(Since posting this, I’ve toured and published photos of the USS Olympia.)
Naval battles are always tricky to understand and interpret. Unless you have some superpowers, one cannot “walk the ground” of a naval battlefield. As such, the study of naval weapon systems takes added importance. To understand the differences and similarities between the battles Farragut and Halsey fought, the hardware used becomes an important primary source. Often the only physical connection we have to those battles is a preserved ship or aircraft.
That is the case with the Spanish-American War. Only one ship has survived the years to remind and educate us on those naval battles, the first major fleet actions for the U.S. Navy after the Civil War. The USS Olympia, flagship for the Asiatic Fleet, is today a museum ship in Philadelphia. We can debate the repercussions of American colonial expansion in the Philippines. But at least we can stand on board the Olympia and consider those repercussions from the spot where Admiral George Dewey put things in motion.
The Olympia serves as a wonderful educational tool exhibiting the changes in Naval technology. Perhaps on the outside the cylindrical turrets look like those from the USS Monitor, but a look inside at the guns, the machinery, and ammunition storage offers a different perspective. The Olympia‘s torpedoes were not suspended from the end of a wooden spar, but instead were fired from that “bulge” on the bow. And how thick was that armor? Just a few of the finer points that are difficult to understand without looking at the artifact in real life. (And consider photo 6 at the bottom of this marker entry, showing the contrast between World War II-era USS New Jersey across the river from the Olympia)
And the Olympia is not just a single dimensional artifact. Consider the men who manned the cruiser during the Spanish-American War. Until the first decade of the 20th-Century, African-Americans were not restricted to selected ratings, making the Navy integrated to some degree. Thus the Olympia is a place to discuss a time when “Jim Crow” was left in port. There is more than just military history in the story of this ship.
Earlier this year when I heard the USS Olympia was in dire need of preservation, I was concerned, but figured someone would step forward to save the ship. Press releases indicated the ship required somewhere between $25 and $30 million in order to complete needed repairs, fix berthing arrangements, and stabilize the ship. More money than the Independence Seaport Museum, which currently maintains the ship, can afford. Problem is the Museum has seen a loss of revenue, and perhaps a bit of mismanagement, over the last decade. (Actually, mismanagement is probably going easy – the former museum director was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for getting what he called “my fair share.”)
Thus far, private efforts, particularly the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia, have stepped forward, but no financial solutions are set. As things stand today, the Olympia will close for good in November this year. Options to either scrap the ship or sink her as an artificial reef have been discussed. Either option would be a tragic loss of a historical artifact. A loss we could prevent.
While I shall hope for the best, I’m going to plan a trip to see the ship before she closes for the season this fall. Hopefully in years to come, my son won’t have to put on a scuba tank to make a second visit.