NTHP Establishes Save Olymipa Fund

Today the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) announced the creation of a fund “to support the long term repair and restoration of the USS Olympia.”  As the ship’s long term disposition is still in the air, the NTHP plans to hold any funds collected for distribution “to the new receiving organization once a new steward of the Olympia is confirmed (or if necessary, used for emergency repairs).

Let me catch up on the status of the USS Olympia.  Since my last update, the current owner, the Independence Seaport Museum (ISM), announced the availability of the ship and was soliciting qualified applicants.  The museum hosted a summit on March 30-31 with several distinguished speakers (including my friend Dr. B.F. Cooling).  At the end of the summit, ISM along with the National Park Service, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, and the US Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) provided an overview of the Transfer Application Process (TAPP).   (Note  NAVSEA overseas the disposition of the ship under the Navy Inactive Ships Program.)

The TAPP will proceed through three application and review phases.  The first application period runs through September 2011.  The final review concludes in December 2012.  This lengthy process ensures any potential “home port” will meet the requirements to keep the ship maintained, offer a suitable public presentation, provide administrative support, and address other specific requirements.  In short…. a long review process but that is what is required, mandated, and of course necessary for these dispositions.

And this is not to say the ship WILL be preserved.  If by December 2012, no “home” is approved, then the Olympia may still become a reef or be scrapped.

I’ve seen short lists of potential candidates, but I don’t think any official list has emerged.  What I do find promising is the involvement of many organizations across the board.  Although there are a few voices which are noticeably absent in the dialog.

Let’s see if we can avoid this:

She’s a proud ship with a proud history… and a rare artifact of our past.

And deserves a better fate than the scrapyard.

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I’m glad to hear the NTHP is working to ensure that does not happen.


USS Olympia News – An East Coast Home?

An interesting update on the USS Olympia:

Vallejo Group Plans to Bid for USS Olympia

A Vallejo group wants to bring a historic, 19th century naval vessel to the San Francisco Bay area.

The Navy Yard Association — a group of former naval shipyard workers on Mare Island — plans to apply for the USS Olympia when bidding for the ship is opened in February.

The 244-foot-long ship, launched in 1892, is currently moored on the Delaware River in Philadelphia and is part of the Independence Seaport Museum.

But museum officials tell the Vallejo Times-Herald they are unable to raise the millions of dollars needed to dry dock it and repair its hull and deck. So they plan to seek a new steward for the ship.

The USS Olympia is the only surviving steel warship of its era. It served in the 1898 Spanish-American War, where it was Commodore George Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay.

Another article at Suite101, from Christopher Eger (a “recovering gun nut” – I like this guy already!) provides more details and a link the USS Olympia page on the Mare Island Navy Yard Association’s website.  The Association mentions three potential sites for the USS Olympia, two of which are dry docks with historic significance.  Their strategic plans include, of course, a review of options to move the ship from the east coast to the west.

In fairness I would point out the direction proposed by the Mare Island Navy Yard Association is at odds with the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia.  While both groups have preservation of the ship in mind, the Friends wish to keep the cruiser in Philadelphia.

Personally, I would first like to see the ship preserved first and foremost.  Although I have questions about how the ship might be moved to California, putting the ship back at the place it was built sounds like a good idea.  And at the same time, retaining the ship at Philadelphia avoids a dangerous ocean transit and also for a contrast with the USS New Jersey across the river.

Although scheduled to close last November, the Olympia will remain open for visitors, at least on a reduced schedule, into 2011.  For those who cannot visit this treasure, I posted a short “tour” last year.

USS Olympia Tour

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).

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USS Olympia and USS Becuna

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.

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Flag Officer's Cabin

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.

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Hammocks and Mess Area on Main Deck

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.

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Olympia's "Landmark" 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.”

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Olympia's Scuttlebutt

Tradition holds that sailors spent a lot of time chit-chatting around the scuttlebutt.

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Magazine Flood Valve

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.

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Main Forward Turret

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.

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6-pdr Gun

Between the 8-inch main guns and the 6-pdrs were ten 5-inch guns mounted in broadside casemates along the main deck.

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5-inch Gun

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.

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Breech of 5-inch Gun - Interrupted Screw

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.

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USS Olympia

(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.

USS Olympia (C-6), July 1895 (Naval Historical Center)

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.

USS Olympia (Wikipedia Commons)

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.

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