You can tell that a ship is special when your navy maintains a whole forest for it. The US Navy has its own forest full of towering white oak trees: the trusty, sturdy building material used in the past for the construction of wooden-hulled ships. The question, however, is why do they spend a huge amount of budget on maintaining a forest when wood-hulled warships were phased out at the end of the 1800s?

The Wood of War

The white oak (Quercus alba) is a strong, large, heavy, straight, and decay-resistant tree. Its trunk is short and stocky with huge horizontal limbs. The branches of the tree are wide-spreading, upright, with a broad-rounded crown. The bark of white oak is light ashy gray, scaly or shallow furrowed, and often broke into narrow, rectangular blocks, although the appearance could vary. Its leaves are dark green to slightly blue-green during summer, while they turn to brown and wine-red to orange-red during fall.

Ancient White Oak in Bronte, Oakville, Ontario, dating to 1750. (Bay & GablesCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The white oak became the young United States’ fundamental building block used by the early Americans to build their shelter and railroads. It’s basically what they used when they built the country and started the industrial revolution.

Compared to short and gnarled live oak, white oak could grow up to 150′ tall, making it a perfect material for creating long, clear planks. In the early 1800s, white oak was abundant throughout the 13 states of the Union. The decay-resistant wood was usually used for ships’ horizontal exterior-hull planking, bent inside planking, planking near the keel, and well as keel timbers. It became a primary material in building what was deemed the most formidable ship of its time: The USS Constitution.

Most Formidable Ship of its Time

The USS Constitution was the still-commissioned ship that had sunk another vessel in the US Navy. She and the other ships during its time were constructed from the hardest woods available for shipbuilders, and white oak was one of them.  One of the reasons the Royal Navy was so formidable was because of the hardwoods used in the construction of her fighting sail vessels. In US ship construction, various types of wood from as many as 2,000 trees were used to build a single ship, including White Oak, Black locust, Longleaf Pine, Eastern White Pine, and from South America and the Caribbean, Lignum Vitae which is so dense it is nearly as hard as iron and it doesn’t rust.

In the days of Fighting Sail which spanned hundreds of years, forests were strategic commodities that were guarded and carefully maintained. During WWII, ship decks were also made of wood, in particular, Asian Teak because it was water-resistant and did not produce a shower of deadly splinters when hit by shell fire.

Constitution earned the moniker of the most formidable ship in its era for good and impressive reasons. In the War of 1812, it had its famous encounter with the HMS Guerriere when it showed what its 22-inch-thick hull was capable of. As Sean D. Kearns, commanding officer of the Constitution from July, said,

Cannonballs would either stick in the side or they would bounce off… She could go into battle with her huge armament and dish out punishing fire and take a lot of punishment in return without being damaged.

The ship could impressively withstand blows from 18-pounds iron cannonballs. When her crew saw the cannonballs bouncing off, they exclaimed, “Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!” and from then on, the USS Constitution was known as “Old Ironsides.”

Old Ironsides ship. (Sathiya rajCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Today, the Constitution is the only remaining ship of the original six frigates that Congress authorized in 1794, as the others were either captured or broken up by the mid-1800s. One of the reasons it managed to survive was its well-known victory over HMS Guerriere put her in the position of being the most victorious ship in US Navy history. The Constitution fought and defeated four British frigates in battle.  The last two she beat single handed.

Although the age of sails was long gone and replaced by steam, the USS Constitution remains under the US Navy’s care, a huge reminder and connection between the present and the traditions of the past.

Constitution Grove

During the Civil War, Constitution was used as a training ship for midshipmen at the Naval Academy before it turned into a notable ship used exclusively for ceremonial purposes. In 1907, it was converted into a museum ship. In 1997, the Constitution underwent a complete refit and said on its own power to ports around the US for its bicentennial celebration.

Little loop, Constitution Grove, North Fork Middle Fork Willamette River. (Bobcat, oregonhikers.org)

Now, going back to the original question, “Why do they spend a huge amount of budget on maintaining a forest when wood-hulled warships were phased out at the end of the 1800s?”

You see, refitting and maintaining a 200-year-old fighting ship is not an easy thing to do. A big issue was finding mature White Oak trees to replace her planks and other structural members.

The US Navy’s solution? Grow them on their own.

At the Naval Support Activity Crane, near Bloomington, in Indiana, the US Navy has its Constitution Grove, where white oaks are planted and grown solely for the restorations and refitting of the USS Constitution whenever needed. There is also wildlife that lives there. To make sure that the ecosystem of the forest will not be disturbed whenever a tree is removed, the navy employs three full-time foresters to monitor and help maintain the grove and its biodiversity.

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