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Come Hell or High Water
The Saving of a Naval Treasure
by Bob Brooke


The cruiser Olympia has survived wars, decommissioning, decades of neglect, a failed fundraising campaign, an unsuccessful search for a new home, and plans for an intentional sinking, or “reefing,” to serve as habitat for marine life.

After 124 years afloat, the former flagship of Commodore George Dewey outwardly looks great. As the last ship of the United States’ “Steel Navy,” she saw the U.S. Navy’s rebirth and debut as a maritime force. The hull of the 5,500-ton, 344-foot cruiser shines brilliant white with a red-striped waterline, buff-colored topside, and knife-like bow for ramming enemy ships. The interior is ship-shape for a vessel her age.

The Launching of the USS Olympia
The Olympia began life as Cruiser Number 6, a 20-knot warship that was projected to cost no more than $1.8 million. The newly formed U.S. Board on the Design of Ships began the design process in 1889, and less than a year later the U.S. Navy solicited bids for the construction of the ship. Surprisingly, only one firm, the Union Iron Works in San Francisco, bid on the job.

Commodore George Dewey’s flagship USS Olympia has since found a home in Philadelphia. The keel of Cruiser Number 6 was laid in June 1891, and the U.S. Navy launched the ship on November 5, 1892. While her primary construction occurred in San Francisco, the Carnegie Steel Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, fabricated her heavy armor plating.

After sea trials in December 1891 in the Santa Barbara Channel, the USS Olympia received her commission in February 1895, and slid down the gangways on November 1892, eight years after the U.S. Navy’s first ships with steel, not iron, hulls had been launched. She then steamed to the U.S. Navy’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard at Vallejo, California, for outfitting.

A protected cruiser, with an armored deck that sloped down to the waterline to shield machinery and interior compartments, she was among a group of fast, big, and powerful warships that gave the fledgling Steel Navy an offensive capability.

Named for the capital of the new state of Washington, the Olympia had full gun turrets forward and aft that could rotate 137 degrees. Twin 8-inch Mark III guns protruded in each. Additionally, she bristled with 10 5-inch Mark II guns, 14 6-pounders, 6 1-pounders, 2 Colt machine guns, and 6 18-inch Whitehead above-surface torpedo tubes. Experts felt the ship’s armament was excessive for her size.

Vertical reciprocating engines, a refrigeration system, and hydraulic steering—all major technical achievements—distinguished the Olympia from other warships of the time. The Allen Dense Air Ice Machine, still located on the gun deck, turned steam into ice at 10 knots. The Olympia could steam more than 6,000 nautical miles without refueling. But she also was a racehorse, capable of 22 knots and a non-certified record of 26.

The warship marked the transition between sail and steam. Two large stacks showed she was a modern, coal-burning vessel. But she also had two masts with crow’s nests and spars. Occasionally, her crerw deployed her sails to save coal or keep the ship on course in heavy weather. And as with sailing ships, the crew hung signal flags from the masts and lookouts high in them could spot distant ships.

Her Duties at Sea
The Olympia sailed from San Francisco on August 25, 1895, to become flagship of the Asiatic Squadron, replacing the USS Baltimore, safeguarding American interests in Asia until 1899. On board were 33 officers and 378 enlisted men under the command of Captain John J. Read. For three years, the squadron visited ports in Japan, China, and the Philippines without incident. That changed shortly after the arrival of Dewey as squadron commander on January 3,1898, with Captain Charles V. Gridley relieving Read in command of the Olympia.

Her moment of glory came at the beginning of the Spanish American War in 1898, when she annihilated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay under the command of Commodore George Dewey.

Dewey steamed into Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, to face the Spanish flotilla commanded by Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón. Montojo had anchored his ships close to the shore and under the protection of coastal artillery. However, the shore batteries along with the fleet were to prove no match for Dewey’s squadron.

Dewey must have felt confident. He ordered all the wooden desks and cabinets removed from the ship, since they might produce splinters and endanger the crew should she take a direct hit. The Commodore chose not to have the fine wooden paneling inside the ship removed because they were part of the ship’s character and thus were spared.

After another year of service in the Philippines, she returned to the U.S., and was featured prominently in national celebrations of victory in that "lovely little war," as Teddy Roosevelt called it. After the turn of the century, she served briefly with the Atlantic Squadron, but with the introduction of Dreadnaught ships, she was soon de-activated and used for little more than as a training ship for the Naval Academy, and later a barracks ship.

She was re-activated during World War I and served with the Atlantic Patrol Force. She was present for the coronation of the new Russian czar, Nicholas II, in Vladivostok; then, at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution, she was sent to Murmansk in 1918 to show support for the White Russians. After the war, she did some "show the flag" cruising in the Mediterranean and environs.

In 1921, she completed her final mission: bringing home the body of the American Unknown Soldier from Le Havre, France, for burial in Arlington National Cemetery. On Memorial Day, 1921, The U.S. Army exhumed four unknown soldiers from four World War I American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sargeant Edward F. Younger, who had been wounded in combat, was highly decorated for valor, and had received the Distinguished Service Medal, selected the Unknown Soldier of World War I from four identical caskets at the city hall in Chalons-sur-Marne, France, on October 24, 1921. Sargeant Younger selected the unknown by placing a spray of white roses on one of the caskets. He chose the third casket from the left. The U.S. Army then transported the chosen unknown soldier to the United States aboard the USS Olympia.

From Warship to Tourist Attraction
Decommissioned in the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1922, the once super ship slipped into anonymity. In 1925 Washington politicians and American Legionnaires blocked Navy attempts to scrap or sell the vessel. Two proposals to make her a permanent shrine failed—one to embed her in concrete in the Potomac off the capital, and another to do the same in Washington State. In 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the ship’s permanent preservation. Twelve years later, Congress decided to dispose of all historic ships except the USS Constitution. When the Navy announced it sought some group willing to spend $650,000 to “restore and make a public memorial of the warship Olympia,” civic-minded citizens in Philadelphia put up the money to return her to 1898 form and add her to the city’s riverfront as a tourist attraction.

She has since been declared a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

On October 6, 1958, 13 months after the Navy transferred the ship’s title to the Cruiser Olympia Association, she arrived at a temporary anchorage along Philadelphia’s waterfront. That year, 88,000 paying visitors toured the ship. That figure dipped to 77,574 two years later as maintenance and program development costs mounted. The cruiser’s weather decks suffered from the elements, and rust became a problem along the ship’s waterline.

On New Year’s Day of 1996, the Independence Seaport Museum, itself in the midst of a $10 million renovation, took over the maintenance of the USS Olympia. Money was tight. Until then, the Olympia teetered between salvation and destruction.

But many efforts to maintain the ship have failed. In 2010, a local campaign to raise the $20 million to tow Olympia to dry dock and restore her hull fell far short of its goal.

Activating history
The primary goal of the Independence Seaport Museum is to get things on the ship in working order. As the effort grows to raise funds for the basic repairs to the ship, restoration of other spaces continues in order to increase interest and accessibility to her. Early projects included polishing up the officers’ quarters and recreating the brig, the ship’s jail.

The signal bridge on the top deck, where the ship communicated with the rest of the fleet before the advent of radio, has been restored. Signal flags were a form of coding that involved combinations of flags representing combinations of letters. The museum also plans to open up the engine room, which isn’t easily accessed through the tight spaces and ladders.

The Ship’s Interior
The ship’s wooden main deck, painted a glossy magenta, leads to well-maintained compartments for enlisted men, with worn mess tables and hammocks as they appeared a century ago. The Victorian appointments in the admiral’s and captain’s staterooms and quarters make them seem more like an English manor house with a piano, porcelain bathtubs, fine china cabinets, and oak paneling.

The oak-paneled officers' cabins and wardroom, aft on the berth deck, have been restored and maintained. These wooden bulkheads are all latched in place, so that they could be struck below in battle.

The quarters for the enlisted men feature the original mess table overhead, ditty box racks, hammock hooks, etc.

The admiral's and captain's cabins feature extensive built-in furniture including glass-fronted china cabinets. Period photographs show these loaded with silver tea services, trays, loving cups, etc. The original decor was reminiscent of a Victorian parlor.

In 2014 the museum began a series of interim steps to preserve the ship while efforts for a major refit could be determined. Of course, Mother Nature hasn’t helped matters in recent years. Both Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the extreme weather in the winter of 2013-2014 put added stress on the vessel. But the Olympia is a survivor. Long may her signal flags wave.

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