Ensconced within the catacomb-like coal room deep in the bowels of the USS Olympia, wherein soot-swaddled men endured 120-degree heat and singeing hair to keep the steamship prowling during the Battle of Manila Bay, our guide Harry Burkhardt encourages picture-snapping tourists to closely examine the images later.
“There are ghosts,” the volunteer docent and merchant marine captain intones.
Unfortunately, the clock may be ticking on whatever phantasmic revelations the spectral crew has planned for its landlubber visitors. If the Independence Seaport Museum cannot raise $20 million for essential repairs, or convince another group or museum to adopt her, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection will likely be commissioned to accomplish what the Spanish fleet in 1898 could not: Sink the Olympia as coral reef primer, abandoning her spirits to swim with the fishes off Cape May rather than haunt Philadelphia tourists.
The waterfront atmosphere has taken on the air of a living funeral for what historic ships manager Jesse Lebovics
astutely dubs “a unique Victorian Age symbol of the shift in the American mindset from that of a large colony to world power.” One recent sun-drenched Saturday, for example, the Filipino Executive Council of Greater Philadelphia held its 34th annual (and perhaps final) celebration of Philippine independence from Spanish colonial domination, complete with a wreath-laying ceremony on Olympia’s deck, a jazzy Filipino youth brass band, picnic lunch, and polite elision of the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).
“If this boat is sunk, it will be a little bit like they’re sinking our Liberty Bell,” council president Rommel Rivera lamented, and a city councilwoman’s promise that a City Hall conference room might be available for next year’s celebration was not regarded as much of a consolation prize.
Meanwhile, C.J. Bauman IV ambled through the ship, admiring the ornate wood paneling, peering into displays. Children scampered to and fro, taking turns standing on a pair of steel footprints marking the place on the bridge where Admiral George Dewey famously declared, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” Bauman’s great-grandfather shoveled the coal that powered the Olympia from France to Washington in 1921, body of the Unknown Soldier in tow. The great-grandson was making one final pilgrimage from Virginia before the ship closes to the public in November.
“It’s emotional,” he said. “When your family heritage overlaps with national heritage, you just assume some things will always be there. It seems a damn shame this one won’t.”
Not everyone is ready to scuttle the Olympia’s ghosts. Harry Burkhardt, shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, a gold anchor hanging alongside a pewter pendant engraved with his name in hieroglyphics, South Philadelphia to his gills, stalks the crowds between tours, passing out business cards advertising Friends of the Cruiser Olympia, the newly minted nonprofit he founded to save and revitalize the ship as both a historic destination and a merchant marine school for inner-city youth.
“Most people have a midlife crisis, they get a toupee, maybe a convertible,” Burkhardt explains between puffs on a cigarette. “Mine is the world’s oldest steel-hulled warship. Crazy, right?”
The cause is new, the romance old. Burkhardt first began volunteering on the boat in the late 1960s, and he and his sons spent years painstakingly refurbishing many of the steam-operated motors and gadgets on board, including an earthshaking foghorn, which he takes an almost transcendental joy in employing to scare the wits out of unsuspecting tourists strolling the boardwalk below. Burkhardt likens news of the Olympia’s potential fate to “a sledgehammer to the chest,” and it generates a reaction not far removed from Landsman John T. Tisdale’s contemporaneous description of the Olympia’s crew on the eve of Manila Bay: “Our hearts threatened to burst from desire to respond.”
While demurring a bit on specifics, Burkhardt says that, aside from a few outliers who believe Olympia should be “cut up for razor blades” as a symbol of Yanqui imperialism—fans of Evan Thomas’s The War Lovers and Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez seem to have time on their hands—enough positive interest has been sparked to transform his crusade into a near full-time job of fundraising, media inquiries, Facebooking, and nascent coalition building.
“In the age of dollar Bic lighters and rub-off lottery tickets, we’re betting a national historic landmark is still worth a few dollars to Americans,” he says.