A couple of weeks back I mentioned the sad story of the USS Olympia. As the ship is due to close in November, I wanted to get a tour in before the summer ran out. After all this is the last surviving warship from the Spanish-American War. A Saturday morning drive to Philadelphia allowed me to miss most of the traffic normally encountered downtown. The Olympia is a part of the Independence Seaport Museum, along with the World War II submarine USS Becuna (SS-319).
While certainly small compared to the massive World War II battleship across the river, the Olympia is pretty impressive. The white, tan, and red paint exterior paint scheme matches that used during the ship’s early service career. Certainly different from the hazy gray paint schemes of more modern warships. And the interior stands in even sharper contrast.
Widespread use of wood recalls an earlier time when the ships were not only military vessels, but status symbols for a nation. Every part of the Flag Officer’s and adjacent Captain’s Cabins were configured to impress visitors. Of course the enlisted men’s accommodations were a bit more spartan.
Below the Hammocks, angled up from the floor, is the cover for one of several coal chute. A reminder of the Olympia‘s coal fired triple expansion engines.
Unfortunately because of needed repairs, the propulsion system, considered an engineering landmark, cannot be examined up close. And another “first” – the Olympia also offered the Navy’s first mechanically chilled “scuttlebutt.”
Tradition holds that sailors spent a lot of time chit-chatting around the scuttlebutt.
Brass fixtures such this are all around the main deck of the Olympia. The magazine flood valves serve to remind that despite the wood-work, this ship was meant to go in harm’s way.
The Olympia boasted four eight-inch guns, arranged in pairs in two turrets. The squat cylindrical profile is reminiscent of those used on Civil War monitors. But these were steam-powered, for faster handling in action.
Below the main turret is a 6-pdr gun, one of such fourteen rapid fire guns arming the ship. These guns defended against attacks by light craft, particularly torpedo boats. The 6-pdr was mounted on a pedestal mount.
Between the 8-inch main guns and the 6-pdrs were ten 5-inch guns mounted in broadside casemates along the main deck.
This gun position is in the flag officer’s cabin. In service it was probably among the cleanest in the Navy because of its proximity to the brass. The 5-inch Mark 2 guns formed the secondary armament for the cruiser, and were the first rapid-fire guns in this caliber made for the Navy – rated at twelve rounds per minute.
The interrupted screw, partly responsible for the higher rate of fire, was just one of many innovations between the 1860s and 1890s which revolutionized naval warfare. And the Olympia offers such examples at practically every turn.
The Olympia presents a window to look back over a century at not only military and technical history, but also the story of sailors in those days of steam. The ship represents a time of great victories, that put the names Dewey and Gridley on the lips of people all across America.
Sadly, unless something dramatic happens in the next few months, the ship is destined to become history itself – perhaps scrapped or sunk in an artificial reef. Hopefully the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia will have something to say about the fate of the ship.