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National Museum of American History Embarks on Project for Preservation of Revolutionary War-Era Gunboat Philadelphia

April 29, 2019
Outline of a ship in shades of neon against a black backdrop

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will kick off a multiyear project to ensure the long-term preservation of the gunboat USS Philadelphia, which dates back to the Revolutionary War and is considered part of America’s first Navy. Initial planning calls for the completion of the conservation work and a new display for the ship to coincide with the nation’s commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026.

A technical advisory committee will convene April 30 – May 2 to review a research report and conservation analysis the museum commissioned and to advise the museum staff in developing a conservation-treatment plan. The initial funding for the gunboat Philadelphia conservation project was donated by the museum’s advisory board in honor of John L. Gray, the museum’s previous director who stepped down in 2018.

“The Philadelphia is not only one of the largest artifacts in the museum’s collections, but also a powerful symbol of the birth of the nation and we look forward to celebrating with all Americans,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the museum.

The gunboat Philadelphia was built in summer 1776 under the direction of Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold and the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, along with seven identical ships, in what is considered America’s first Navy. The fleet disrupted British plans to isolate New England from the rest of the Colonies during the summer and fall of 1776. On Oct. 11 of that year, the fleet met British forces off Valcour Island near the New York shore of Lake Champlain. American forces were outnumbered and lost the two-day battle. The Philadelphia was badly damaged and sunk during the battle, but the American fleet managed to hold the British off until the following spring, when the Americans were better prepared. This allowed Colonial forces to build up their strength and defeat the British in the Battle of Saratoga.

After it sunk, the gunboat remained lost at the bottom of Lake Champlain, with the top of its mast just 15 feet from the surface, until it was discovered in 1935 by Col. Lorenzo F. Hagglund, an experienced salvage engineer. Hagglund and his crew recovered the ship intact from the bottom of the lake using slings and spreaders to prevent the sides from being crushed. They also recovered the original equipment, including the cannon ball that issued the ship’s fatal blow. The boat was on display for tourists in the Lake Champlain region until it was moved to the National Museum of American History in 1961, just before the completion of the museum’s construction and eventual opening to the public in 1964.

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more informed future. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.

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