From the Vineyard Gazette edition of Oct. 23, 1942:
The launching of government war craft has taken place along Island shores. The effort is small as compared with those of other places, but bulks with importance in the Island scheme of things, besides having attracted the attention of officials in the nation’s government. Locally significant is the fact that not since the contemplation of the Tripolitan War has the Vineyard figured in any such capacity in a similar national war effort. But at this time the contributions of the Island in labor and material, not to mention men in executive capacities, was considerable, and of unusual importance.
The information to be secured regarding this momentous period in the history of the Island is but meager. History records a little, but without connecting the Vineyard with the matter. Beyond that, the old ledgers of Island businessmen, notably of Squire Benjamin Allen of West Tisbury, are the authority of the Vineyard claim to its part in making the country ready for war.
It came about that Congress passed the necessary legislation to build certain ships which were to be armed and equipped to carry war to the piratical nations, and notable among these ships was the celebrated frigate Constitution, which later figured so prominently in the War of 1812, where she earned her nickname of Old Ironsides.
History records the fact that Colonel George Claghorn, proprietor of the shipyard in Dartmouth, then New Bedford, was given the contract to build the ship. It likewise records the fact that George Hillman was appointed by Claghorn to take charge of the actual construction. What history fails to relate is the fact that both these men were Vineyarders, born and reared in Chilmark, and that when they were confronted by this so important task, they instinctively turned toward the Vineyard for the things that they needed most.
At this time, the business of mining bog iron ore from the Island swamps was a recognized industry of much importance. There are numerous references to the excellence of this iron, which was said to have been the finest obtainable in the country in those days. Commonly shipped to the mainland by way of Sippican, and thence by ox-cart to the smelters at Taunton, it found its ways into many strange places, not the least of which were the hulls of wooden ships.
Squire Allen records at this time that sloop Lydia sailed with twenty tons of iron ore, sloop Triton sailed with twenty-three tons, and so on. He likewise records the wages paid to men who were digging the ore, and notes the business arrangement to open new pits in other swamps. The dowels, the guns and the cannon balls for the Constitution were in process of being made of Vineyard iron, dug by Vineyard men, shipped to the mainland in Vineyard bottoms!
Colonel Claghorn knew his neighbors and his relatives of the Vineyard, and it was not only natural that he should have tried to give them an opportunity to earn something through their efforts, but he must likewise have possessed a decided conviction that these products which he obtained from the Vineyard were of superior quality and workmanship; otherwise he would have contracted for them from some more convenient locality.
Tradition has said that the great cabin of the frigate was finished by a Vineyarder also, a colored man, whose name, singularly, was Luce. This craftsman enjoyed local fame as a cabinet-maker of unusual skill both with the tools of his trade and designing, and there are still occasional pieces of furniture to be found, made by Luce, it is said, from native cherry and other woods.
The completion and launching of the Constitution was a national event. Posters carried her picture, together with her description and many facts about her. Newspapers also carried pictures and lengthy accounts regarding her size, complement and other facts. Obscurely placed, if needed the fact was published through these mediums, was the story of the error which was made in casting the shot for her guns. History notes that they were made too large and that they would not fit. Presumably the shot were again melted, and moulded into other shot that were suitable. But not all of them. Squire Allen obtained two of the smaller ones; samples of the finished product manufactured from his Island iron. These cannon shot are still in existence, treasured by their possessor, and quite properly.
Wars are not fought today as they were in that far-off time. The boats built and equipped on the Vineyard bear no resemblance to the stately frigate of the sailing-ship era. But in the scheme of warfare today, they are quite as important as far greater ships in other times. Today, nearly a century and a half since Island effort helped to build and equip a frigate, the honesty and excellence of Vineyard craftsmanship is still recognized. It is being applied to the present war effort, and as always, the Vineyard is building a win.
Compiled by Hilary Wall