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Farewell, Olympia?

Tight budgets may yet sink Admiral Dewey’s flagship.

Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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In Burkhardt’s wake, the Seaport Museum has come under (mostly undeserved) fire as the bearer of bad news. “I’m not a very popular guy these days,” museum interim president James McLane sighs. We are sitting on petite Ikea-donated furniture in the room housing It Sprang from the River!—an exhibit revealing the maritime thread connecting such divergent items as bellbottoms, GPS, and the Slinky. It’s cute, light, and presumably much less expensive to maintain than Olympia, which has its own fine, likewise low-maintenance, paneled “Dewey Madness” exhibit upstairs.


By McLane’s lights, the museum has been an exemplary caretaker, investing more than $5.5 million in Olympia since taking stewardship of her in 1996, removing tons of asbestos, restoring the bridge deck, shoring up the integrity of the inner hull, and more. But the ship has not been dry-docked for maintenance since 1945—standard procedure for steel-hulled vessels is to dry-dock for repairs every 20 years—and it has taken its toll. Comprehensive ultrasounds of the hull reveal it to be perilously thin. 

“We’re more than willing to keep the ship, but money is a real issue,” McLane says. “People have to understand that if we do nothing the Olympia’s going to sink anyway, and not from torpedoes.” McLane frames the intuitively revolting prospect of sinking the USS Olympia as artificial reef—a fate he is working daily to avert—as the best of bad alternatives: “At least you maintain the ship, even if it’s below a hundred feet of water. Better that than the scrap yard.”

Indeed, with one of its federal benefactors (Save America’s Treasures) set to be eliminated in the Obama administration’s 2011 budget, state and private funds battered by the recession, and a U.S. Navy unwilling to pony up the funds necessary to overhaul a ship, whatever its historical merits, decommissioned in 1922 (Old Ironsides in Boston retains a multi-million-dollar fixer-upper benefit as the oldest commissioned vessel in the world), the situation is dire. 

In this new paradigm, the ship suffers from the wars it served in: The Spanish-American War doesn’t have much of a romantic glow in the cultural imagination, and World War I is receding into our collective background as an unproduced prequel to a Tom Hanks miniseries. Yet Olympia has beaten tough odds before. “A fine set of fellows, but unhappily we shall never see them again,” Admiral Dewey recalled British officers lamenting with chipper condescension as Olympia left Hong Kong to engage the Spanish. The ship consigned to oblivion instead became, as the historian B. F. Cooling noted in the title of his Olympia biography, the “Herald of Empire”—an appellation the author does not back away from despite the ship’s current verge-of-orphan circumstances.

Internationalism and industrialization can be symbolized by what the Olympia was, what she did, and how she reflected the nation and Americans of that pivotal age between 1890 and 1920. If today the Olympia and her famous flag officer George Dewey are forgotten items consigned to the dustbin of history, then it is our own fault—educationally, patriotically, symbolically.

Shawn Macomber is a writer in Philadelphia.

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