Anchors aweigh

During my short trip to Baltimore I had the chance to visit a really neat museum in the Inner Harbor—and I mean literally in the Inner Harbor.

Historic Ships in Baltimore is a collection of four vessels and one lighthouse.  You just pick a ticket option depending on how many of the ships you want to see and then tour them in whatever order you please and at your own pace.  The star attraction is this lovely lady, the USS Constellation.

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Specifically, she’s the second Constellation.  The first was one of the six frigates approved for construction in the 1790s, and saw service in the Quasi-War, the War of 1812, and against the Barbary pirates.  She circumnavigated the globe in the 1840s, but that was her last hurrah.  The next decade saw her torn apart for scrap just as construction began on the second Constellation, the one currently on display in Baltimore.

At some point in the twentieth century there was a lot of confusion surrounding the relationship between the two vessels, with a lot of folks thinking they were actually the same ship, the second one having supposedly been fashioned out of the original in the 1850s.  (For a thorough analysis of the brouhaha, check out this report.)  As of now the debate has been pretty conclusively resolved, and the ship sitting in the Inner Harbor is interpreted as a Civil War-era vessel, allowing visitors to get a firsthand look at the twilight of the Age of Sail.

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The second Constellation started her career in the Mediterranean, and then patrolled the coast of West Africa in search of slave ships, the trade in human cargo having been outlawed.  This is an aspect of U.S. naval history I hadn’t heard much about, but it’s one of the topics explored in the small museum alongside the vessel.  The exhibit also includes quite a few original artifacts from Constellation‘s very long career.  She returned to the Mediterranean during the Civil War to search for Confederate prey, and was still in service during WWI as a sort of floating classroom for naval recruits.

The view from the helm:

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In addition to the standard exhibit signage, visitors get a handheld audio device to take with them.  When you enter the number of each tour stop into the keypad, you hear a little recorded dialogue between a kid and a Civil War-era sailor who explains how the different ship components worked and what life on board was like.

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I’m not a tall guy, but I had to stoop a little to move around belowdecks.  I can’t even begin to imagine how chaotic it would’ve been in this confined space when the guns went into action:

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The captain’s cabin, ready to entertain fellow officers or a group of dignitaries from shore:

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Dining arrangements for the average seaman weren’t quite as genteel.

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One of the added bonuses of taking the Water Taxi is getting a close-up look at Constellation‘s starboard side.

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The second-coolest vessel in the Historic Ships collection is the WWII submarine USS Torsk, moored alongside the National Aquarium.

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A section of the controls.  I’d add more info here, but I have no idea what any of these buttons and levers are for.  I can’t even drive a manual transmission.

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On August 14, 1945 two Japanese frigates found themselves at the business end of these torpedo tubes and became the last enemy vessels sunk by the U.S. in WWII.

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There’s a lot for history buffs to do in Baltimore, but I’d rate Historic Ships as a must-see if you’re planning a trip to the city.

Within spitting distance of the ships is another treat for Civil War aficionados.  Just across the water from the Constellation is Federal Hill.  In 1789 Baltimoreans gathered here to ring in the Constitution.

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By 1861 the city’s attitude toward the national government had soured just a wee bit, so Union troops fortified Federal Hill to keep things in line.

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Another ginormous dinosaur from Argentina

We’ve got a new contender for biggest dino:

A team of scientists in Argentina have unearthed the remains of the largest species of dinosaur discovered to date, paleontologists announced Saturday.

Seven “huge” herbivorous dinosaurs were discovered at one site in the province of Chubut, Argentina, according to the Paleontological Museum Egidio Feruglio, which led the dig.

The new species are estimated to have been 40 meters in length and 80 tons in weight, surpassing the previous record-holder for the world’s largest dinosaur — the Argentinosaurus.

These dinosaur size rankings always come with a few caveats. Back in the 1870s, a fossil collector working for the famous naturalist Edward Drinker Cope found part of a backbone and femur from a long-necked dino that Cope named Amphicoelias fragillimus.  Comparing Cope’s report of the remains’ size to the same parts from better-known dinos indicates that A. fragillimus was far and away the longest dinosaur of all time—as in close to 200 feet from tip to tip.  The problem is, Cope’s published account is all we have, because the bones themselves are gone.  It’s possible they were in such a poor state of preservation that they just crumbled to pieces.

And a reported dino from India named Bruhathkayosaurus supposedly approached Amphicoelias in size, but the initial description was iffy and the specimen got washed away in a flood.

Anyway, this latest find means yet another humungous dinosaur from Argentina, a country with a track record of producing some of the biggest of all terrible lizards.  In addition to Argentinosaurus, it was also home to Giganotosaurus, one of the biggest carnivorous dinos.  We’ll be seeing him again in the very near future.  (Here on the blog, I mean, not out in the real world.  That would either be really, really awesome or really, really unfortunate.)

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The ramparts we watched

It’s the bicentennial year of the Battle of Fort McHenry, and a few days ago I managed to do something the British couldn’t: take the fort by water.  I was in Baltimore for a few days, so I hopped on a Water Taxi to visit the birthplace of the national anthem.

I was very impressed by the exhibit in the visitor center. The NPS always does a fantastic job at interpretation, but the set-up at Ft. McHenry is especially good, a model of clarity and conciseness that covers the background to the War of 1812, the British attack on Baltimore, Francis Scott Key’s song, and the process by which his words became part of the American canon.  All that in a pretty small gallery space.

There’s also an immersive film presentation that tells the story of the battle, with a simple but nifty trick at the end that takes you out of the virtual environment of the theater to put the spotlight back on the historic ground and why it matters.  It’s very moving and pretty darned cool.

I’m assuming we all know the basic story here, so we’ll skip the exposition and get right to the pictures.  Here are the fort walls, with the flag flying overhead.  (Well, not the flag, but a flag.)

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A reconstructed battery.

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Inside the walls, some of the buildings have been furnished as they would have been in the nineteenth century, while others serve as galleries for additional exhibits.

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One of those bombs bursting in air we keep hearing so much about.

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Powder magazine.  Not the best place for a smoke break.

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Sleeping quarters.

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During an archaeological dig in the 1950s, workers uncovered the actual cross brace which anchored the flagpole for the original Star-Spangled Banner.  It’s on display in one of the buildings.

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Looking out toward the area from which the British attacked.

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Ft. McHenry was in use for a long time after the War of 1812 ended, so some of the features you see date from well after the famous defense against the British, like this massive piece of artillery.

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There were quite a few school groups there during my visit.  Here’s an interpreter leading some kids through a hands-on activity on the parade ground.

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Funny story:  One of the rooms inside the fort has a short movie with a map presentation of the campaign.  Right after I sat down to watch it, a couple of kids came in.  When the film ended with the British in retreat and the Americans still in possession of the city, one patriotic little guy behind me jumped up and exclaimed, “YESSSS!”  Good to know the place and the story are still capable of instilling some good old-fashioned American pride.

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Ladies and gentlemen, meet the resident cats of Marble Springs State Historic Site

This hard-working trio is on duty 24/7 at the home of Tennessee’s first governor.

Cinnamon…

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Boots…

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…and John Sevier.

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Follow them on Twitter, or stop by the site and pay ‘em a visit.

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Win a Bunker Hill book

Last year the fine folks who published Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution allowed me to host a giveaway.  Now that it’s out in paperback, we’re going to do another round, so if you want to win a copy, here’s what you do.

Pick any number between 1 and 1,776.  E-mail it to me at mlynch5396@hotmail.com, using “Bunker Hill Giveaway” as the subject line.  Deadline for entries is 11:59 P.M. on Saturday, May 31.  I’ll use the magic of the Interwebs to generate a random number, and the book goes to the person who selected the number closest to it.

Good luck, folks!

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In a new video, Boko Haram declares war on Abraham Lincoln

Should we tell this guy he’s a little late?

Word of advice, dude: Lincoln has dealt with rebel militants before.  Might want to reconsider.

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New space for old bones

This is bittersweet news for me.  The dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is closed for five years to make way for a total renovation.

I love the Smithsonian’s dino gallery.  It was the first major fossil exhibit I ever saw (so long ago that some of the occupants were probably breathing at the time).  There aren’t many museum experiences that could excite me more than walking through the NMNH rotunda, past that big bull elephant, and stepping into that massive hall dominated by a Diplodocus.

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What I loved almost as much as the skeletons were the dioramas in the rear of the gallery.  They were like little windows into a world I usually had to imagine.  I doubt they’ll survive the renovation, since they’re pretty outdated.  But to tell you the truth, once I got older I loved the fact that they were showing their age, because they took me back to the dinosaur books I read when I was a kid—books with dinos that hadn’t yet caught up with science, still lumbering around in swampy forests with their tails dragging behind them.

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The new exhibit should be pretty awesome.  They’re mounting a new T. rex, which I guess will replace the cast of “Stan” from the old hall.  Until then, Washington, D.C. is going to be a lot less awesome.  I really wish I could’ve visited this year, just to walk through one last time.

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