1892 warship Olympia battles for survival

Enthusiasts try to save time-ravaged warrior

Jesse Lebovics, longtime caretaker of the 1892 USS Olympia, the oldest steel warship still afloat, illuminates a coal bunker to show multiple repairs at and below the waterline. The museum ship, in the Delaware River, needs $1 million to survive. (Associated Press)Jesse Lebovics, longtime caretaker of the 1892 USS Olympia, the oldest steel warship still afloat, illuminates a coal bunker to show multiple repairs at and below the waterline. The museum ship, in the Delaware River, needs $1 million to survive. (Associated Press)
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PHILADELPHIA | The USS Olympia, a one-of-a-kind steel cruiser that returned home to a hero’s welcome after a history-changing victory in the Spanish-American War, is a proud veteran fighting what may be its final battle.

Time and tides are conspiring to condemn the weathered old warrior to a fate two wars failed to inflict. Without a major refurbishment to its aging steel skin, the Olympia will sink at its moorings on the Delaware River, be sold for scrap or be scuttled for an artificial reef just off Cape May, N.J., about 90 miles south.

The 5,500-ton Olympia’s caretakers monitor every inch of its deteriorating lower hull and deck, already covered with hundreds of patches. Independent inspectors have concluded that the ship could decay to a point beyond saving within a few years if nothing is done.

“It’s an absolute national disgrace. It’s an appalling situation,” said naval historian Lawrence Burr, author of a book on Olympia. “She is a national symbol, and she marks critical points in time both in America’s development as a country and the Navy’s emergence as a global power.”

Olympia, which gets about 90,000 visitors annually, will close to the public Nov. 22 to await its fate. Visitors to the Independence Seaport Museum pay up to $12, which includes the chance to board the warship.

Since taking stewardship of the ship from a cash-strapped nonprofit in 1996, the Independence Seaport Museum has spent $5.5 million on repairs, inspections and maintenance. But it can’t afford the $10 million to dredge the marina, tow the ship to dry dock and restore it to fighting trim or the $10 million to establish an endowment to care for it in perpetuity.

“She’s an icon,” said Jeffrey S. Nilsson, executive director of the Historic Naval Ships Association in Smithfield, Va. “She’s worthy of being saved.”

Efforts to secure private or public funding have been unsuccessful, a stark reminder of recessionary times. Museum officials reluctantly are mulling whether to scrap the National Historic Landmark, said to be the world’s oldest steel warship still afloat, or have the Navy sink it off the coast of Cape May.

The 344-foot-long protected cruiser ideally should have been dry-docked every 20 years for maintenance. Instead, it has been bobbing dutifully — and quietly wasting away — in the Delaware since 1945 without a break from the wind and waves.

The waterline is marked with scores of patches, and sections of the mazelike lower hull are so corroded that sunlight shines through. Above deck, water sneaks past the concrete and rubberized surface layers, past the rotting fir deck underneath, and onto the handsomely appointed officers quarters below.

“She generally looks good for her age, but her expensive pre-existing conditions make it daunting,” said Jesse Lebovics, longtime caretaker of Olympia. “We’re still hoping someone will step up. We’re hoping for an 11th-hour reprieve.”

Two local nonprofits — Friends of the Cruiser Olympia and the Cruiser Olympia Historical Society — are striving to drum up money, manpower and publicity from other historic preservation groups, veterans organizations and corporate sponsors.

“We don’t want to see the ship reefed, and the museum doesn’t either,” said Jay Richman, president of Friends of the Cruiser Olympia. “We’re optimistic that a bunch of small groups working together for a common cause can save the ship.”

Olympia steamed out of San Francisco in 1892 and served most notably as flagship of the Asiatic Squadron in the Spanish-American War.

Its vertical reciprocating engines, refrigeration system and hydraulic steering previewed the technological advances to come; its vestigial sails and oak-paneled, parlorlike officers quarters marked the passing Victorian era.

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