Naval Academy Museum

A cruise to visit the Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis was short on distance, but long on entertainment.

by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller

Frankly, as my daughter Kris and I idled along Spa Creek in the center-console, watching the Naval Academy middies go through their morning calisthenics on Farragut Field, I had a few misgivings about the day's expedition. Of all the things there are to do in Annapolis on a beautiful warm and sunny day, a visit to the Naval Academy Museum would not seem to be the obvious choice. It is the opinion of many--and who am I to fly in the face of popular opinion--that museums are best reserved as refuges from the blustery winds of winter, or even the sudden downpours of summer, but not on perfectly good user-friendly early fall days. When somebody (okay, it was Isaac Watts speaking of honey bees) invented the phrase "improve each shining hour," he was surely speaking metaphorically. Yet, I was proposing that we improve several literally shining hours by touring the Academy Museum, which recently reopened after a long renovation. Well, at least our shining hours were starting--as all expeditions should, in my opinion--with a boat trip.

Kris and I had left far-off Back Creek in Eastport about 10 minutes earlier and had dawdled around Horn Point, before heading across Annapolis harbor and up the Severn River toward the Academy bridge. We were determined to make a real boat trip out of this. We followed the break-wall as far as Dewey Field at the entrance to College Creek. There we doubled back, pausing to look into Santee Basin, where the Academy keeps some of its training and racing boats. The basin is flanked by the Hendrix Oceanography Lab and the Crown Sailing Center. At the Severn River-end of Farragut Field, we slowed to watch a few fishermen and wave to an older couple--he in his Navy ball cap and she in pink visor--who were seated close together on a bench overlooking the harbor. We chatted with a couple who were kayaking out of Truxton Park, which is near the top end of Spa Creek. We idled by the exercising cadets, then dodged water taxis, sailboats and go-fasts coming and going from Ego Alley. We ghosted past a couple of mega-yachts, with a gentleman sitting on the back deck of the larger one, actually reading the Wall Street Journal, just as one imagines he ought to be. Just beyond these two gleaming behemoths, we came to a halt in the empty slip of a friend, who was currently halfway to Norfolk.

We scrambled onto the dock and the set off for the Academy. By way of breakfast. After all, shining hours are so much more easily improved on a full stomach. So we ambled up Main Street to Chick and Ruth's Delly, just in time for the Pledge and a pecan waffle and bacon. Half an hour later, we were back on the street and ready to take on the Academy. But first we stopped in Helly Hanson and Hats in the Belfry and maybe one or two . . . or three . . . others. Just for a quick look, you understand.

Finally we had reached the public entrance to the Academy and there was nothing for it but to go in. We showed a picture ID and quickly passed through security and into the Academy grounds. I wasn't sure where the museum was, so we turned right and walked down to the visitor center for a map. Whenever I visit the Academy, I nearly always end up walking past the dumpsters behind Dahlgren Hall because I have missed some crucial turn. This time was no exception, despite the map, marked by a friendly docent at the visitor center with the best route to Preble Hall, where the museum is located. In this case I had managed to miss the left turn onto Porter Road, which is lined with lovely officer's cottages. Nevertheless, my patented scenic dumpster route brought us out on Buchanan Road, which would have been our next turn anyway, I explained to Kris as she held her nose, a little unnecessarily I thought--really it didn't smell that bad. Back on the indicated route, we passed the submarine monument and then watched a bride and groom and their party pose for the photographer in the Zimmerman Bandstand across from the chapel. Past the chapel, we made a right turn onto Maryland Avenue and we were there.

Preble Hall was built in 1939 and named for Commodore Edward Preble, who served with distinction in the Quasi and Barbary wars. In case you are drawing a blank, the Quasi War--or the Undeclared Naval War or the Half War--was fought with the French after they grew annoyed at us for staying neutral in their war with Britain and for refusing to keep up payments on our Revolutionary War debt to them just because they had lopped off the king's head and declared themselves a republic. The French seized lots of our merchant ships; we got angry and built or converted ships to fight; and then we captured some French ships; eventually peace was restored. The Barbary Wars, as you probably do remember, was about pirates and the shores of Tripoli. Once inside the museum, we learned that we were only two steps ahead of a convention of state law enforcement officers who would be taking a guided tour that started on the first floor gallery. We decided to start on the second floor.

It was a grand place to start, and both Kris and I would have been perfectly satisfied to have stopped there, as well. The second floor is given over entirely to ship models. No, not the plastic Revell kind put together in a haze of airplane glue, but large, immensely intricate, exactly detailed models of centuries of sailing ships. The gallery is divided into two parts. By far the larger portion is composed of models from the collection put together by Colonel Henry Huddleston Rogers and donated to the museum about the time it was built. These are scale models, many of them built for the British Admiralty between 1650 and 1850 of ships of the line, from 100-gun "first rate" vessels on down, and of smaller vessels such as the royal yacht and the admiral's barge. Many of these are displayed in their original cases, which are in some cases as valuable as the models themselves. Included in this gallery are also models of some early American fighting ships, like John Paul Jones's Bonhomme Richard.

Imagine my surprise to discover that my daughter is completely enamored with ship models. Who knew?

"But you knew that, Mother, I've told you that before," she declared.

"Well, sure," I replied nonchalantly, "that's why I thought you'd enjoy this."

And certainly the workmanship on these models is awe-inspiring--at least it would be if I knew enough about it--but for emotional punch, they don't hold a ship's candle to the models in the second and smaller gallery. In a single section, in a display case that runs the length of the room, is a collection of ship models that chill the bone (a bad pun, as you shall see). For here is a remarkable and ghostly fleet of ship models, not to scale, but as intricately constructed as the grander Admiralty models, carved from the bones of beef rations served French prisoners of war. These prisoners, captured during the Anglo-French wars of 1756 to 1815, and incarcerated in England, saved the bones from their meager rations and used them to create ship models from memory, exact in detail and remarkable in workmanship. These they would sell for a little money to improve their living conditions. These ships are as remarkable as they are moving. Both Kris and I lingered over them for a long time.

But time was passing and we still hadn't visited the main floor gallery, not to mention the gift shop. So we left the silent ship's gallery and descended the stairs to the bustling first floor (or first deck as it's called since this is the Navy), where the state law enforcement officers and their spouses were in mid-tour. Here we dodged the crowd, moving randomly among the displays as we found room to stand. The desk where the articles of surrender were signed by the Japanese and accepted by General Douglas MacArthur aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in 1945, ending World War II; Oliver Hazard Perry's "Don't Give Up the Ship" battle flag from the War of 1812; artifacts from the U.S.S. Constitution and U.S.S. Monitor; displays from the Revolutionary War to the Cold War.

Several hours later, happily saturated in Naval history, we emerged from Preble Hall and into the deep yellow afternoon sunlight. This time I managed to avoid the Dahlgren Hall dumpsters and still find the exit. We strolled back through City Dock to the boat. That is, after we stopped for double-dips of ice cream. Back on the boat, we decided to make a quick side-trip the rest of the way up Spa Creek. That done, we made our way, ever so slowly, around Horn Point to Back Creek and home.

"Thanks, Mother, I enjoyed that," Kris said. "but, really, it would have been faster to walk."

"Yes, but then it wouldn't have been a cruise, would it?"