Posted on Tuesday, October 9, 2012 by Peter Knego
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tied up between OLYMPIA and the pier is the BALAO-class submarine BECUNA, built in 1944.
And just a few feet away, the still-proud MOSHULU seems to be thriving as a floating restaurant.
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.
Inside, despite being a ship of war, the OLYMPIA boasts some fine woodwork and vintage detailing.
A wonderful central passage doubles as a lounge between her well-preserved officers’ staterooms.
By the standards of the time, the officers’ cabins weren’t too shabby…
Two richly paneled mess halls served both officers and engine crew.
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.
Very Special Thanks: Martin Cox, Rob Di Stefano, John Laurino