Not long ago, I was walking through Bicentennial Park in downtown Columbus and noticed a man standing at the corner by the Cultural Arts Center. He was looking at the large silvered metal sculpture of an eagle bearing an American emblem on the wall of the building.

Not long ago, I was walking through Bicentennial Park in downtown Columbus and noticed a man standing at the corner by the Cultural Arts Center. He was looking at the large silvered metal sculpture of an eagle bearing an American emblem on the wall of the building.

As I approached, he asked me if I had any idea what exactly it was and why it was there.

And as a matter of fact, I was able to tell him that what he was looking at was the figurehead of the battleship Ohio and that it had been there since 1923.

It takes a little bit longer to explain why it was there.

A figurehead is a work of art that adorns the front of a ship. Of 10 representing mythical characters or national heroes in the "Age of Fighting Sail," figureheads largely came to be national emblems or variations on flags on the early steel steamships of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The USS Ohio was one of those ships.

It was not the first American warship to be named for the state of Ohio and it would not be the last. The first was a Lake Erie schooner that served from 1813 to 1814 in the War of 1812. The subject of its figurehead was not recorded. The second USS Ohio was a "ship of the line." Launched in 1820 it carried 104 guns and served until 1883. Its figurehead in the form of a figure of Hercules is in a park with its ship's anchor in Stony Brook, N.Y.

The third battleship named Ohio was part of the new steam powered navy that had been created rather slowly in the years after the American Civil War. The traditional wooden hulled sailing ships of the American Navy came to be replaced by metal warships after the impressive confrontation of Union and Confederate "ironclad" ships in 1862.

The development of the new navy was slow because many people did not believe it was necessary. Protected by two oceans for decades, the United States had relied for generations on small armies and navies complemented by volunteer forces when major conflicts like the Civil War came along.

But as early as the 1880s, many people in and out of the military came to the conclusion that larger armies and navies were needed. Many of the major European powers were using their armies and navies to develop vast colonial empires in Asia and Africa, and the Spanish American War demonstrated that a modern navy was necessary to American success.

Work was begun on the battleship Ohio in 1899 at the United Iron Works in San Francisco and the ship was formally launched on May 18, 1901. On hand to break the traditional bottle of champagne was Miss Helen Deshler of Columbus, as well the governor of Ohio, President William McKinley and many other dignitaries. After three more years of outfitting and trials, the ship was formally commissioned on Oct. 4, 1904.

At the time when it came into service, the Ohio was a formidable fighting machine. Manned by 40 officers and 521 men, the warship carried four 12-inch and 16 6-inch main guns and 22 other secondary guns, as well as two torpedo tubes. Its armor was 12 inches thick on the faceplates of its turrets, and at more than 393 feet the Ohio was considerably longer than a football field. Fueled by 2,150 tons of coal carried on board, the Ohio could reach a maximum speed of 18 knots.

In concert with several other ships of similar size and strength, the Ohio could present a new image of American power.

And President Theodore Roosevelt decided to use the navy to do just that. Seeing the extension of influence by both Europe and Asia in the early 20th century, Roosevelt decided to use the American Navy to demonstrate that the United States was a great power as well. Having earned a Nobel Prize for settling the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Roosevelt was well aware of what naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan called "the influence of sea power upon history." He was determined to make certain that influence was American.

In 1907, Roosevelt watched with pride as 16 American battleships and their escort vessels set out from Hampton Roads, Va., to demonstrate that America was a naval power on the world stage. Because all of the major ships were painted white, the entire force came to be called the Great White Fleet.

By the time its journey was done, the Great White Fleet had traveled more than 43,000 miles, stopped in 16 ports of call and had had become the first steam-powered steel fleet to sail around the world.

The adventures of the fleet and its sailors were followed as major stories by most newspapers and magazines and the return of the fleet to America on Feb. 22, 1909, was front-page news in every paper in Columbus as well as the rest of the country. With only two weeks remaining before he left the presidency to William Howard Taft, Roosevelt personally welcomed the fleet back home and later said "its journey was the most important service I rendered for peace."

The USS Ohio would later patrol off Vera Cruz during the Mexican Revolution in 1914 and serve as a training vessel in World War I. After the United States entered into a disarmament treaty in 1921, the USS Ohio was decommissioned on May 31, 1922, and sold for scrap on March 24, 1923. When the ship was decommissioned, mementos of her service were offered to the state of Ohio.

The figurehead was mounted on what was then the state arsenal and later became the Cultural Arts Center. It remains there today. The ship's bell and silver punchbowl are displayed at the Ohio Historical Center.

As the lead ship in the Ohio class of nuclear powered submarines, the fourth and most recent USS Ohio is still in the nation's service.

For rather practical reasons it does not have -- nor does it really need -- a figurehead.

Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.