For those unfamiliar, the Olympia is docked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (actually opposite the USS New Jersey on the Delaware River), and is the featured exhibit of the Independence Seaport Museum. However the ship is in bad shape physically, although from the photo above she seems presentable. The lower internal spaces and external sections below the waterline need maintenance. The Olympia is over 100 years old, so what do you expect?
The cost? I’ve seen estimates ranging up from $20 million.
The back story is that over the last decade, the museum’s maintenance budget shrank, partly due to reduced revenue from tourism. Some in Philly have argued the lack of focus by the community on the water front is the blame there. But some of the problem is lamentably a horrible example of corruption. An opinion piece on the US Naval Institute site last year summed it up well:
As the Olympia sat deprived of basic maintenance, the Independence Seaport Museum’s chief, John S. Carter, enjoyed perks far above compensation provided at peer institutions. In 2004, his salary exceeded $350,000, and he lived rent-free in a $1.7 million executive mansion bought, maintained, remodeled, and even furnished with museum funds, according to news reports.
Carter received a 15-year prison sentence in 2007, removing him from the situation. But the Olympia remained in peril. Last year, the Museum announced plans to close the ship for good in November. Some suggested the ship would eventually become an artificial reef or simply go to the scrapyard. Those plans remain on hold. The Olympia remains open, at least until the spring of this year. I’m told that a board meeting in March will lay out future plans for the ship.
Currently two groups, outside the museum, have stepped forward to offer preservation options for the ship. The Friends of the Cruiser Olympia have a long-range plan to acquire the ship and, following refurbishment, continue to display it on the Philadelphia waterfront. Last month another group, the Mare Island Navy Yard Association, in Vallejo, California proposed returning the Olympia to the place she was built.
Setting aside the logistical questions about a trip through the Panama Canal, the important component for the ship’s future should be preservation. The Olympia is a national treasure. Historian Dr. Benjamin F. Cooling called her “Herald of Empire” and an icon of the American century (you might pick up his book detailing the history of the ship if you are interested in this subject).
She is the last surviving warship of her time. Admiral George Dewey led the US fleet into Manila Bay from the decks of the Olympia. Aside from action in the Spanish-American War, the Olympia saw service in World War I (and brought home the remains of the unknown soldier from that war now buried at Arlington). Her machinery and armament are engineering landmarks of which few similar examples exist today.
And there is also the story of the sailors who served on board the Olympia. The ship serves as a three-dimensional artifact for us to connected back to their times. And don’t get the idea the Olympia’s tale is all bosun’s whistles and cannon blasts. Photographs of the ship’s complement in her early years show a mixed crew. A reminder that the navy was un-segregated well before it was segregated, and then later de-segregated. There’s a story there aching to be told.
I submit that $20 million is a cheap price to pay in order to preserve such an artifact for later generations. These days we talk of billion dollar TARP bills. There are a score of Defense projects who’s comptrollers would consider $20 million a small deviation from baseline projections on their assigned projects. I think we can afford to spend that amount for the preservation of the USS Olympia.