Philadelphia happens to host the oldest steel warship still afloat (for now). Bitter had never seen it, and since this weekend they were having special tours of the engine room (which in my several visits, I never had the opportunity to see), I decided now was time. She is a grand historic ship. Originally laid down in June of 1891, Commissioned in February of 1895, and finally decommissioned in December of 1922. She is a hero of the Spanish American War, having cruised into Manila Harbor and crushed the Spanish fleet. Her last active mission was to bring the remains of the Unknown Soldier from France to Arlington National Cemetery in October of 1921.
It was both a big disappointment and delightful for me to see the engine room. I had always looked down into it, but had never actually been in it, since it was not an area of the ship that often was open for tours. It was delightful to see it was actually in remarkable shape. But it was a disappointment to know, at the end of the day, it was still a dead museum ship.
While I like the fact that Olympia is a museum ship, and hope she finds the funds to continue being such, there is a large part of me that wishes I was wealthy enough to buy this ship outright from the Navy, and not only restore her to top notch museum quality ship, but enable her to once again steam under her own power. I think she could do that. I asked our naval tour guide about this, and he mentioned that many of the auxiliary steam engines can still turn easily by hand, and demonstrated such. I was surprised this would be the case on a 120 year old ship, where the boilers have been offline since 1922. But I saw it. I think I’d almost feel better if her engines were rusted hulks, which is where the disappointment comes in. It feels worse to consider some steam engines on a 120 year old ship, the oldest steel ship still in existence, can still be turned by hand, and yet she may still end up being fish habitat in a few years without proper funding.
Could you get a head of steam on the boilers? Could the system still hold steam? The screw’s main bearing still push a ship? If there was a problem, where would you get parts? I wish I was rich enough to find out.
I am not the kind of guy who is very much interested in taking a cruise, but I’d pay a lot of money to be a fly on the wall on Olympia under full steam. I’d love to try my hand at some of the guns. Could she be restored to full glory? Would it require too much replacement of vintage with modernity? I don’t know. But she deserves better than an uncertain fate, and possibly as a sunken marine habitat off Cape May, New Jersey, which is her fate if funds can’t be raised to save her. I’d hate to lose this unique bit of history.