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Novice’s model of historic battleship bound for Naval Academy Museum

The USS Niagara sat at rest Wednesday, its rigging set to sail to starboard and its long guns, cannons and carronades in position for battle.

Or rather, they would have been had the brig been about 64 times larger.

Jim Twohig of Sun City built his first model ship — a replica of the flagship used by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry to win the battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812 — so well that the model will soon find a home at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland.

“I wanted to build one for 40, 50 years and I had a busy schedule,” the 75-year-old Air Force veteran said Wednesday. “And I finally retired, so I had a chance to build it.”

It took three years and about 2,000 hours of work to bring Twohig’s model of the Niagara to life, he said. The ship’s history drew him into the project, he said.

“Had it not been for Perry and his fabulous victory at Lake Erie, a lot of the country that we know as Michigan and Wisconsin and the Midwest, it would all belong to Canada,” said Bruce Adams, president of the Sun City Summerlin Model Builders Club.

Twohig built his model in the club’s workshop, while the actual Brig Niagara was built in about seven months in the Pennsylvania wilderness.

He decided on building the Niagara after finding himself stuck on another model that was too small and detailed for a novice. He picked the Niagara because of the ship’s historical significance, and because he was still searching for a challenge despite his first setback.

“It took quite some time,” Twohig said, “but it was a labor of love.”

He started with a kit but did extensive research to modify it, using real shipbuilding techniques to create a perfect scale model of the Niagara, complete with a miniature Commodore Perry on the deck.

“All the ropes are to scale, as if a small, little man’s hand was around it, and in doing that and modeling that way you’ll find out how a ship works and why they have all these ropes and sails,” he said.

The model’s journey to the Naval Academy Museum began in October.

Adams returned to the academy for his 50th class reunion and visited the museum’s exhibit on the War of 1812, hoping to help Twohig nail down the exact color of Perry’s iconic “Don’t give up the ship” battle flag.

He saw the flag, as well as Perry’s uniform, sword, sextant and a number of personal items. But there was no representation of the Niagara.

“They’ve got all this stuff, but they don’t have his ship,” Adams said. “They don’t have a model of his flagship, and I thought, ‘That’s really strange.’”

So he spoke to officials at the museum and convinced Twohig to send in photos of the model with an offer to donate it.

The museum accepted, and next week the model will be carefully packed away in a crate and shipped east.

“Keep in mind, the Naval Academy has absolute treasures that were built in the 15th, 16th, 17th century. They’re absolute fabulous antiques,” Twohig said. “My little ship is going to be among those. I’m just so happy.”

The model builders club has been around for about 20 years, and being in Sun City, all of its members are retirees. However, the club opens its doors to the public a few times a year to teach others about the hobby.

“I hear the hobby is dying,” Twohig said. “But you know, once you get into it it’s really fun, so maybe it might blossom again.”

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Contact Max Michor at mmichor@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0365. Follow @MaxMichor on Twitter.

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