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USS OLYMPIA: Fifteen Minute Tour

Posted on Tuesday, October 9, 2012 by

Peter Knego makes a quick visit to the critically endangered cruiser, the USS OLYMPIA, the oldest surviving steel-hulled warship in the U.S. and the only remaining ship to have served in the Spanish-American War.

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All photos and copyright Peter Knego 2012 unless otherwise noted.

Monday, September 17, 2012


After my visit to the UNITED STATES, I headed up to Penn’s Landing to take some exterior views of the endangered cruiser USS OLYMPIA. I reached the ship, which is berthed bow-to-bow with the 1904-built four masted barque MOSHULU, at 5:00 PM and was surprised to see people on her decks, milling about.


My prior understanding was that the OLYMPIA was shut down and in desperate need of funding for a costly drydocking. Because of this, I was also expecting to find a derelict-looking ship, which was far from the case.

Builder’s plate.

I will barely scratch the surface of OLYMPIA’s import and history here but she was completed in 1895 at a cost of $1,796,000 by Union Ironworks of San Francisco and is the oldest existing steel-hulled U.S. warship. Under the command of Commodore Dewey, the then-flagship OLYMPIA led the successful battle against the Spanish fleet for Manila in the Spanish-American War in 1898. She later served as a floating barracks and cadet training ship, then patrolled the U.S. East Coast during World War One. In 1919, she participated in the Russian Civil War intervention by the Allies in Murmansk, then in 1921, she carried the remains of the Unknown Soldier from France to Washington, DC. In 1922, she was decommissioned and laid up in the reserve fleet until 1957, when she was rescued by the Cruiser Olympia Association to become a museum ship in Philadelphia and is now a part of the Independence Seaport Museum.

National Engineering Landmark plaque.

In 1966, OLYMPIA was designated a National Historical Landmark and in 1977, her unique vertical reciprocating machinery was declared a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. She has been maintained by the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps Midshipmen from Villanova University and the University of Pennsylvania but since her last drydocking was way back in 1945, the ship is experiencing severe hull corrosion that will require some $10 million in repairs. As the Independence Seaport Museum does not have the resources to repair her, she is in danger of being scuttled as a reef or scrapped if another non-profit entity does not step in to do the necessary work.

In late 2010, it was announced that the ship would be shut down but somehow she has managed to remain open on a daily basis. My arrival at closing time was inopportune, at best, but I was able to convince the manager to allow me a speedy 15-minute documenting spree so I could do a quick report for this blog.

Majestic cruiser bow.

USS OLYMPIA superstructure.

Bay windows and turret detailing.

I was astounded at the beautiful condition of the upper decks and the handful of spaces I visited. The OLYMPIA’s crew has worked tirelessly on restoring and repainting every accessible part of the ship. Although it is urgent that she receive a drydocking and hull repairs, in every other aspect, OLYMPIA appears to be a beautifully maintained survivor from another era. Non-profit entities from San Francisco, Beaufort (South Carolina), Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. have submitted proposals to take the ship but as of early October 2012, nothing has been firmed up and she remains open for tours at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing, 211 South Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19106-3199.


The irony of the USS OLYMPIA’s dilemma was amplified by the presence across the Delaware River in Camden, NJ of the USS NEW JERSEY, the second of four IOWA-class battleships from World War Two, all four of which have been set aside as floating museums. Of course, these are all important ships but the OLYMPIA is the very last of her kind and equally, if not more deserving in the scheme of historic preservation. The same can be said of the SS UNITED STATES, which awaits her fate a mile or so downriver.

Cruiser stern versus submarine stern.

Tied up between OLYMPIA and the pier is the BALAO-class submarine BECUNA, built in 1944.

MOSHULU at Penn’s Landing.

And just a few feet away, the still-proud MOSHULU seems to be thriving as a floating restaurant.

Face of OLYMPIA.

Over bow from wing.


Although OLYMPIA was built for a completely different purpose, her deck areas and superstructure sport similar features to liners of the same era, such as Cunard’s CAMPANIA and LUCANIA and even the German-built KAISER WILHELM DER GROSSE. It is astounding that such a large vessel (displacing 5,870 tons at 344 by 53 feet) from this period still survives intact.

Freshly painted passage.

Inside, despite being a ship of war, the OLYMPIA boasts some fine woodwork and vintage detailing.

Officer’s country.

Lounge area between accommodation.

A wonderful central passage doubles as a lounge between her well-preserved officers’ staterooms.

Officer’s cabin.

By the standards of the time, the officers’ cabins weren’t too shabby…

Officers’ mess.

Crew mess.

Two richly paneled mess halls served both officers and engine crew.

Engine overview.

From above, the engines looked like new but that is as close as I was able to get — this time. As a matter of fact, every bit of the OLYMPIA that I was able to see was spotless and/or freshly painted.

My visit was brief but inspiring. We can only hope the OLYMPIA will have a brighter future. She is an extraordinary ship, both architecturally and historically.

To learn more about how you can help with the continued preservation of the OLYMPIA, please click here.


Very Special Thanks: Martin Cox, Rob Di Stefano, John Laurino

10 Responses to USS OLYMPIA: Fifteen Minute Tour

  1. Kenneth Eden

    October 10, 2012 at 5:36 am

    The detailing is unlike no other, and the wood and mouldings are exquisite.

  2. S Smith

    October 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    The National Trust for Historic Preservation has established an independent fund for Olympia that will be transferred to whichever of the organizations applying for stewardship are successful. Further information on Olympia and the fund, including a “donate” button, may be found here:


  3. Mage Bailey

    October 10, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    As usual, you knock my socks off with your clear eye and energies. Thanks again.

  4. Dan

    October 10, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    Just imagine if the USS Oregon was still around? And it might have been possible if the then Governor of Oregon didn’t give the ship back to the NAVY in 1942 against the citizens and veterans who opposed it. That ship was scrapped for nothing. And when I see the USS Olympia, I see what the mighty Oregon would have been if she were not scrapped. Something that almost happened to the Olympia at that time as well.

    Until I learned about the Olympia, I assumed that the warships from the Spanish American War period were either sunk of scrapped. And the closest that was a museum for a time was the USS Oregon. A ship that should not have been scrapped at all. And there is only one Pre-Dreadnought battleship left in the world today: The JPN Mikasa!!!

  5. Avery Boyer

    October 10, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Thanks so much for documenting this beautiful and historically important ship. I hope she finds a new steward with the funds to take care of her. The Independence Seaport Museum, as you may know, has struggled in recent years. ONe of its many troubles is that not too long ago the President misappropriated $2.5 million from the museum. It has also been badly managed at times. Really too bad as it is a good museum with two very historic ships.

    Just one correction (I can’t help myself!) the USS New Jersey is the *second* of four *Iowa* class battleships. They are, in order, Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri and Wisconsin. Missouri was the first to become a museum at Pearl Harbor. New Jersey came next. Wisconsin has been at the Nauticus museum in Virginia since 2000 but was only recently transferred permanently to the museum from navy custody. Iowa was the last to be preserved and was restored just this past spring.

  6. Peter Knego

    October 10, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    Thanks so much, Avery. I am clearly out of my element with war ships but I meant for that sentence to mean the fourth out of four that were saved. Probably should have written “…the second of four IOWA-Class battleships, all of which were saved.” Appreciate the input and feedback! :) Peter

  7. Andreas Wahl

    October 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    What a beautiful ship with her extensive and excellent woodwork. In fact, her interiors look much too cozy for a warship.
    I realize that there are a lot of maritime treasures to see in the world – in addition to ships like Queen Mary, United States or Rotterdam; already standing on my list.
    Between the two short Artania cruises, I had the opportunity to visit the Deutsche Schifffahrtsmuseum in Bremerhaven with a beautiful selection of vintage but small ships. Unfortunately, the are no liners among them (Europa of 1930, Bremen exPasteur or Berlin exGripsholm – one of them would have been appropriate). But even on a much smaller tug or schooner, standing below deck with that classic smell in your nose (actually, what is it?) is already extremely fulfilling.

  8. Chet Robbins

    October 23, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    In 1965 I purchased a bronze medallion that was made from the propeller of the Olympia, it was part of their fund raising, I think it cost $5.00. I still have it. We have to preserve these historic ships.

  9. Nancy Fesig

    May 18, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    I also have 1 of these medallions given to me by a friend, who is now deceased. He served in the armed forces and purchased this . medallion also. I would like to know if this has any value and if so, how much worth is there on it.

    Thank you
    Mrs. Fesig

  10. Deborah Shoniker

    July 25, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    So right Chet! We have to save these ships! The no care attitude has to end. This is history to be appreciated. The Olympia is gorgeous! Such woodwork on a naval ship. I’m impressed! Thank you all who are taking the time to keep her looking “spiffy” She’s a “GRAND LASS” Thank you to all the volunteers I’m sure that have given of their time to help too!

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