Historic Spanish-American warship may be sunk

Lack of funding leads to tough decision

May 24, 2010

The world’s oldest surviving steel warship may be sunk in a coral reef if funding for its continued maintenance cannot be found.

The Olympia, which played a significant role in the Spanish-American War, has been part of the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadephia, Pa., but according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Museum can no longer afford its upkeep. If an alternative source cannot be found following the end of the current tourism season, it faces an uncertain fate. In addition to finding a new caretaker, options include sinking it in New Jersey’s Artificial Reef off Cape May, for diver recreation, or having the historic vessel scrapped.

Naval historian Lawrence Burr has spoken out on behalf of the ship. “Neither the Spanish navy in 1898 nor the German navy in 1917-18 was able to sink Olympia,” he said. “It will be ironic if the State of New Jersey is able to sink this unique historic warship that has been in the care of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania for over 50 years, and who have benefited from its role as a tourist attraction. . . If sunk, she will only be seen by a small elite who are able to dive, with the risk that she will be plundered for souvenirs,” he said.

The Olympia was authorized in 1888 and commissioned in 1895. It led five other U.S. warships into Manila Bay, Philippines, to wrest control from the Spanish. Navy Commodore George Dewey stood on its bridge and uttered the famous words: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” The battle lasted several hours, but ended with no loss of an American life.

In World War I, it was stationed in the Atlantic Ocean and brought the remains of the Unknown Soldier home from France in 1921.

There are attempts to save the Olympia. A group called the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia (www.fotco.org), is trying to raise money for its preservation.

The Independence Seaport Museum is open to all options. “No decision has been made,” said James McLane, interim president of the Museum. “This is not what we want to do. In these tough economic times, everybody is forced to make tough decisions.”

Read the entire Philadelphia Inquirer story

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