During the early years of the 19th century the United States, fed up at the British navy’s haughtiness and with disagreements over shipping and trade on the high seas, declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Sometimes referred to as the “Second War of Independence,” and the “forgotten war,” the War of 1812 lasted for a little more than two years.
It was time of tall ships, powered by sail, which has captured the imaginations of many over the years, including Oliver Lee of Cedaredge.
Oliver, one of two sons born to Clarence and Villa Lee, was born in 1920 in the small town of Hygiene, Colo. At the age of 15, Oliver learned the Morse Code; earned a HAM radio license; and spent three years in the Colorado National Guard before graduating from Longmont High School in 1938. He attended the University of Colorado, and later, amidst rumors of war, Oliver joined the Navy Reserve. In 1940, he joined the Navy as a radio and radar technician on a mine sweeper, serving in such venues as Guadacanal, Iwo Jima, the Philippines and Japan. He and his wife Rowena moved to Cedaredge four years ago. Sadly, Rowena passed away earlier this year.
Now, a retired naval ofﬁcer, Oliver is fascinated by the tall ships that sailed the Great Lakes and fought in the War of 1812. So much so, that he has spent the last 13 years building scale models of some of those ships. He explained that when he quit smoking he needed something to do and that he likes to work with his hands. He said it takes about two years to build one of these models.
He also researches the history of those ships. Oliver has built eight models of those now legendary “tall” ships of that era, and is currently working on a scale model of the U.S. Brig Syren.
Commissioned in September 1803, Oliver explained that although the Syren was not a pirate ship it was a faster, smaller ship than the British ships and more maneuverable, built to raid the British merchant ships. The Syren was captured by the Royal Navy in 1814.
Oliver noted that once a model is built, he tends to lose interest. Although they are not for sale, he has given several away to friends and family. Oliver builds his models either from scratch or kits, noting that it is “hard to ﬁnd the hardware you need if you’re building them from scratch.”
Oliver explained that the ﬁrst step in building a scale model is the same as in building the real thing — the laying of the keel, and making sure that it is square and straight. In nautical terms, the keel is a large beam around which the hull of the ship/model is formed. The keel runs down the middle of the ship and is the foundation and major source for the structural strength of the hull. For his part, Oliver also uses braces that he designed to ensure the strength of the hull.
According to Oliver, after the keel and the braces are laid, the rest of the ship goes together, using double planked bass wood with no grain for the hull, brass ﬁttings, copper, rope and other woods like cherry and mahogany for their grain. Oliver said the tools he uses include a small table saw built for model construction; various blades in the Exacto series of hand cutters; various sized drill bits and a hand-held drill; lots of sandpaper; small squares and supports to keep ship’s bulkheads square with the keel (according to Oliver, this is the most important part of building as the entire ship depends on the integrity of the keel and bulkheads); a small drill press; a small jig saw; and many small clamps, including clothes pins, used when gluing parts to hull.
Oliver noted that each part of the model requires a completely different process. “That keeps it from getting monotonous,” he laughed. “Tying the knots and putting the rigging in is tedious,” he added. He also builds the display cases for the model ships he builds. “They are just as much work as building the ship,” said Oliver.
In his home ofﬁce, Oliver proudly has on display a model of the U.S. Brig Niagara, one of six warships built to regain control of the upper Great Lakes from the British during the War of 1812. Following the capture of the British ships, Commodore Perry sent his now famous message, “We have met the enemy and they are ours…”
After being scuttled and three reconstructions later, the Niagara is once again an active sailing ship. Her operating base is the Erie Maritime Museum, and the ship is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Another one of his models, “The Pride of Baltimore,” is proudly on display at the home of friends, Andy and Carole Robertson.
The Pride of Baltimore was an authentic full-sized reproduction of a 19th century Baltimore clipper commissioned by citizens of Baltimore. It was lost at sea with four of its 12 crew on May 14, 1986.
The Pride of Baltimore II, a replica commissioned in 1988 to replace the Pride of Baltimore, now sails as a Goodwill Ambassador from Baltimore and the State of Maryland.
Andy Robertson, who helped Oliver with the building of the model, said it took them more than 800 hours to complete. Andy, noting that Oliver is 90 years old and has arthritis in his right hand said, “He is amazing and his hands are steady.”
Andy concluded, “I’ve built a lot of models, airplanes, etc., but they’re all child’s play compared to this.”
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