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.
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.