p r e s e r v e . o l y m p i a

the ship

In history on September 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm

The USS Olympia was launched in 1895, intended as the flagship of the American Asiatic Squadron. Three years later she was catapulted into public awareness when Commodore George Dewey defeated the Spanish squadron guarding the Philippine islands. Advancing technology and mass media spread news of the surprising American victory around the world in just a few days. In the heady days of ‘civilized’ imperial expansion, America had gained its first overseas colony. Dewey was instantly promoted to the rank of admiral.

By the time Dewey returned to America in 1899, he and his ship were the subjects of adulation and mass marketing. Parades were held in his honor and the Olympia led a celebratory naval procession in New York. Dewey’s face was emblazoned on buttons, statuettes and ribbons. Olympia was reproduced in miniature in glass serving dishes, represented on lithographs and postcards. Her stern and bow crest were adorned with gilded Victorian ornamentation worthy of a great imperial power.

While Olympia’s fame rests upon Dewey’s victory, she also represents America’s emergence as an industrial power awakening from a post-Civil War doldrum. This emergence manifested itself in the birth of the new American Steel Navy which culminated in the voyage of Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Great White Fleet’ around the world in 1906. As naval technology advanced, bigger and faster battleships became the mainstay of world navies. Armored cruisers such as the Olympia and other coal burning ships of the late 1800s were quickly relegated to secondary roles. By 1907, Olympia was placed in reserve and used as a training ship for Naval Academy midshipmen.

In and out of service for the next ten years training the Navy’s midshipmen, World War I brought about an opportunity for the Olympia to see active service again. When America entered the Great War in 1917, Olympia resumed flagship status serving as the command vessel of the coastal patrol, protecting American shipping from German submarine attacks. In 1918, she was dispatched to the northern Russian port of Murmansk to protect Allied interests in the confusing early months of the Russian revolution. With the end of World War I, Olympia was sent to the Adriatic to help stabilize the post-war situation between Italy, Austria, the Balkan nations and the remains of the Ottoman Empire. The humanitarian work of her crew foreshadowed a continuing tradition of the American military.

In 1921, Olympia was recalled to America. On route, she fulfilled her most poignant mission when she docked in the French city of Le Havre to receive the remains of the first American Unknown soldier to bear him home. On a gray and rainy 9 November, she was received in Washington DC with solemn ceremony under the eyes of high officials. With the return of peace and stability in war-torn Europe, Olympia was returned to reserve status and midshipmen training cruises. The proud, hardworking USS Olympia was decommissioned a year later in December, 1922, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Olympia languished as a decommissioned vessel under Navy jurisdiction. As the years progressed, the estimated costs for demilitarizing and preserving her continued to escalate. However, her former fame as Dewey’s flagship saved her from the fate of her New Navy compatriots as they were sunk or scrapped. But the question remained, what to do with her? The US Navy had no mandate to maintain historic relics and it certainly did not budget for historic preservation. Depression era fiscal limitations and World War II priorities obstructed efforts to motivate Congress to provide funds for memorializing the historic ship. As the survival of the decaying Olympia became grave, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped in making it known that he desired efforts to be made to preserve the few remaining historic ships still under Navy authority. These included the USS Olympia, Admiral Farragut’s Civil War flagship USS Hartford as well as the USS Constitution and USS Constellation. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, however, prevented any substantive action from being taken.

Another decade passed before Congress finally took action. In 1954, Congress authorized the Navy to preserve the USS Constitution. The Hartford, Constellation and Olympia were to be scrapped unless accepted by non-governmental organizations for preservation at no cost to the government. Unfortunately, the USS Hartford, a ship with no less of a pedigree than the Olympia, sank at her moorings before being handed over for preservation in 1956. The USS Constellation was transfered to a patriotic body convinced that she was the oldest American warship in existence. On the basis of questionable documentation (and there’s strong evidence that even this was forged), she was restored to her presumed 1797 configuration. While doubts existed at the time of the restoration, it was later confirmed that little (if any) original material existed in the ship. The Constellation handed over for preservation was an entirely different ship, constructed in 1854. The controversial ‘restoration’ of the Constellation is now a worst case scenario in historic ship preservation.

Of the three ships released by the Navy, the Olympia has faired the best. Over the course of two years of negotiations and a $250,000 restoration cost, she was acquired by the Cruiser Olympia Association, a body of Philadelphia businessmen intent on restoring the historic ship and using her and an associated museum as keystones for further development of Philadelphia’s waterfront. Further funding schemes were enacted including selling commemorative coins made from Olympia’s bronze propellers which also raised public awareness. In 1957, title to the ship was handed over to the Association, though the Navy reserved the right to dispose of the ship in case preservation efforts collapsed. Financial difficulties became apparent in just a few years. Restoration efforts faltered and mainly consisted of repainting the vessel. The shipyard performing the restoration went bankrupt and the shipyard’s creditors sued the Cruiser Olympia Association which was only saved by the actions of a patriotic bankruptcy judge. By 1958, a reorganized Association had completed the restoration as far as it could and opened the ship as a floating museum. Still the Cruiser Olympia Association operated with considerable debt.

By 1996, the Cruiser Olympia Association was no longer able to maintain the venerable ship even though thousands of visitors had walked across her old deck. Some unadvised restoration efforts, such as covering her deck in concrete in an attempt to make it water tight, unfortunately caused more harm to her aging hull. Finally, title was transferred to the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. However, after spending $5.5 million to maintain the Olympia over ten years, the Seaport Museum has realized that it no longer has the funding to continue operating the vessel which is in need of critical repairs in order to remain afloat. Under financial restrictions in tough economic times, the museum has redefined its mission to one of preserving and interpreting the local history of the Delaware Bay. The USS Olympia, though a national landmark, has no role to play in the museum’s future. Consequently in 2010, the Independence Seaport Museum announced that it was seeking a qualified, non-profit organization in order to transfer title of the ship. Without transfer, the USS Olympia will be handed back to the US Navy for disposal some time after the year 2012.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: