On June 15, 1933, the USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned naval ship still afloat, sailed into Tacoma’s Commencement Bay. Thousands visited during its eight-day stop.

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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, primarily funded by schoolchildren, the vessel embarked on a 90-port exhibition cruise of the United States. The Constitution was towed by the Grebe, a minesweeper.

USS Constitution Visits Tacoma
Drum and Bugle Corps from Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 51 came from Spokane to the VFW Convention in Tacoma. Here they are in front of Old Ironsides. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library, Richards Studio 439-1

Welcome, Old Ironsides!

Departing from Boston on July 1, 1931, the two ships crossed the Panama Canal, making their way to the West Coast and visiting ports both large and small. Its last stop before Tacoma was Seattle. Tacoma was the ship’s 61st stop.

Great excitement greeted the ship’s arrival. Standard Oil gas stations offered free pictures of the ship. Roxy Theater brought back the 1926 silent film “Old Ironsides.” The Tacoma Public Library put up a display on the historic vessel.

When the Constitution reached Brown’s Point on June 15 at 12:30, fire engines across Tacoma rang their sirens. A fireboat with Mayor Melvin Tennent and a welcome committee greeted the ships with a flag salute and “three-shower spray.” Thousands thronged the shore to watch the ship come in and anchor at McCormick Dock.  

While there was no time for visitors that day, the crew was greeted at the dock with roses.

USS Constitution Visits Tacoma
The Tacoma Chamber of Commerce arranged for people to mail special postmarked envelopes from the ship that commemorated its visit, showing an image of the ship in front of the Tacoma waterfront. Image Tacoma Daily Ledger, April 25, 1933. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Visiting the Constitution

The ship opened for free tours the next day. Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., thousands visited each day. For the last two days, the hours were extended to 8 p.m. for workers. Military and civic bands sometimes held concerts to entertain the long lines of people waiting to board. Other times, recorded music played on loudspeakers. Hawkers and peddlers were banned from the dock. From evening to midnight, the ship was illuminated by flood lights. Many drove up to Stadium Way to look down on the ship from the bluffs each night.

Groups came from all over Pierce County and the region to see the Constitution. Puyallup veteran and civic organizations organized a caravan of buses and cars to ferry children from communities in the Puyallup Valley.

Many school classes visited the ship. Children from Tacoma orphanages were brought to see the Constitution and treated to the Mickey Mouse band concert and party at the Temple Theater afterward.

The Washington State Veterans of Foreign Wars was holding its annual convention in Tacoma at the time and veterans were given a special tour. The Sea Scouts, a branch of Boy Scouts, held a ceremony on the deck of the Constitution. Harris Bunnell beamed proudly as Lt. Kennedy of the Constitution pinned on his new quartermaster’s badge.

Other visitors had more of a personal connection. William Austin, a 79-year-old lumberman from Vaughan, had visited the ship daily as a child in Boston, bringing his father his dinner pail. “She didn’t look much different,” he observed after looking over the decks he had once played on.

USS Constitution Visits Tacoma
Crowds gathered to visit the USS Constitution, the world’s oldest naval ship still afloat when it visited Tacoma in 1933. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library, Richards Studio 639-1A

Entertaining the Crew

The community came together to welcome both officers and crew. The crew were offered free admission to downtown movie theaters while the officers and their families were kept on a packed schedule of engagements. The Commander’s wife Dorothy and their three daughters had arrived in Tacoma before the ship, staying at the Walker Apartments. The Women’s Clubhouse Association and Woman’s Club held a reception for her and her husband on June 17 at the Woman’s Club.

The officers, particularly Commander Gulliver and his second in command, Henry Hartley, spoke to many gatherings of local civic, churches and clubs about the ship’s history and significance.

On June 19, for example, Gulliver addressed a joint gathering of the Tacoma Kiwanis and the Tacoma Business and Professional Women’s Club at the Winthrop Hotel. Chief Engineer W.I. Kennedy of the Grebe spoke to the Tacoma Engineers’ Club at the Hotel that same day! Officers also visited Eatonville to give a talk at the High School auditorium. The Puyallup Chamber of Commerce invited officers to speak at a dinner for 200 at the Civic Auditorium in Puyallup.

The crew also did its own entertaining. On June 18, Commander Gulliver and his wife held a tea on the decks of the Constitution, inviting 200. The deck was decorated with flags and bunting. Tea was served in the forward cabin, and the USS Salt Lake City band, also in harbor, played on the gun deck.

The crew was full of praise for Tacoma. “The spirit here,” said Lt. Dennenberg at a Gyro Club luncheon at the Winthrop Hotel on June 21, “is the acme of hospitality.”

Bon Voyage, USS Constitution!

The USS Constitution left June 22 at 10 a.m. en route to Olympia. A total of 84,359 people visited the ship during its eight-day stop in Tacoma. The historic vessel continued its voyage, returning to Boston in May 1934. Today, it is operated by Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston, a private, non-profit educational institution in the Charlestown Navy Yard, which helps the Navy tell the story of “Old Ironsides.” The USS Constitution has its own historic site within the National Park Service’s Charlestown Navy Yard