Save our Ship: The USS Olympia

The United States possesses few pre-1900 vessels that served in the U.S. Navy. The oldest is the grand dame of the days of sail, the USS Constitution.

We have the sailing vessel USS Constellation. We still have the USS Olympia, but her future appears bleak.

The coal-burning steamer Olympia (C-6), is reported as the last of her kind still afloat in the world. She has called Philadelphia’s Independence Museum home since 1996. But the Olympia needs a new benefactor with deep pockets. Maintaining this early floating museum runs a reported $20 million annually. Officials (and other kill-joys) seem doubtful a sponsor will be found and are planning the ship’s demise. She could be sunk and made an artificial reef in New Jersey (we call this the Tony Soprano Option) or she could be scrapped. Oh, the indignity.

The Olympia first steamed out of San Francisco in 1892. She is very much like the vessels built in Philly at that time, which is how she ended up in the City of Brotherly Love.

In 1898 she made history as Commodore George Dewey’s flag ship in the Philippines. It was from her decks he gave his famous command, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley,” leading to the annihilation of the Spanish fleet. The Olympia also saw service in World War I and was decommissioned in 1922. She was taken in by various organizations before tying up to the Independence Museum.

In contrast to the small, outdated (and unwanted) warship, the Constitution still belongs to the U.S. Navy and calls Boston home. She was the first warship commissioned by the Navy and set sail in 1797. The Constellation, which dates to 1854, has been happy in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor for more than a decade.

But it may be the end of the road for the majestically named Olympia. While the cost may be staggering for a museum’s budget, it seems a shame for this iPad nation to kick another piece of history to the curb. Sure she has ties to the early days of U.S. (let’s call it) imperialism. But she was also a part of the United States world stage debut. Sounds worthy of rescue to us.

Taking on the Olympia is expensive and complex, but with the large sums squandered by the Navy each year, one would think it doable. The ship harkens to the early days of ships sans sail; a part of it is a part of the same Navy that today blows more than its share of budgets. The Olympia asks just $20 million a year.

Is not this underappreciated part of history worth saving?

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