USS Olympia: A Warship from the 1890s is Still Afloat

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December 22, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: U.S. NavySpanish-American WarUSS OlympiaWarshipsAmerican History

USS Olympia: A Warship from the 1890s is Still Afloat

It was from Olympia’s bridge that Dewey made his famous command to the ship’s captain, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”

With Montojo’s fleet sunk or burning, Dewey anchored his squadron in the bay and accepted Manila’s surrender. The news of the successful attack soon spread around the world. Dewey and the Olympia would forever be linked to the attack, which was the first major victory for the American forces in the war and the first victory for the U.S. Navy against a foreign power in decades.

Olympia supported the U.S. Army’s subsequent invasion of the Philippines before it returned to China in May of 1899. Despite its success in battle, the ship was recalled to the United States soon after and headed home via the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. The ship reached Boston in October 1899 and a month later the ship was decommissioned and placed in reserve. Her career had been colorful yet short-lived.

Olympia’s first “retirement” was also short-lived and the ship returned to duty in January 1902 where it was assigned to the North Atlantic Squadron and served as the flagship of the Caribbean Division. It took part in the intervention of Honduras in the spring of 1903, and in 1906 became a training ship for naval cadets from the United States Naval Academy, and later served as a barracks ship.

During the First World War, the USS Olympia served as the flagship of the U.S. Patrol Force, and later carried an expeditionary force bound for Russia during the Russian Civil War. The ship arrived in Murmansk, Russia and helped deploy the peace-keeping force and then assisted in the occupation of Archangel.

Despite her primary role as a warship, the USS Olympia carried out other duties. At the end of the First World War, the ship traveled to the Black Sea to aid in the return of refugees from the Balkans, and in 1921 brought home the remains of the Unknown Soldier for interment in Arlington National Cemetery.

The ship was decommissioned for the last time in Philadelphia in 1922 and placed on reserve. This time she would never be called back to duty.

Preserving the Olympia

Despite the fact that the Olympia was never to sail again as a warship, she survived the passage of time, and was released to the Cruiser Olympia Association in 1957, which saw her returned to her original 1898 configuration, complete with beautiful wood paneling that had not been removed prior to the Battle of Manila Bay despite the standing orders of the time that the wood splinters could have posed a hazard to the crew inside the ship.

Since 1957 the ship has been part of the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, and with this transfer, Olympia became the sole survivor of the U.S. naval shipbuilding program from the 1880s and 1890s and the only surviving pre-Dreadnought protected cruiser in the world.  

While the move to Independence Seaport Museum was in part because of the close proximity to the Philadelphia Naval Yard, it should be noted that Olympia also had a connection to Pennsylvania as that is where its armor plating was produced.  

Over the years members of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps from Villanova University and the University of Pennsylvania acted as a maintenance crew, but the passage of time has not been kind to the once proud warship. It needed more than the Midshipmen could provide. The last of the U.S. Navy’s Spanish-American War fleet, the ship had been in serious need of much more major repairs in recent years. She is a steel-hulled ship and yet has been in the water continuously since 1945. During the time there have been leaks in the hull, many of which have put the future of the ship in jeopardy.

In February 2010, museum officials announced that the cruiser Olympia needed $10 to $20 million for repairs to the hull to prevent her from sinking. When it was determined that the museum might not be able to support the efforts to save her, plans were even considered to scuttle the ship and make her into an artificial reef. However, public outcry helped save the Olympia.

The Seaport Museum held a preservation summit in March 2011 and announced that qualified interested organizations could apply for stewardship of Olympia through a transfer application process vetted by a review panel of historic ship and preservation experts. By 2014, however, the museum did an about-face and decided it would retain the ship and look to efforts to have her restored.

Various groups have stepped up to help raise the money, and interim efforts have been made to keep the ship open to the public while long-term plans are discussed.

Thanks to an outpouring of support the ship was saved. 

In 2014, the museum began a series of interim steps to preserve the ship while efforts for a major refit could be determined. Of course, Mother Nature hasn’t helped matters in recent years including the 2012 “Super Storm Sandy” and the brutal winter of 2013-2014.  

Yet, the interim efforts have the Olympia looking better than she has in years, while new monitors and sensors can alert the museum’s staff to potential dangers including breaches in the hull. A cofferdam was also instituted to help pump the water out from some particularly weak sections of the hull, and allow it to be dried and repaired.

In 2017, the Museum announced that it will embark on a major national fundraising campaign to raise $20 million to drydock the vessel so that the hull can finally be fully repaired.  

USS Olympia Facts: 

Length: 344 Feet  

Beam: 53 feet  

Displacement: 5,870 tons  

Crew: 33 Officers, 396 enlisted men  

Top Speed: 22 knots (25mph)  

Coal Consumption at Top Speed: 633 lbs./minute 

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on This article first appeared last month.

Image: Wikipedia.