Thurston County History: The USS Constitution Visits Olympia,1933

The ship was immortalized in the poem, 'Old Ironsides'


On June 22,1933, the USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned naval ship still afloat, sailed into Budd Inlet. Amid the Great Depression, thousands visited during its nine-day stop in Olympia.

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 USS Constitution’s defeat of the British ship Guerriere electrified the young, struggling nation.

The ship was immortalized in the 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. Departing from Boston on July 1, 1931, Olympia was its 62nd stop.

This Jeffers Studio photo shows the USS Constitution arriving in Olympia. Photo credit: Jennifer Crooks

Welcome, Old Ironsides!

The ship’s visit to Olympia was announced in January 1933. Initially, planners thought the ship was too tall to pass under the powerlines over the Tacoma Narrows. Local civic and community groups came together to plan for the ship’s visit and to entertain the crew.  

At the urging of the Constitution’s captain, Commander Louis J. Gulliver, Olympia passed an anti-peddling ordinance for the ship’s visit. The only official souvenir was a booklet sold on the frigate to benefit the Naval Relief Society.

The USS Constitution, towed by the mine sweeper Grebe, arrived in Olympia on June 22, 1933. They were met at Dofflemyer Point by two squadrons of ships from the Olympia Yacht Club. Lumber mills rang their whistles as the ships pulled into the Port of Olympia at 3:15, escorted by tugboats. A big crowd was waiting at the dock.

Visiting the USS Constitution in Olympia

It took one hour to dock the USS Constitution and bring out the gangplank. A delegation of local officials, including Olympia’s mayor Earl Steele, then visited the ship. The captain and officers formally called on Governor Clarence Martin at the Capitol the next morning, June 23, at 11 a.m.

During its stay, the Constitution was open for visitors from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily for free. Thousands came every day. Special days were designated to bring in visitors from Mason, Lewis and Grays Harbor counties. Shelton clubs even sponsored a caravan of 25 cars to bring visitors to the ship. The South Bay school ran a free bus for students.

While escorting a group of nurses from St. Peter’s Hospital touring the ship, sailor Jean Dauphinais recognized one of them. Sister Fernanda was from his hometown of St. Hyacinthe in Quebec, a friend of his mother’s family.

While the city tried to ban peddling, stores like J.C. Penney, seen here in a June 22, 1933 ad from the Daily Olympian, were quick to declare ‘Welcome Old Ironsides!’ Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

The ship welcomed its four millionth visitor on June 26, 15-year-old Pauline Newman of Tumwater. Her family was taken on a special tour, including a stop to see the “relics” in the commodore’s cabin. “That was a real thrill,” she told reporters after.  

The spar, cannon, berth and orlop decks were open to visitors. People could see historical artifacts such as an 1805 treaty, a log entry about the Guerriere battle, wax figures dressed in 1812-style uniforms and a copy of the poem “Old Ironsides.”

Meanwhile, after 10 arrests of people selling souvenir hats and trinkets, the police judge Ben Sawyer tossed out the city ordinance as unconstitutional. Peddling with a license was legal, he argued and the law was not permanent.

The USS Constitution’s visit was a massive source of civic pride. “You’ll never forgive yourself,” wrote the “Doing the Markets with Helen” newspaper columnist, “if you don’t make a special effort to take the youngsters on board this historic old ship,” though she did not miss a chance to tell people to go grocery shopping while in town and stop at Grand Central Market’s delicatessen for lunch.

People could also mail a specially marked envelope from the ship that showed the ship and state capitol with the slogan “We Salute You ‘Old Ironsides!’” Over 5,000 did.

Entertaining the USS Constitution Crew in Olympia

The crew was welcomed to Olympia with open arms. The 161st Infantry Band of the Washington National Guard gave concerts on June 23,1933, at Sylvester Park. Officers spoke at local churches on June 25. A baseball team from the USS Constitution played three games against local teams at Stevens Field.

The American Legion hosted a naval ball at their hall for the officers and enlisted men on June 24. The officers and their wives enjoyed a Kiwanis luncheon at the Hotel Olympian on June 26. Lieutenant Commander Henry Hartley spoke about the ship’s history, praising it as a shrine to patriotism. The Active Club took officers, their wives, and the enlisted men on a sight-seeing tour to Shelton on June 27 where they toured the Rainier Pulp and Paper Mill.

Women’s groups also held events. The Woman’s Club and Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) held a tea at the clubhouse for officers wives on June 26. The Zonta Club organized a semi-formal dinner at Keating’s Kozey Kottage for officers and their wives on June 28. Special guest concert singer Baroness Zita Senoner performed 20 minutes of Dutch and Spanish songs.

“All I Ask is a Tall Ship and A Star to Steer Her By”

After hosting 39,472 visitors, the USS Constitution left port Saturday morning, July 1, 1933, at 7 a.m. It reached Bremerton later that day. The historic vessel continued its voyage, returning to Boston in May 1934. Today the ship welcomes visitors at the USS Constitution Museum in Boston.

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