Old Ironsides: USS Constitution Visits Grays Harbor County, 1933

On May 16, 1933, the USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned naval ship still afloat, sailed into Grays Harbor. Thousands visited during its 10-day stop. Launched in 1797, the three-masted wooden-hulled heavy frigate has a long history. It protected American shipping during the Quasi-War with France and helped defeat pirates in the First Barbary War. Its greatest claim to fame, however, came during the War of 1812. The Constitution’s defeat of the British ship Guerriere electrified the struggling young nation.

The ship was immortalized in the 1830 poem, “Old Ironsides,” which helped save the ship from being decommissioned. It was made a museum ship in 1907. To celebrate its restoration, funded largely by schoolchildren, the vessel embarked on a 90-port exhibition cruise of the United States. The Constitution was towed by the Grebe, a minesweeper.

black and white of the USS Constitution on the water
After its restoration, the historic USS Constitution went on a coast-to-coast tour of the United States in the 1930s. Photo courtesy: Library of Congress, LC-H2- B-4871 [P&P]

Grays Harbor Welcomes Old Ironsides

Departing from Boston on July 1, 1931, the ship traversed the Panama Canal to make its way to the West Coast, visiting ports both large and small. Its last stop before Grays Harbor was Astoria, where the Constitution participated in a reenactment of Captain Robert Gray’s arrival at the Columbia River in 1792.

Grays Harbor County came together to prepare for the ship’s visit. Speakers visited schools throughout the County, educating children about the ship’s history. Businesses put up flags and window displays. The Hoquiam Chamber of Commerce displayed a scale model of the ship. Hoquiam artisan and woodcarver John Nelson, took months to make the model, complete with hinged cannons.

Tugs met the vessels at the entrance to the Harbor. Mills rang their sirens and whistles to greet the “grand old frigate” and the Grebe. Thousands gathered as the ships pulled into Port Dock No. 1. The road to the dock from Wishkah Bridge was decorated with flags.

Hazel Russell, first president of the Aberdeen’s VFW post auxiliary, presented the first ‘buddy poppy’ to Lt. Commander Henry Hartley aboard Old Ironsides to kick off their annual fundraising campaign for veterans. This image was printed in the August 1933 issue of the national VFW Foreign Service magazine. Photo courtesy: Veterans of Foreign Wars, VFW Magazine

Both vessels went on daylight savings time to match the clocks in Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Elma, ironically, had decided on May 15 to stop doing the time change, arguing it was too confusing.

Visiting the USS Constitution in Grays Harbor

Naval reserve members provided security and crowd control during the ship’s visit. Although the city had gotten requests for concession licenses from places as far away as San Francisco and Seattle, the ship’s captain, Commander Louis Gulliver had requested that vendors be banned near the vessel. That did not stop local businesses from offering sales to celebrate the ship’s visit.

The Constitution was open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., for free. Thousands visited, creating long lines. Some liked to come after hours, just for a chance to admire the ship from a distance. The Aberdeen Elks provided wheelchair access for visitors. Students were bused in from all around the region.

Commander Louis J. Gulliver and his family in a black and white newspaper clipping photo
Commander Louis J. Gulliver of the USS Constitution, and his wife Dorothy enrolled their three daughters Mary Gail, Grace and Ann at the McDermott School in Aberdeen for the rest of the school term. Their son Louis Jr. was attending the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Louis Jr. was declared MIA when his ship sunk during World War II. Photo from Tacoma News Tribune, June 17, 1933. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Entertaining the USS Constitution Crew In Grays Harbor

Grays Harbor County came together to welcome the ships and their crews. On the day they arrived, the mayor held a reception for them at the Aberdeen Elks Club and there was a welcoming street dance on lower Broadway. The Grays Harbor Country Club held a dance for the officers on May 18, 1931. One hundred couples danced to the Blue Jackets orchestra and 40 people sat down to dinner. The same day, the Active Club hosted the crew to a night show at the Warner Brothers theater.

Lt. Commander Henry Hartley, second in command and an avid fisherman, traveled Sunday, May 21 to the Quinault River. He overestimated the strength of an alder branch and fell out of his boat into the water, making his commander later joke that he had left “the ship without permission.” Hartley served his catch to his fellow officers the next evening.

Aberdeen’s Birthday

The Constitution’s birthday coincided with Aberdeen’s 43 birthday on May 20, 1931. There were sports contests and a cake baking competition. Coming in fourth place was a cake themed on Old Ironsides itself, baked by the Wishkah Senior Girls Club.

To commemorate both the ship’s visit and the city’s birthday, the Chamber of Commerce created wooden quarters. Legal tender, they depicted Aberdeen founder Samuel Benn on one side and Old Ironsides on the reverse. People could also drop veneer postcards off at the Chamber of Commerce to be mailed from the Constitution.

Bon Voyage, USS Constitution!

After a nine day stay, the ships prepared to leave. The officers thanked the community for their hospitality. In turn, they were presented with commemorative plywood plaques. Another gift was a four-month-old black bear cub. The crew had to quickly return “Commodore Scrappy” after the navy refused to authorize keeping a bear aboard.

Stormy weather delayed the ships departure at the last minute. They stayed another day, allowing more visitors to come. Mills saluted the vessels with whistles and sirens as they pulled out of dock on May 26, 1931 at 12:30, guided by two tugs. Many crowded the shore to watch. With a stiff southwest wind, they arrived in Port Angeles the next day.

A total of 60,051 people visited the USS Constitution during its 10-day stop in Grays Harbor. The historic vessel continued its voyage, returning to Boston in May 1934. Today it welcomes visitors at the USS Constitution Museum in Boston. Those who saw the ship in the 1930s would be happy about that. “May the spirit of ‘Old Ironsides,’” declared the Grays Harbor Washingtonian newspaper on May 25, 1933, “go sailing on.”

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