Happy Trails

One of the first major projects of USS Constitution’s 2015-2017 restoration was the cutwater, the projecting curve from the ship’s bow. The cutwater is formed by assembling several pieces of large timbers and its purpose is to open the column of water as the ship sails along.

Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston ship restorers remove the decorative trim from the cutwater on Constitution‘s port bow in July 2015.  Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston

Constitution’s bow has been variously decorated over the past 220 years with different figureheads and billetheads. But the decoration didn’t stop there. The cutwater, which projects from the ship’s stem, has also been embellished. Gracing the curve of the cutwater are trailboards, decorative elements that enhance the look of the ship.

The oldest documented model of USS Constitution, made in 1812 by the ship’s crew for their captain, Isaac Hull, provides the first clear indication of trailboards on the cutwater. A “dragon” appears to be carved in the bottom edge of the 1812 trailboards. Sweeping further up the trailboards towards the billethead, are military trophy motifs that may have been a sword, cannon barrel, and other martial implements. Vines swirl to the top.

A detail of the c.1812 model of USS Constitution showing the ship’s trailboards.  The model was made by the ship’s crew for Captain Isaac Hull and therefore, it is believed, represents the warship as she would have appeared around the time of the battle with HMS Guerriere.  From the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston

As the carved figureheads changed throughout the 19th century, so did the trailboards. In one of the earliest known photographs, taken in 1858, flowing and trailing vines decorate the cutwater. The 1876 trailboard carvings sported bold red, white, and blue shields with four stars each. These shields may have been employed as a reference to the 1876 centennial celebrations. The 1876 trailboards remained on Constitution’s bow until the 1927 restoration in Charlestown Navy Yard which perpetuated the 1876 look.

In 1951, a retired woodworker named William A. Bates wrote to the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, asking if the museum would like what he called the “original” trailboards from the USS Constitution. What Mr. Bates was offering for donation were, in fact, the 1876 trailboards that were removed and replaced in the 1927 restoration. According to Mr. Bates,” The scroll (trailboard) on [Constitution’s] bow was replaced by one made in my shop. The original was given to me.”

USS Constitution’s 1978 billethead and 1930 trailboards, photographed in 2009. Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston

While the trailboards carved in the woodworking shop overseen by William Bates have graced Constitution’s bow for over 87 years, when removed in 2015 as part of the rebuilding of the cutwater they were found to be degrading and in need of replacement.

The new trailboards are carved from mahogany and mounted on Douglas fir backing boards. Josh Ratty, Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston ship restorer, has the task of carving the new trailboards using a GEMIN™ Universal Carving Duplicator machine.

The first section of the new starboard trailboard installed on USS Constitution’s bow, May 1, 2017.  Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston

In Josh Ratty’s words, “I love that we go to work each day on what is such an important part of our history. There really isn’t another opportunity out there that compares to what we get to do. It’s impossible to walk the decks each day without pausing to consider the legacy that this ship represents and those who have come before us. I take great pride in knowing that my work will allow future generations the opportunity to experience all the ship has to offer.”

Article written from excerpts from “Revealing the Cutwater” by M.M. Desy and K. Morea which first appeared on August 5, 2015 posting on the USS Constitution Museum Restoration Blog, and from “Happy Trails” by M.M. Desy which first appeared on May 5, 2017 posting on the USS Constitution Museum Restoration blog.