Sink the USS Olympia? She deserves a better fate

January 27, 2011 

If South Sound residents cannot find the money to refurbish the old warship USS Olympia and turn it into a local floating maritime museum, then best of luck to a band of former workers at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in the San Francisco Bay Area who want to save the historic vessel from the scrapyard.

The Olympia, the only surviving vessel from the Spanish-American War, has played a pivotal role in the maritime history of this nation. Its last mission in 1921 was to return the body of America’s World War I Unknown Soldier from France.

The Olympia is deteriorating badly at its berth in the Delaware River in Philadelphia as part of the Independence Seaport Museum. Officials there are searching for a new steward to step forward and rescue the ship, which is listed as a National Historic Landmark.

Unbelievably, if the USS Olympia is not rescued, the steel hulled ship will be sold for scrap or sunk. That would be a tragedy.

It’s probably too much to hope for, but it would be incredible if one of the many millionaires in this state wrote a check to have the Olympia refurbished and moved to its namesake capital city, where it could be the focal point of a spectacular maritime history museum on the Olympia waterfront. It has the potential to be an incredible tourist attraction.

In better financial times, the state might even pony up several million dollars seed money to move and refurbish the ship as an economic development tool.

But, sadly, in a state that is scrambling to fill a $4.6 billion budget shortfall, investing in the Olympia — as noble as it might be — is out of the question. That’s too bad because the capital city would be a perfect place for the USS Olympia, a ship with a noble lineage, starting with its launch in 1892. It was built at San Francisco’s Union Iron Works.

As stated in a recent story by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Edward Colimore, the Olympia was a state-of-the-art vessel when it led five other U.S. warships into Manila Bay in the Philippines on May 1, 1898. The Olympia 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 Dewey’s command, the U.S. fleet destroyed 10 Spanish cruisers and gunboats in a matter of just a few hours without losing a single American life. The Olympia spent World War I cruising the Atlantic Ocean.

It goes without saying that the Olympia has played an important role in the history of this nation. To think that she could be sold for scrap or turned into an artificial reef off Cape May, N.J. is simply heartbreaking.

Moored at the Independence Seaport Museum, the 244-foot-long ship has fallen on tough times. The museum has not been able to keep the Olympia in good working order. And Seaport Museum Chief Executive Officer John Gazzola said the museum is unable to raise at least $10 million needed to dredge a marina, drydock the ship and repair its hull and deck.

Next month, the Philadelphia museum will solicit bids from other organizations to acquire the Olympia.

The Mare Island Naval Shipyard Association in San Francisco aims to be among those responding. “It’s a beautiful ship, and it’s been let go,” said association president Ralph McComb.

It would be outstanding if some Washington resident or statewide organization stepped forward with a check and a plan to bring the Olympia to its namesake city. But short of that, we salute the effort of the Mare Island group to save the Olympia.

The worst possible ending to this maritime story would be the sinking of the USS Olympia — something the Spanish were unable to do to Commodore Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay.

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