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From Olympia’s bridge on May 1, 1898, during the Battle of Manila Bay in the Philippines, Commodore George Dewey uttered the famous command: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” The Spanish fleet was decimated, making Dewey — and the Olympia — national heroes.

In a letter home after the victorious battle, Capt. Charles Gridley wrote: “We did not lose a man in our whole fleet, and had only six wounded, and none of them seriously … The Olympia was struck seven or eight times, but only slightly injured, hardly worth speaking of.”

The ship later was active in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Mediterranean; served as a Naval Academy training vessel; and took part in the 1918 Allied landing at Murmansk during the Russian Civil War.

Its final mission was bringing home the body of World War I’s Unknown Soldier from France in 1921. The vessel was decommissioned in 1922 and was largely forgotten until it was nearly scrapped in the 1950s — and local people rallied with donations and labor to bring it back from the brink.

Olympia opened as a museum in 1958 but funding woes and threats of sale or scrap have been part of its history ever since. The Seaport Museum itself has weathered its own share of storms, most recently in 2008, when a former president of the organization was convicted of bilking the institution of more than $1 million.

Meanwhile, two other beleaguered vessels nearby are similarly awaiting saviors: the USS New Jersey battleship across the river in New Jersey and the historic 1950s cruise ship SS United States three miles downriver.

“There’s a lot of need out there, and the economy makes it worse … but we really can’t wait,” Mr. Lebovics said.