Baltimore’s Inner Harbor crackles with life. A jazz band turns pop songs into easy listening tunes as visitors bask in the warm spring breeze off the harbor. And in the center of all this sun-filled fun: the Historic Ships in Baltimore collection.
First, there’s USS Constellation—the last sail-only warship designed and built by the United States Navy. Built in 1854, Constellation operated as part of the African Slave Trade Patrol and during the Civil War protected Union shipping from Confederate commerce raiders.
Constellation is much larger than it looks from the promenade; visitors can explore the spar deck, shaded by canvas awnings and cooled by breezes from the harbor; the gun deck, armed with dozens of heavy black cannons; the berth deck, festooned with canvas hammocks like those in which sailors once slept; and the low-ceilinged hold, where drinking water and other provisions would have been stored for long voyages at sea.
Next, I walked to the neighboring Lightship Chesapeake. I had no idea that ships like this functioned as portable lighthouses. Sailors would spend months at sea, guiding ships home and alternating between long, lonely days and dangerous, stormy nights. The ship was fun to explore—but heed those signs telling you to watch your head! I got so caught up taking photos, I left sporting a goose egg.
Next to the Chesapeake sits USS Torsk, long and low in the water. The submarine, docked right outside the National Aquarium, contains rooms filled with torpedoes, navigation instruments and engines, as well as fascinating glimpses into where 80—yes, 80!—crew members worked, ate, and slept. The history guides say that sometimes former crew members even drop by; if you happen to meet one, please ask how they survived such close quarters!
Don’t miss USCG Taney as well—a decommissioned Coast Guard cutter floating peacefully around the corner. And the nearby Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse, built in 1856, is one of the oldest screw-pile lighthouses still in existence. In addition to the spectacular views the lighthouse offers, it also speaks to the fascinating history of Chesapeake lighthouses in general.
Each time I descended or ascended a narrow companionway of these historic vessels, it was like stepping into history. I learned about how each crew slept, ate, used the bathroom (yes) and generally lived their lives. It gave me an entirely different view of the Chesapeake’s maritime and military history, as well; I’ve been to several battlefields, but I had never thought much about the wars that also raged on the water.
I spent several hours roaming the Historical Ships, but I could have spent days there—really perusing the museum gallery before boarding Constellation and taking in the sights from the lighthouse. And I can’t wait to bring my history-loving spouse back with me, especially to Torsk, for another day spent sailing through history.
It is important to note that parts of these ships are not wheelchair accessible, as they involve walking up and down stairs. But there is a wheelchair lift available to access the top deck of Constellation. Parents are asked to leave strollers at the entrances, and should plan accordingly.
Constellation, Taney, Torsk, Chesapeake, and Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse are all part of the Historic Ships in Baltimore collection. More information on the ships, hours and admission are available at www.historicships.com.