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White Oaks, Constitution Grove

Historic Trees: Constitution Grove White Oaks

You can read my introduction to historical trees in an earlier post.

When we think of the USS Constitution, or Old Ironsides as the U.S. Navy frigate is nicknamed, we are more likely to think of Boston where the ship is moored, than a forest in southern Indiana. Surprisingly, an Indiana forest plays a significant role in keeping the USS Constitution afloat. The Naval Support Activity (NSA) Crane, the third largest naval base in the world, also houses the largest contiguous forest (50,000 acres) under single ownership in Indiana and is located 35 miles southwest of Bloomington. The forest includes 150 mature white oaks, including those in the Constitution Grove—a small ceremonial area with white oaks that are used to repair the USS Constitution.

The USS Constitution

Launched in 1797 and seeing action for the first time in the War of 1812, the USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat). The wooden-hulled ship has never had a cannonball pierce her sides (Couch, 2012). When the ship is in need of repair, planks that are 30 to 40 feet long and six inches thick with no defects are required. In the 1970s, the Navy found such planks difficult to locate and very expensive. In 1973, the white oak trees in NAS Crane’s forest were approved for use in the repairs of Old Ironsides.  The Navy maintains an inventory of cut and standing oaks at NAS Crane for future repairs.

USS Constitution Scale drawing
USS Constitution Scale drawing

In 1989, the Navy contracted with Wood-Mizer, an Indiana company, to build a special sawmill to create the timbers needed from the oak trees (Biever, 2015). Crane supplied 78 white oaks for the restoration of the ship in the 1990s. After 200 years, approximately 12% of the wood in the ship is original. The USS Constitution is currently docked at the Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston and last sailed in 1976.

White Oak

The original wood in the ship was southern white oak (Biever, 2015) The properties of white oak make it waterproof and rot resistant, thus a natural choice for shipbuilding. The forty-foot planks require trees that grow straight and are near maturity. Trees selected are typically between 110 and 120 years old and 40 inches in diameter. A stockpile of oak timber in a covered storage area at Crane awaits future use. During this storage period, S-hooks are hammered into the core of the trunk to keep the trunks from cracking and splitting.

White Oak Log Drying with S-Hooks
White Oak Log Drying with S-Hooks

According to Deam, white oaks are the longest living trees in Indiana. Deam also mentioned that in addition to shipbuilding, white oak is also used for bridge timbers, office furniture, flooring, and caskets.

Hoosiers can be proud of the white oaks at NSA Crane knowing that they help keep the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat.

References

Biever, R. G. (2015). Ironsides of Indiana Oak: Hoosier timber keeps historic ship shipshape. Retrieved February 5, 2020 from https://www.indianaconnection.org/ironsides-of-indiana-oak/.

Couch, B. (2012). Select NSA Crane trees to help repair “Old Ironsides”.  Retrieved 2/5/2020, 2020, from https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=66594

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