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Help the Olympia

July 21, 2011

USS Olympia at low tide at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia (Photo courtesy Independence Seaport Museum)

One of the most important ships in U.S. history continues to founder at Penn’s Landing.

The Olympia Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation is collecting donations for the preservation of the ship, and the sum will be transferred if a qualified new owner is identified.  Walter Gallas, Director of the Northeast Field Office of the National Trust, recently posted an update on the ship’s condition, including the dramatic photograph above. (Interior images I took in the spring are below.)

Read his post here.

Olympia’s claim to fame is often reported as being the flagship of Commodore Dewey, the location where he uttered the words, “You may fire when  you are ready, Gridley,” and that it is the last ship surviving from the era of the Spanish-American War.

In my experience, most of that means nothing to anyone but Naval historians.

To me, Olympia is a marvelous steampunk relic of a bygone era, when sailing ships gave way to steam-powered vessels.  She has belt & suspenders engineering — sailing masts and the most powerful, state-of-the-art steam engines of her time.  The San Francisco yard that built her earned a monetary bonus because she was able to exceed the speed required by the specs.  She’s like something from the imagination of H.G. Wells, but instead of a giant squid trying to pull her to the bottom of the ocean, it’s simply rust and lack of funds.

Steampunk is Victorian science fiction in a nutshell. It is airships, submersibles and mad scientists with fantastical inventions in the era of steam technology. It is the romance and excitement of a period in history when people still believed in optimism, ornamentation and manners. — Steamcon III, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Olympia is a time capsule of Navy life, from its wood-paneled officer’s quarters to the hammocks hanging in the enlisted area.  Throughout the ship you’ll find beautiful little details from the period when manufacturing delighted in adding flourishes and making even an industrial object a thing of beauty.

She marks the time period when the United States was putting the Civil War behind it, rebuilding its Naval forces and looking out at new horizons.  Olympia’s decisive defeat of the Spanish navy in the Philippine’s Manila Bay was the keynote in the era when this country became a world power for the first time.

This ship has been rescued from destruction in the past — by a president, by schoolchildren, by Philadelphia’s steelworkers and fire fighters.

Will she be rescued again?

USS Olympia hull interior, Photo by Sabra Smith, click for "virtual tour" at Flickr or click slideshow in sidebar at right

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