of descendants includes about 250 families and is growing.
One of the descendants, Louis Miller, learned the details of his great-grandfather's connection to the ship while rummaging through an old box in his mother's attic. He found photographs of crew members who served with his great-grandfather Edwin Miller, who was on the ship from 1862 to 1865.
Miller, who is a member of the Constellation Museum's board of directors, said he would be on the ship when it made its return voyage to Baltimore.
Plans called for the cannons at Fort McHenry to fire a salute to the ship as it passed -- re-creating, after a fashion, the "rockets' red glare" immortalized by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the British bombardment of the fort in 1814.
"That's exactly what Francis Scott Key saw," Miller said. "It's really quite moving."
In 1941, the ship was designated as a relief flagship for Adm. Ernest J. King, commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. The admiral used the ship as his living quarters and for coordinating the fleet's communications.
After World War II, the ship left its berth in Newport for the last time and was towed to the Boston Naval Yard, where it remained until it was towed to Baltimore in 1955.
The voyage to Annapolis was the ship's first there since 1893. The trip was paid for in part by a $50,000 donation to the USS Constellation Museum by the Northrop Grumman Corp. Before the voyage, Rowsom said that with the ship's revamped hull, there was little concern that the ship could not make the trip.
Going into the open sea would be another matter, Rowsom said.
And the possibility the ship could sail again on its own?
Rowsom will not rule it out. "It would take a lot of money and a fair amount of time, but it's possible," he said. "If someone really, really wants to see her sail again, I'm happy to talk to them."