06 September 2010

A landmark under assault

I saw an article on Yahoo about the sad state of the cruiser USS Olympia, moored in Philadelphia. For those of you not in the know, Olympia is an armored cruiser, built in 1892, and most known for being Admiral Dewey's flagship in the Pacific Squadron during the Spanish-American war of 1898. She was present at the Battle of Manila Bay, where the main body of the Spanish Pacific Fleet was destroyed, paving the way for the occupation of the Philippines and the American colonial 'empire'.

In addition, Olympia served in World War I. One of her final duties was bringing the body of the Unknown Soldier back to US soil in 1921 before her decommissioning in 1922. Since 1931, she has been preserved as a relic and museum ship. Olympia is the oldest steel-hulled warship still afloat-her closest contemporaries, the museum ships Mikasa in Japan and Avrora in Russia, are newer but still in that same turn-of-the-century era.

Olympia represents the period of rapid naval advancement from about 1890 to 1920, where sails were finally replaced by steam engines, iron hulls by steel plate, muzzle loading guns and ram bows by standard calibers of breech loaders, and firing over open sights by directed fire control. Electricity was used to run functions once powered by gangs of sailors. The newfangled 'wireless' would make control of individual ships by a central command possible and provide 'instant' communications. Olympia also sported the first mechanically powered water chiller (water fountain) used on a warship!

Since 1945, Olympia has been berthed in Philadelphia as a memorial vessel. She has not been drydocked for maintenance since then. Even a museum ship must enter drydock about every 20 years to have its hull checked, repaired where necessary, and cleaned and painted. The former and current management has not done this. It appears that they have only slapped paint on exposed surfaces over the years.

Now, Olympia has many places where sunlight can be seen through cracks and pitting in the hull plating, both topside and near the waterline. Years of painting isn't the same as regular scheduled maintenance. I think most groups don't realize how many man-hours are required to keep a ship, well, ship-shape. Modern ships can spend months in the dock for maintenance, and that's with an army of yard workers swarming over the ship. A group of volunteers who may not have all the mechanical skills, equipment, and time necessary to do maintenance probably just can't do the job or afford to have it done.

Olympia needs to be drydocked and probably have most of her bottom replaced-the 100-plus year old steel has about had it. The estimated cost of repairs is $10 million, and the non-profit currently operating the ship can't afford it. It seems to me that as the ship continues to corrode, it will become too dangerous for people to walk around on. Now the current managers are contemplating having Olympia towed to sea and sunk as an artificial reef. The funds simply aren't available from any source to refit the ship.

That seems a shame. This ship is a monument to the rise of American industrial and military power after the Civil War. It deserves to remain a museum ship. I understand that $10 million could take care of more than a few people in need. I also know that the government wastes a hell of a lot more than $10 million in the course of a fiscal year.

I think we need to examine what ships we should keep as museums. Obviously, there isn't enough revenue from any source to keep our fleet of museum ships (which is bigger than many of the world's battle fleets) in a good condition. We appear not to be able to afford them all.

There should be a list of criteria before approving transfer of Naval ships to non-profits, based on historical impact and/or importance to the naval arts. We don't need two dozen WWII-era fleet submarines and resources going to them when we have a unique example of an armored cruiser from the pre-Dreadnought era slowly rotting away.

I don't know what will happen to Olympia. But it seems to me like towing it to sea and disposing of it isn't quite right, either. It's like this country's declining and we can't afford to maintain the icons of our history any more. Maybe that's the case.

I reckon I'll be reading more in the future about the ship and its final disposition. If you want to see some pictures, go here.

yankeedog out.


  1. Considering the costs involved it seems better to take the ship off the water and continue the museum on land ... I suspect that possibility is long gone though.

  2. Its a good idea, to evaluate which ships to maintain, even if the ultimate decision in this case is not to save the Olympia at least it will be as part of a plan which will see some heritage kept.

  3. Bangar, Barnesy-Maybe an artificial berm around the ship, pump the water out, and work toward dry-berthing the Olympia. It'd cost a LOT but be better for the ship in the long run. I suppose one could build a 'hull' on land corresponding to Olympia's dimensions and put the ship's upperworks on that 'hull'. Also expensive.

  4. It's not quite 'disposing' of it to turn it into a dive attraction, I'd say. It's not ideal, but it would still be a tourist attraction for people (OK not everyone) to explore. As you say, finding a discretionary $10M to throw at the problem is an issue in the current economic climate.