The Olympia may be headed to a watery grave

Posted: August 22, 2010

A few months ago, one of our nation's most famous landmarks was deteriorating badly. Independence Hall had a roof leak and needed numerous expensive repairs. The city's historical commission met in April with the National Park Service to determine a course of action and on June 9, the park service announced that $4.4 million would be provided for a restoration of Independence Hall. The funding came from the stimulus bill.

A few short blocks from Independence Hall there is another icon of American history in desperate need of restoration.

The USS Olympia is moored at Penn's Landing on the Delaware River and is one of several historic vessels at the Independence Seaport Museum. The ship gained its place in history serving as Commodore George Dewey's flagship in the Battle of Manila Bay in the opening days of the Spanish-American War. It was from the deck of the Olympia that Dewey uttered those famous words "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley." With these words, the attack on the Spanish fleet was launched and, within six hours, Dewey's Asiatic Squadron had sunk or captured the entire Spanish Pacific fleet and silenced the guns on shore in Manila.

America's victory in the Spanish-American War was an important event in U.S. history, marking the beginning of the nation's emergence as a world power.

The Olympia saw additional service in the years after the Spanish-American War and had the honor of bringing home the remains of the "Unknown Soldier" from World War I in 1921. It was decommissioned Dec. 9, 1922, and was preserved by the Navy until 1957, when the ship was released to the Cruiser Olympia Association and became a museum open to the public in Philadelphia.

In the years since, the city and private organizations have funded the Olympia's maintenance and its operation as a museum, but now the ship is in need of substantial restoration. The Olympia has been in the water continuously since 1945, and the hull has rusted to the point where the ship is in danger of sinking.

The current owner, the Independence Seaport Museum, can no longer afford the upkeep on the ship, and it is scheduled to close in a few months. The plan now being discussed with the Navy is to close the ship Nov. 22 and remove it, towing the vessel either to a scrap yard or out into the Atlantic Ocean to be sunk as part of a barrier reef off the coast of Cape May.

Yes, incredible as it may seem, that is the fate being contemplated for the Olympia, the oldest steel-hulled warship afloat and the only naval vessel from the Spanish-American War still in existence.

Why is the Olympia worth investing $20 million to $30 million in private or taxpayer funds? Because preserving this nation's history is important to future generations.

The Olympia is not just a historic warship. It was an engineering marvel for its time. It was one of the first naval combatants to have electricity and a powered-steering gear. The cruiser was part of a program of ships for the "New Navy" of the 1880s and 1890s, designed to correct the deficiencies of a weakened and neglected naval force. Its innovative design included high-speed engines (Olympia was said to be the second-fastest ship in the world at 22 knots), modern armament, and armor shielding that protected the engines and the magazines.

When the Olympia was in danger of heading to the scrap heap in 1996, the Independence Seaport Museum stepped up and accepted responsibility for the ship. However, the museum can no longer maintain it. Now, the U.S. public needs to stand up, the same way it stood up for Independence Hall.

For the last six months, former U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon and others have been putting together a plan to secure funding for a restoration of the Olympia and its possible relocation. The Independence Seaport Museum has had the ship's hull surveyed and repair plans have been drawn. The dredging necessary to remove this delicate structure from Penn's Landing could start soon after the funding is identified.

I believe the Obama administration should dedicate stimulus funding for the Olympia's restoration. This is the kind of "shovel ready" project that could be launched in a matter of weeks. Funding this project would not only preserve a National Historic Landmark but would also create much-needed employment in the region.

Like Independence Hall, the USS Olympia deserves to be restored and maintained, and this is certainly a legitimate role for the federal government.

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