Long before the nuclear submarine USS Olympia was launched in 1983, there was another Navy vessel named after the state’s capital.
Would the original USS Olympia be a less controversial presence in Olympia than the nuclear-powered attack submarine has been in recent years?
Probably. But I doubt we’ll ever know the answer to that question: It would take a financial and maritime miracle for the old USS Olympia to pay a temporary or permanent visit here.
Built at Mare Island in San Francisco, the original USS Olympia, a nearly 6,000-ton steel warship powered by coal, and the first Navy vessel to have an on-board refrigeration system, set sail in 1895 for the Far East with a crew of more than 400.
The flagship of the Navy’s Asiatic Squadron, the USS Olympia played a pivotal role in the Spanish-American War.
It was from the bridge of the ship that Commodore George Dewey issued the immortal phrase: “You may fire when ready, Gridley.” With those words to ship’s Capt. Charles V. Gridley, the battle in the Philippines’ Manila Bay began – and soon ended with the destruction of Spain’s naval fleet in the Far East.
Naval historians herald this battle as the beginning of a new era in American history, catapulting the United States into the aggressive, imperial world of global politics and power.
Heady stuff for a vessel simply known while under construction as “Cruiser Number 6,” but soon named after the capital of the new state of Washington.
After serving in World War I, the USS Olympia was decommissioned for the last time in 1922, but not before one memorable assignment. In October 1921, she embarked on her final Atlantic crossing from Le Havre, France, returning the remains of the American Unknown Soldier for burial in the Arlington National Cemetery.
Today, the former USS Olympia still is afloat, the oldest steel warship of its kind. It’s docked in the Delaware River at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia.
The Cruiser Olympia is a National Historic Landmark and part of the Save America’s Treasures program. It’s one of only 47 historic Navy vessels set aside for special designation in the country, said Lori Dillard Rech, president of the Independence Seaport Museum.
However, the old USS Olympia, which many say is the single most significant historic Naval vessel in existence, is in tough shape. Despite $5 million worth of restoration work since 1996, water leaks through the ships rotting hull and deck. The necessary repairs to restore and stabilize the ship are pegged at about $13 million, Rech said.
“The ship hasn’t been in dry dock since 1945,” Rech said. “It needs a lot of work.”
The ship hosts some 45,000 visitors a year, but the bridge deck and pilot house are closed to the public during inclement weather.
Rech said seaport museum officials are looking at options for the ship, including a major fundraising drive to restore it. But the ship’s future is uncertain at best.
The USS Olympia never visited Olympia. The closest port of calls were Bremerton and Astoria, Ore.
“It would be nice to have the ship here in Olympia; there’s a special connection,” said Chuck Fowler, an Olympia-based maritime-history buff.
But in the same breath, Fowler said it isn’t going to happen.
“It’s not economically feasible,” he said. “The towing costs alone would be formidable.”
It’s traditional for cities and states to provide their namesake Navy ships with a silver service. Apparently, the residents of Washington and Olympia didn’t come through with the goods until after the USS Olympia and its crew returned to a hero’s welcome in New York in 1899, and a New York Times reporter noted that the ship was lacking a silver service.
When the ship was decommissioned, the silver service was returned to Olympia. The 27-piece set is on display in the Governor’s Mansion formal dining room, minus one piece that then-Gov. John Spellman gave to the captain of today’s USS Olympia during one of the submarine’s visits here years ago, said Kathy Garrett, a trustee of the Governor’s Mansion Foundation.
Also on display in the public area of the mansion is a model replica of the original USS Olympia.
Anyone interested in seeing the ship model or the silver service setting can arrange for a tour of the mansion most Wednesdays by calling 360-902-8880.
Anyone interested in more information about the venerable warship and efforts to restore it should go to www.phillyseaport.org.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444