Kevin Smith stood in the port-side main-deck compartment, opening valves on a bulkhead control manifold. Equipment roared to life, pistons rising and falling on a rotating crankshaft as a chain hoist unspooled overhead to lower an ash canister through a pipe deep into the bowels of the USS Olympia. More than 100 years ago, this hoist in the world’s oldest steel-hulled warship still afloat carried spent ash from coal used to power the vessel to the main deck for disposal overboard. “The ash hoist still works just as designed,” beamed Smith, the historic cruiser’s education and restoration specialist. “I’d say the Olympia is mostly in decent shape.”
Still, he and John Brady, president and CEO of Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, say much work remains to keep the cruiser shipshape as a tourist attraction in the Penn’s Landing Marina on the Delaware River. After 124 years afloat, the former flagship of Commodore George Dewey outwardly looks great as the last vestige of the American “Steel Navy.” She’s the embodiment of an era that witnessed the U.S. Navy’s rebirth, rise in popularity, and arrival on the world stage. The exterior of the 5,500-ton, 344-foot cruiser attracts attention with a brilliant white hull, red-striped waterline, buff-colored topside, and knife-like bow for ramming enemy craft. The interior likewise is exquisite. The ship’s wooden main deck is painted a glossy magenta amid well-maintained compartments for enlisted men, with worn mess tables and hammocks as they appeared a century ago. The Victorian appointments in the admiral’s and captain’s staterooms and quarters make them seem more like an English manor house with a piano, porcelain bathtubs, fine china cabinets, and oak paneling.
Necessary maintenance continues. Crews use a mobile cofferdam lowered over the side to create watertight seals over corroded hull plates just below the waterline so they can be repaired, then layered with epoxy and paint to ensure viability. “How long the repairs will last is unknown. A year? Maybe permanently,” conjectured Brady. “It’s really an experiment. Historic-ships organizations are watching us closely to see if it works. If so, it would be a breakthrough.” Beyond the hull work, topside leaks have been plugged.
The ultimate goal is to dry-dock the vessel for a long-overdue $15 million rehab that will include repairs to her leaky keel. “In my mind’s eye, that will occur in the next few years and by 2021 the Olympia will be back at her mooring as a centerpiece of Penn’s Landing,” said Brady.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a ship that six years ago faced being sunk off New Jersey to become an artificial reef. What a loss that would have been for a one-of-a-kind ship that heralded the arrival of the United States as a world power in 1898.
‘Hot Rod’ of the Navy
The Olympia (C-6) came down the ways at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco on 5 November 1892, eight years after the U.S. Navy’s first ships with steel, not iron, hulls had been launched. A protected cruiser, with an armored deck that sloped down to the waterline to shield machinery and interior compartments, she was among a group of fast, big, and powerful warships that gave the fledgling Steel Navy an offensive capability.
Named for the capital of the new state of Washington, the Olympia was commissioned in 1895 and fitted out at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. British experts questioned the engineering and armament that went into the cruiser, noting it was excessive for her size. She had full gun turrets forward and aft that could rotate 137 degrees. Twin 8-inch Mark III guns protruded in each. Additionally, she bristled with 10 5-inch Mark II guns, 14 6-pounders, 6 1-pounders, 2 Colt machine guns, and 6 18-inch Whitehead above-surface torpedo tubes. The Olympia was an awesome combatant.
What also distinguished the ship were her vertical reciprocating engines, refrigeration system, and hydraulic steering—major technical achievements. At 10 knots, she could steam more than 6,000 nautical miles without refueling. But she also was a racehorse, capable of 22 knots and a noncertified record of 26. That speed was an advantage for a flagship. The Olympia, in a word, was the “hot rod” of her time, said Smith.
It’s clear at a glance the warship marked the transition between sail and steam. Two large stacks denoted her as a modern, coal-burning vessel. But she also had two masts with crow’s nests and spars. Occasionally sails were deployed to save coal or keep the ship on course in heavy weather. Also, signal flags were hung from the masts and lookouts high in them could spot distant ships.
The Olympia sailed from San Francisco on 25 August 1895 to become flagship of the Asiatic Squadron safeguarding American interests in the Orient. On board were 33 officers and 378 enlisted men under the command of Captain John J. Read. For three years, the squadron visited ports in Japan, China, and the Philippines without incident. That changed shortly after the arrival of Dewey as squadron commander on 3 January 1898 and Captain Charles V. Gridley relieving Read in command of the Olympia.
A month later and half a world away, an explosion destroyed the U.S. battleship Maine in Cuba’s Havana Harbor. The loss of 266 of the ship’s 355 sailors precipitated a U.S. declaration of war against Spain in April. As forces mobilized to seize Cuba, the Navy sent terse orders to Dewey in Hong Kong: “Proceed at once to Manila; engage and destroy the Spanish fleet, when and where you find them.” The squadron steamed for the Philippines on 27 April, the Olympia leading an evenly spaced column of the cruisers Baltimore, Boston, and Raleigh; the gunboats Concord and Petrel; the revenue cutter Hugh McCulloch; and the coal transports Nanshan and Zafiro.
Earning Immortal Glory
At dawn on 1 May, the ships approached Manila at 8 knots. Shore artillery tried to ward off Dewey’s formidable battle line passing as if in parade along the waterfront. The commodore held return fire as he searched for the Spanish fleet. The Olympia located it—two cruisers and five gunboats—at rest in a small harbor behind the Cavite naval base. As the American ships came into view, defenders fired. Still Dewey did not counterattack. “Our hearts threatened to burst from desire to respond,” said one Olympia gunner. “I sat upon the gun-seat repeating to the rhythm of the engine’s throb, ‘Hold your fire . . . hold your fire . . . hold your fire until the bugle sounds,’ while my fingers grew numb upon the spark.”
From the bridge, Dewey directed the squadron’s approach while Gridley awaited orders in the armored conning tower. Closing to 5,500 yards, the commodore barked out his immortal order: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”
It was 0535. The Olympia’s starboard 8-inch gun in the forward turret initiated the Battle of Manila Bay. The squadron passed down the line of Spanish ships three times, narrowing the range to 2,000 yards while blasting away with intense salvoes. Spanish Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón’s antiquated ships were no match. His torpedo boats attacked but were turned back. The admiral brought his flagship Reina Christina into the fray. Though Spanish gunners were able to land one ineffective shot against the steel hull of the Olympia, the blistering pace of return fire resulted in a rout. Montojo retreated, his ship ablaze and doomed.
By noon, enemy action ceased. Montojo surrendered at 1215, his ships “sunk, burnt and destroyed,” according to Dewey. The toll on the Spaniards was grievous: 161 dead, 210 wounded. For the Americans, only nine were injured, none in the Olympia. When word drifted back to the United States, Dewey and his “Queen of the Pacific” flagship became celebrities. Newspapers proclaimed a “new era of American dominance of the sea.” President William McKinley praised Dewey’s “brilliant achievements.” The fruit of the American victory in the Spanish-American War was acquiring the Philippines, Cuba (which became a U.S. protectorate), Puerto Rico, Guam, Wake Island, and Hawaii.
Over the next decade, the Olympia patrolled the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mediterranean and for a time was a U.S. Naval Academy training vessel. During World War I,she escorted Atlantic convoys, and participated in Allied landings at Murmansk during the Russian Civil War in 1918 (see “Bluejackets vs. Bolsheviks”). In July 1921, she took part in experiments to prove the value of air power in which Army Brigadier General Billy Mitchell sank the captured German battleships Frankfurt and Ostfriesland off the Virginia coast. Four months later, the Olympia completed her final mission: bringing home the body of the American Unknown Soldier from France for burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Fight to Save the Olympia
Decommissioned as the IX-40 in the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1922, the famous cruiser slipped into anonymity. In 1925 Washington politicians and American Legionnaires blocked Navy attempts to scrap or sell the vessel. Two proposals to make her a permanent shrine failed: one to embed her in concrete in the Potomac off the capital, and another to do the same in Washington State. In 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the ship’s permanent preservation. A dozen years later, however, Congress decided to dispose of all historic ships except the USS Constitution. When the Navy announced it sought some group willing to spend $650,000 to “restore and make a public memorial of the warship Olympia,” civic-minded citizens in Philadelphia put up the money to return her to 1898 form and add her to the city’s riverfront as a tourist attraction. The Philadelphia Inquirer headlined, “No scrap heap for the historic cruiser Olympia.”
On 6 October 1958, 13 months after the Navy transferred the ship’s title to the Cruiser Olympia Association, she arrived at a temporary anchorage near Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Bridge. That year, 88,000 paying visitors toured the ship; the figure dipped to 77,574 two years later as maintenance and program development costs mounted. The cruiser’s weather decks suffered from the elements, and rust became a problem along the ship’s waterline.
In 1996 the cash-strapped association transferred ownership to the Independence Seaport Museum. By then, she was on a balance beam between salvation and destruction. It didn’t help that a $1.5 million embezzlement scandal rocked the museum in 2007. The cruiser’s deteriorating condition required a preservation summit in 2011 under newly appointed museum president and CEO Brady. It was costing $300,000 a year to keep the Olympia open. Furthermore, the museum was responsible for upkeep of the USS Becuna (SS-319), a World War II submarine moored alongside the Olympia. The summit concluded that another city might be better positioned to steward the cruiser. Bids arrived from a half-dozen states including California and South Carolina. Ultimately, all were rejected.
Fortunately, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other groups anted up $600,000 for the Olympia’s upkeep. Another $50,000 came in for the Becuna. The museum meanwhile recommitted to restoring the cruiser as a centerpiece of a revitalized riverfront that includes a skating rink, parks, restaurants, and the indoor portion of the Seaport Museum, where work recently was completed on a full-scale Chesapeake Bay schooner that’s now on display. Curators are working on making the Olympia an interactive experience—that is, enabling visitors to witness the ship’s internal mechanisms come to life.
Meanwhile, the higher goal is coming up with $15 million to dry dock and completely rehab the vessel. To that end, the museum recently established the Flagship Olympia Foundation. Donations are trickling in, and a national campaign is being formulated. The hope is that corporations that built the Olympia—including Bethlehem Steel, Phipps and Company, Carnegie, and Union Iron Works—will contribute. Federal grants and public donations are being sought as well.
Brady remains confident. He and others view the Olympia as second only to the Constitution as a nautical treasure. From the main deck of the cruiser, Brady glowed. As he put it, the Olympia vividly retells the story of life on board a glory-bound U.S. Navy warship of the late 19th century—from the admiral, commodore, and captain on down. Smiling broadly, he put it this way: “I like to say this is the maritime Downton Abbey for boys.”
Benjamin Franklin Cooling, USS Olympia: Herald of Empire (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000).
LCDR Thomas J. Cutler, USN (Ret.), “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” Naval History, February 2011, 33–37.
LCDR Thomas J. Cutler, USN (Ret.), “Keep Floating Museums Afloat,” Naval History, August 2011, 52–57.
Joann Loviglio, “USS Olympia, one-of-a-kind steel cruiser, battles for survival,” Associated Press, as published by The Christian Science Monitor, 7 September 2010.
More Information . . .
about the USS Olympia and the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia is available at www.phillyseaport.org/Olympia.