USS Olympia, C-6

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.

13 thoughts on “USS Olympia, C-6”

  1. It is truly one of the hidden gems of Philly. I got to tour it a few years ago. I hope the Independence Seaport Museum has a change of heart and decides to keep the ship and not let it go to scrap if another group fails to take over the up keep.

  2. 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.

    The fact those engines can still turn almost 120 years later, and after decades of not having any real purpose, tells us that they literally don’t make them like they used to.

    Contrast this with the modern Navy warship: the second Littoral Combat Ship. A completely new trimaran design with real imagination and modern design principles, but failing on some of the “basics” we have known for decades or even centuries. It uses a softer aluminum hull that is literally rotting away under foot from galvanic corrosion. Engine mounts are corroding rapidly.

    Our current Navy couldn’t build a modern version of the Olympia, simply because they are so enamored of modern technology to the point they actually think it can be used to overcome basic truths built over many generations of ship building. The fact that the actual ship doesn’t meet the PowerPoint expectation is immaterial. The fact that the Navy thinks Windows should be used control the engines, navigation and even weapons systems is frightening to me – all because “COTS” sounds better than “custom designed”. Frankly, I like a little custom design for my warship, please.

    I want to see the Olympia under power again, if for no other reason than to show the modern Navy that sometimes you should trust proven concepts over experimental ones. New ideas are good things (trimaran for high-speed, low draft and high stability) but they are ruined by rolling the dice on known failures (large-scale aluminum warships).

    Of course, the Olympia story can be extended to almost all things today.

    FWIW, the new LCS is planned to be the backbone of the “new Navy”. Rumor is that its softer hull won’t stop a modern round from a high-power rifle at close range. The LCS is designed to creep up to coasts – close enough for the enemy to see it and in some cases, reach it.

  3. I toured the Olympia many years ago when I still lived in the Peooples Republik of New Jersistan. Agreed the engines are impressive. Standing on the catwalk above them, I could imagine the massive crankshaft whirling and the valve gear reciprocating, the heat and steam. Then to trace with my eye the path of the steam through all 3 stages. I surely hope that she will remain on display as a fine example of engineering from that era. I also toured the US submarine moored alongside the Olympia & marvelled at how my dad (a WW II submariner) could have lived in such a cramped little steel tube.

  4. I have wanted to tour the Olympia for several years. Perhaps I will get the chance one day.

    My grandfather’s first station was an old coal burner named Rochester, laid down in 1890. He told me several stories about her and life on board a turn of the century steamer. He made his first crossing of the equator on board and passed through that rite along side General Pershing who made his first on Rochester as well.

    She now sits scuttled in the Philippines and the only way to visit her is with an advanced divers rating. Olympia will be my last chance to get a glimpse of that era.

  5. Technically, the HMVS Cerebus (1868) is the “oldest steel ship still in existence”, even though she’s a breakwater. The Aurora and Mikasa are almost as old, and apparently the Aurora’s boilers DO work.

    I’ve dabbled in historic boiler restoration (steam engines) and it’s a whole lotta work and whole lotta bags of money just toi get them to where Federal boiler inspectors can look at them. Guesstimate a cool mill per boiler, plus complete re-piping of the ship. At that point the “hisrotic fabric” of the ship will be completely ruined.

    Far better to permanently dry dock the Olympia like they did with the Mikasa or Cutty Sark, and build a repro like that Austrailan loon wants to do with the Titanic.

  6. I was an electrician at the Philly Navy Yard the last 8 years it was open, working mostly on carriers. The Summer after the Yard closed, the Navy had some leftover $$$ and temporarily hired some of us to work on the Olympia and the sub, installing lighting, ventilation, etc. Upkeep for these (or any other) vessel is very expensive, hope they can save them. Working on the sub reminded me of a few days spent on one in the Army, when we had “paddle ashore at night in rubber rafts” training. It was fun then but I wouldn’t want to be in one in wartime. When the lights went out during repairs, one of the docents, who’d served in subs in WWII said “You ought to see how dark it gets when this happens and you’re down 400 feet”-gave me chills! Another of the docents served on a sub when it rescued George Bush after he was shot down in the Pacific.

  7. Hie thee hence to the SS John W Brown in Baltimore. Looks like the next day cruise is June 30. I have taken a day cruise on its west coast counterpart, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, and let me tell you, there is nothing comparable to watching 3 whooping huge steam pistons flapping up and down at 60 rpm, silently (more or less). These engines were a 1890s design, I believe, so should have much in common with the USS Olympia. Know how they oil them? With a handheld squirt can, while it’s spinning. Know how they tell when the bearings are warm enough to need oil? They slap it with their hand as it comes around, yes, at 60 rpm. (Top speed is 90 rpm, but I don’t know if they ever push it that fast.) We also had about 100 WW II re-enactors, who had .50 and .30 machine guns on the sides, and fought battles with the CAF flying overhead. Scared the piss out of a sailboat off our port beam …

    The Jeremiah O’Brien used to run the engines at 4 rpm while tied to the pier, every 3rd weekend of the month. Can’t tell from their web site if they still do. Their next cruise is May 20 to escort the USS Iowa as she leaves for a permanent museum ship berth in SoCal. Might have to see if the budget can take that …

  8. HMS Warrior, built in 1860, has steam engines and is still afloat in Portsmouth, England.

    I suppose you could wriggle out by saying that her steam engines were not her principal means of propulsion, however. And by arguing “steel” versus “iron.”

  9. Old joke. You can tell you’re an engineer if everyone else on the Alaska cruise is up on deck viewing the scenery, and you’re getting a personal tour of the engine room.

    I sympathize with your feelings about the ship’s machinery. Some years ago a friend took me on a tour of a carrier, now a museum, at Corpus Christi (I’ve forgotten the name of the ship). She stayed up on deck while I did get a personal tour of the engine room. I found it fascinating; I knew she wouldn’t.

  10. Losing the Olympia would truly be terrible, considering what She accomplished in Manila Bay so many years ago. I do wish I could have the funds to save her and get up a head of steam in her and just cruise away from a place that does not seem to appreciate her.

  11. What is interesting to me is she was the flagship for the Asiatic Fleet and right across the Delaware is the flagship for the Pacific Fleet during WWII, the New Jersey. Love both ships and both are worth visiting.

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