Skip to comments.Historic warship Olympia may be scrapped, sunk
Posted on 05/27/2010 1:34:22 PM PDT by llevrok
Warship: Veteran of 2 wars rusts away
PHILADELPHIA - The old warship has been part of Philadelphia's waterfront for 50 years and left lasting impressions on thousands of visitors who heard gripping stories of its role in the Spanish-American War.
Now the Olympia named for Washington states capital and the last surviving vessel from that 1898 conflict could face an ignoble end as an artificial reef off Cape May, N.J., if a new benefactor cannot be found.
The Independence Seaport Museum and the Navy have already checked with officials of New Jerseys Artificial Reef Program on the possibility of sinking the ship, once a source of national pride.
Another option would be scrapping Olympia, said James McLean, interim president of the museum, which owns the ship and is adjacent to it at Penns Landing. But the Navy has told us that reefing is better because it would allow divers to go down on it and would preserve Olympia.
The museum can no longer afford the ships upkeep, McLean said. At least $20 million is needed to tow, restore, interpret and endow the deteriorating vessel.
We have a couple people were talking to who might take the ship, McLean said, but these things dont move with great speed.
The ship will be open until the end of September, then closed while its future is determined, McLean said.
This may be the last summer for people to visit, he said. They should come to see it while they can.
Another former Navy warship, the Arthur W. Radford, a 563-foot-long Spruance class destroyer, will be sunk by the fall to create a reef about 30 miles southeast of Cape May.
As for the Olympia, we recognize the historic significance of the ship, said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Its not our call. It was an inquiry. The DEP is not endorsing this.
Countless tons of vessels, military tanks, railroad cars and other materials have been reefed since the states Bureau of Marine Fisheries began the program in 1984. The purpose is to provide a habitat for marine life, fishing grounds, and points of interest for scuba divers.
Talk of making the Olympia part of New Jerseys reef network disappoints ship supporters such as Harry Burkhardt, a merchant marine captain and steam-engine expert who is a volunteer on the vessel.
Burkhardt is president of Friends of the Cruiser Olympia (www.fotco.org), which is trying to raise money for preservation of the ship. The group got its nonprofit status this month and has begun receiving pledges and interest from individuals and corporations, Burkhardt said.
We want to take over its ownership and operation, he said. We have a long list of ideas, but we have to save the ship to implement them.
Burkhardt, 53, of South Philadelphia, said he would turn the Olympia into a self-sustaining museum with a living-history crew and education programs for inner-city children.
I think whats happening is a total disgrace, he said. The Liberty Bell has a crack in it, but we dont melt it down. The Statue of Liberty turned green with corrosion, but we dont throw it away.
The Olympia was a symbol of Americas might and freedom, Burkhardt said. Now shes a symbol of negligence.
Concerned about the condition of the Olympia, the Navy sent a letter to the museum last May asking about plans to dry-dock the vessel for the necessary maintenance.
On the water line, small portions of the Olympias half-inch steel hull have corroded to an eighth of an inch and must be monitored continually. Water leaks through the deck into the interior, causing further rust.
We have cared for Olympia lovingly, McLean said. We have put $5.5 million into it and spend money on it every day.
The Olympia was authorized in 1888 and commissioned in 1895. The state-of-the-art vessel led five other U.S. warships into Manila Bay in the Philippines on May 1, 1898, and fired shots in a battle to wrest control of that country from the Spanish.
Navy Commodore George Dewey stood on the bridge of the ship and uttered the famous words: You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.
Under Deweys command, the U.S. fleet destroyed 10 Spanish cruisers and gunboats in hours without losing an American life.
The Olympia spent World War I in the Atlantic Ocean, and brought remains of the Unknown Soldier home from France in 1921.
It was docked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard from 1922 to 1959, and was on display at Pier 11 at the Benjamin Franklin Bridge through the 1960s until 1976, when it was moved to Penns Landing. Today, the vessel is the worlds oldest floating steel warship.
The Navy has been in discussions with the museum to come up with a disposition plan if they can no longer operate it, said Patricia Dolan, a Navy spokeswoman. Any plan for disposal of the vessel scrapping or reefing will have to be approved by the Navy.
The thought of scuttling the naval time capsule filled with paintings, photos and artifacts has raised the ire of historians.
It will be a national disgrace and major embarrassment for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania if Olympia is disposed of by scrapping or being sunk off the coast of New Jersey, said naval historian Lawrence Burr, who has produced documentaries and written four books, including U.S. Cruisers 1883-1904: The Birth of the Steel Navy.
Neither the Spanish navy in 1898 nor the German navy in 1917-18 was able to sink Olympia, he said. It will be ironic if the state of New Jersey is able to sink this unique historic warship that has been in the care of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania for over 50 years, and who have benefited from its role as a tourist attraction. ...
If sunk, she will only be seen by a small elite who are able to dive, with the risk that she will be plundered for souvenirs, he said.
Also expressing disappointment was the nonprofit Theodore Roosevelt Association in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Congress chartered the group in 1920 to perpetuate the legacy of Roosevelt, who was assistant secretary of the Navy before the Spanish-American War and ordered the Olympia furnished with extra coal so it could be sent to the Philippines. Roosevelt resigned from his office and served as a colonel in the Rough Riders during the invasion of Cuba.
The possible sinking of the Olympia is an outrage, said Howard Ehrlich, executive director of the association. You would think veterans groups would get together and lobby the Navy to save the ship.
Even sinking the 5,600-ton ship would be costly. Because of the ships 211/2-foot draft, the basin where it is berthed would have to be dredged so the vessel could be moved to dry dock. There, it would be structurally reinforced so it could be safely towed down the Delaware River to the reef location.
No decision has been made, McLean said. This is not what we want to do. In these tough economic times, everybody is forced to make tough decisions.
That would be a tragedy but these ship museums never are profitable enough to maintain a ship.
I think the only other ship like her in the world is the Mikasa from the Russo-Japanese war. Disgrace if she becomes a reef.
I visited the Olympia about 20 years ago. They had Dewey’s footprints marked on the bridge where he gave the “You may fire when ready” order.
It would be a shame to sink her. She is the last example of her kind of ship; a late “ironclad” with no sail, yet before the age of the dreadnought. To my knowledge, there are no other post-sail pre-dreadnought ships still afloat.
Good grief, some things are worth saving regardless. Surely the maintenance of this great ship wouldn’t cost a fraction of what this man has given away to non-producers just this year alone.
WA state ping
I stand corrected. I did not know Mikasa was still afloat; I would have expected her to have not survived WW2.
Love the shape of the bow. Not at all sure why they did that, but it wuz apparently the style of the time.
Somehow the Mikasa did survive US bombings. Based on the Wikipedia entry, Nimitz lead the effort to rehabiliate and preserve her.
It would indeed.
Years ago, "You may fire when ready, Gridley" was a familiar phrase.
How many people today have even heard of George Dewey?
I think that's her stern. Pin tail. Perhaps it had to do with available manufacturing methods available then - or just a cool design thing.
It’s what happened to the Oregon.
Congresspukes find millions of dollars for their useless pork earmarks, like a Tea Pot museum, yet not one dime for something this important historically.
Uh, see #14. Did you build WWI ships as a kid?
I suppose it’s totally unfeasible to move it to Olympia, WA... that would be cool (and it’s my old home town).
Mikasa is the last pre-dreadnought Battleship, USS Texas is the last dreadnought battleship, and Olympia is the last cruiser from that era. I think the USS Salem in Quincy, MA is the last big gun cruiser anywhere.
Will Obama come and dedicate the symbol of America’s Navy as a reef?