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The OLYMPIA as Icon of an Age

The following remarks were delivered by Dr. Benjamin Franklin Cooling, (historian and author of
USS Olympia: Herald of Empire) at the Independence Seaport Museum Summit on Olympia, 30 March 2011. The Independence Seaport Museum is in the process of selecting a new caretaker for the historic cruiser. Please read this article for an update on the transfer process as of early September 2011. To hear the audio of Dr. Cooling’s speech, please visit the Independence Seaport Museum website.

Former Senator Robert Dole once opened his address to Colby College in Waterville Maine by noting; “Being a commencement speaker is like being a corpse at a funeral.  They need you in order to hold the event, but nobody expects you to say very much.”

Olympia (2010)

Cruiser Olympia, in a 2010 photo at Independence Seaport Museum, Philadelphia, PA

Frankly, we can all thank a woman – Mildred Dewey – Admiral of the Navy George Dewey’s wife and widow for this event.  She was the one who badgered the US Navy for years to keep HIS flagship on active rolls and then preserved – hence why we are here today.

Fact – the principal reason for the Olympia ’s presence today, then, is the Dewey connection – his flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898, the first major US victory of the Spanish-American War and a wife’s determination that her husband’s moment in the sun would not pass from view via scuttling of his ship!

But, paraphrasing two other worthies in history – we do not come to bury the USS Olympia but to praise her.  And, paraphrasing Winston Churchill – I do not intend to preside over the demise of America’s empire for which I have always seen her as “Herald.”

Fact – human ties to Olympia ’s run in the sun are gone.  The last Spanish-American War survivors (at least American) died two decades ago (Nathan Cook, 1992 and James Morgan, 1993), the last World War I Navy vet in 2007 while our last World War I vet – Frank Buckles passed away last month.  What we have left to us is the stuff of history – cold and inanimate, preserved and kept alive through memorialization and education.  Still, we really have Olympia as that last survivor of America’s Progressive Era – the forerunner of where we are today.

Fact – the USS Olympia was originally styled Cruiser Number 6 in the New Steel Navy of the turn-of-the twentieth century American fleet.  Now, over a century and one-decade later, she is an endangered species.  Her fate now runs the gamut from the arcane to the avuncular from the patently absurd to profoundly abstract – eventually alighting as she always has in her retirement dubbing of “IX 40” on preservation based coin of the realm.

The Basic Fact is that Olympia still lives and if you do nothing more, look at her vital statistics and very trim story in Wikipedia if nothing more.

The fundamental question is not what is to be done about Olympia but rather what makes her worthy of salvation at all?  Yet, how can we ask so insulting a question of a historical property officially authorized by the United States government 122 years ago, and brought into existence one-hundred and eighteen years ago (depending on dating of launch or commissioning).  She still proudly flaunts her peacetime livery of buff and white – so long emblematic of a peacetime projection of presence and power for a peace-loving United States?

The bare statistics are well known – visitor brochures and information sheets, Wikipedia entries, my book Olympia; Herald of Empire recount them and as part of the New Steel Navy can be compared to sister ships in that classic work by John D. Alden, American Steel Navy an array of essay and photographs yet to be equaled in my opinion for exciting interest and informing a Navy and a Public about naval history and heritage and where Olympia fits the equation of “so-what?”  Public education concerning the Olympia should not have to even be to ensure preservation but apparently is a necessity as prelude to raising capital for Olympia ’s survival.

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Depiction of the Battle of Manila Bay by artist J.D. Gleason (NH 1269)

The Olympia is unique – one of a kind, like a fine work of art – a Van Gogh, a Rembrandt, a Peale. It translates form and purpose. There is no other quite like her in the United States – at once a period piece, an antique, a piece of fine porcelain, a rank Lloyd Wright structure, Man’s response to the Sea, even the beauty and substance of the Sea and nature as masterpieces in the Universe. It resides not just in the eye and mind of the beholder – it resides in its very existence itself.

Olympia is tangible naval history, ship history, maritime history. And, so it stands beside HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, the USS Constitution USS Texas and New Jersey, Missouri – in that long line from salvaged Viking and Roman ships – all portraying niches coming down in the sequence to today’s purposeful beauty of the Littoral Combat Ship and future weddings of Man and the Sea and how man has gone down to the sea. In that sense, it duly represents the role of Philadelphia, Chester, Camden and the maritime story of the Delaware river valley.

So, one recites various basics – the fact that the Olympia was;

Fact – A protected cruiser, costing $1.7 million to put in the water and probably easily that over her quarter-century of naval service (don’t count the costs since de-commissioning in 1922, her acquisition of Veterans and the eventual Cruiser Olympia Association in 1958 or the mid-nineties transfer to ISM).  344 feet long, 53 feet broad, 21.5 knot speed capabilities, 6 boilers twin screws-triple expansion engines, original armament of top of the line 8-inch, 5-inch, 6- and 1- pounder rifled guns plus other ordnance and six torpedo tubes – this so-called “Queen of the Pacific”  was the pride of 34 officers and 440 men.  Of course, typical of most tools of war, much of this changed before her relegation to reserve fleet and naval relic, national memorial and maritime trophy.

Such bare facts are a mere starting point for determining her future to people wedded to facts, factoids and statistics in order to determine merit.

Notch it upwards before deciding, however.

Fact – The Olympia stands as a naval benchmark between the Republic’s tradition of commerce raiding and force projection and the Empire’s employment of combatant “battle” ships for defense of the imperial realm as well as intervention on behalf of liberty and democracy worldwide.   And, she served honorably in both capacities – a combatant warship and an ambassador for American principles. From the Orient station (for which she was built and commissioned as Asiatic Squadron flagship, the tip-of-the-spear that liberated the Philippines from Spanish oppression (or so the legend goes), Olympia projected America’s hoary tradition of “manifest destiny” whether to expand “trade following the flag,” protecting American interests and citizenry (political, economic, socio-cultural) as “herald” of America’s emergence as a “Power” on the international stage.  If not directly a part of the “Great White Fleet” of battleships Theodore Roosevelt sent around the globe to overawe all and sundry competitors, she was a member of that family as her livery today attests – perhaps her heyday, or pinnacle of service – the flagship of Commodore subsequently Admiral of the Navy George Dewey, and pictures of the two of them swiftly transiting East River in a victory parade worthy of returning Roman generals, the Grand Reviews at the end of our Civil War or the victory laps of Mission completed more recently attest to the verve, the spirit of an age – the age of Dewey and Sousa and Stars and Stripes forever and Americans dancing about to the refrains of “they’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

Of course, the ecstasy of the Spanish-American War gave way to other requirements for naval power and the Olympia stepped forward as part of force projection – Caribbean deterrence in defense of homeland, Monroe Doctrine or imperial hubris then subsequently naval convoy protection in World War I and command ship for the international intervention in North Russia – the first confrontation between the US and what would become Bolshevik Russia.  Her buff and white now replaced with dirty battleship, wartime gray, stripped of first-line ordnance but ready for U-boats, “bolos” and all takers in opposition to furthering American interests of liberal democracy, open door to free trade and humanitarian intervention in places like the Adriatic, perhaps Olympia ’s final mission was her most honorable – conveying the first of the Unknowns, the first American home to Arlington from the battlefields of the nation’s first great modern crusade, the Great War that eventually become the first of the major conflicts of what has been termed the American Century.

Think of that the next time you visit the Tomb of the Unknowns across the river from the Nation’s Capital – there is no one World War I memorial or monument in Washington as there are to World War II, Korea, Vietnam – and eventually our efforts east of Suez, perhaps.  And whether a free republic in the Philippines, the eternal quest for spreading democracy and free enterprise globally or simply honoring our fallen – the Olympia forms a major thrust in that story.

But, our quest to suggest meaning for the sparkling and sleek ship now fighting for her life goes further.

Fact -The Olympia also represents a model icon for America’s industrial age – an age where developments in technology produced modern structural steel for building material as well as ship skeletons. Olympia reflects the marriage of American resources – Pennsylvania steel and coal with Oregon pine and San Francisco Bay construction know-how, armored plate provided by Carnegie, Bethlehem, Midvale captains of industry and giants of furnace and rolling mills that surpassed rivals at the time.  Her ordnance reflected the emerging “military-industrial complex” of partnership between government and private industry in the name of “providing for the common defense,” or as we would style it today, “national security.” Thus, her ordnance came from the only industrial activity our Nation’s Capital could ever boast (unless one considers the Hot-Air Blast furnace known as Capitol Hill) – the Naval Gun Factory at the Washington Navy Yard that took steel forgings and pressed them into heavy guns for the fleet. Her in-board electrical system, her testing and employment of radio communication and her changing naval role, armament, development of modern officers and crew all reflected the ever-advancing march of progress in American business enterprise and industry, science and technology and professionalism necessary in a navy equal to the demands of a nation.

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USS Olympia crew on mess duty, 1898 (NH 43214)

The Olympia truly reflects the making of modern America – at home as well as abroad.  Black gang and gun-deck sailors in navy whites but officered by elites in blue and gold her rosters read much like Ellis Island check-lists of both old Europe and the New World.  And, who stood at the pinnacle in association with her bridge but George Dewey and his immortal fighting words – “you may fire when ready, Gridley” that echoes down through the ages having thrilled an earlier less sophisticated generation of Americans perhaps callous to the effect of such a command but palpably aware of what they meant for duty, honor and country in time of peril.

Less known is the fact that it was through the efforts from Dewey’s widow to that intrepid (but controversial) band of patriotic veterans and citizens known as the Cruiser Olympia Association and similarly inclined civically inspired groups that kept Dewey’s ship on navy rolls long past her due and one step ahead of the wrecking torch through the years.  Yes, again – Mildred Dewey like George had her hand in the seemingly never-ending controversy of what Olympia should mean to the American nation and the American people.

And, so – where to conclude?

There is ample reason to assure $10-20 million (one wonders whether the figure might be reduced) insurance for hull repairs and other preservation, educational and memorialization endowment.  Why?

Because Olympia is an icon of the Progressive Era, the subsequent American century, Peace, Virtue and Progress?

Because Olympia is a touchable manifestation of the Industrial Age – a wedding of concept and form, steam and steel, power and prosperity?

Because Olympia reflects America’s quest for regeneration, redemption, honor and respect transferable to all Mankind?

Where should Olympia finally come to rest?

– Philadelphia, who doesn’t want her and really has no rightful claim except that she reached an ignominious end at the south Philly navy yard.  Yet…surely the most practical, sensible and opportune resting place stands right where she lies today – in the Cradle of Liberty, the Birthplace of the United States, the City of Brotherly Love (so well complimented by Olympia peacetime paint livery of buff and white) – the city where she has resided for the past nine decades.  Restore and preserve her – cherish her – using local artisans, materials and partnering visiting public.

– New York  – whose navy yard may well have never seen her, but whose Hudson waters provided the panorama for Dewey and his flagship victory parade.

– Some berthing in the Chesapeake World from whose basing she embarked on her Caribbean days or Annapolis where she helped educate young Middies of the Naval Academy on summer cruises.  The Academy museum holds the great post-Spanish-American figurehead and stern ornamentation of the Olympia – some sort of odd replication of what decorated warships in the Imperial Age reminiscent of the studies of Mahan, the tradition of Nelson and the Spanish Armada.

– Boston has claim – aside from Olympia as icon of the emerging modern American fighting navy fully equal in stature to the Constitution for fighting sail days – for here the flagship re-outfitted after returning from the Far East and from which we have the best photographs of shipboard and sailor life.

The State of Washington can claim her as namesake of the state capital where her silver service now lies preserved.

– The Philippines – Hong Kong – Japan – the Adriatic – Murmansk/Archangel – all touched by her visits viewed, perhaps, less in terms of WAR but more as an instrument of Diplomacy (Far East, North Russia), Economic quest for resources and markets (the Orient) and the humanitarian mission of post-conflict Nation-Building (Adriatic/Balkans).

– Of course, San Francisco Bay surely has the best claim – her birthplace, her departure point for earning fame and glory in the Orient – but, of course, how now to get her out there?

– Most symbolically, perhaps, would be the Nation’s Capital – near the Deweys entombed in the Washington National Cathedral and the Unknown Soldier – home from the wars forever enshrined across the Potomac in Arlington.

Before all this, however, comes the heavy lifting – her rehabilitation and refitting due her station in life!

Bottom line –

Fact – Olympia is at once a shrine, a memorial, an “item,” an educational venue and a testing ground as to Americans’ purpose in preserving our heritage -factories, plantations, battlefields etc. etc for posterity, collective memory, public awareness and historical tourism.  It also could be used to generate jobs, revenue and learning not only about history, but science, environment, people, things and process.  The list could go on using history as a basis but the ship itself as a classroom and laboratory cross-cutting numerous aspects of life’s experience.  Here, I might merely remain suggestive rather than prescriptive, provocative rather than declarative in order to cause “light bulbs” of innovation and energy to occur on this enterprise of saving national treasures.

Is the Olympia – a national treasure – worth saving? Is There Still Doubt?

At the turn of the present new century and millennium, then Vice President of the Independence Seaport Museum Paul De Orsay commented that “like the Statue of Liberty, she [Olympia ] is an icon of the nation’s history and present strength.  Independence Seaport Museum considers it a privilege to have been entrusted with the preservation of Olympia .”   Perhaps the ISM Board lost some of the blush of stewardship over the intervening years, yet this conclave reminds us of some sense of pride and accomplishment to this point in time and we must salute what will seem like yet another interlude in Olympia ’s story.

Let me close this paean to Olympia ’s meaning and continued raison’etre.  It is a battle cry to action, a humble suggestion to now get down to business.  Visit the ship as we will next do – feel the thrill as I still do at her beauty, her grace, her sensuality yet purposefulness.  See her as an icon – a monument – a tribute to America of the Modern Age, an age of industry and enterprise, hope and purpose, curiosity and embrace of upward accession – not recessional that plagues our fears today.  Think of Olympia as a tribute to American youth – who went to sea to do their duty for nation, Constitution and an American Way of Life.  Think of Olympia – built by the sweat of emigrants in mines, steel mills and construction yards, nay even those who manned her over the years – the New Immigration of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  They all – and their Ship symbolized the America that commanded respect for flag, for country on the cusp of greatness and an American spirit that has always honored its past while looking to the future.  The Olympia is part of a “future” that still resonates when heralded from the past.

Eventually, when everyone faces up to our solemn duty and places a shoulder to the Olympia ’s common weal, we can all break out something the New York Herald in the ship’s heyday styled the “Dewey Cocktail,” – “2/3d Dewar’s Scotch whiskey, 1/3d Brandy, a dash of orange bitters, syrup and a half-pony of Benedictine.”  As the Herald declared in sentiments worthy of the “Age of the Olympia,”

“One of these will make you feel like a true American; 2 will cause you to wonder why you are not fighting for your country; and five or six will make you believe yourself to be as big a man as Dewey.”

I firmly believe that the ghosts of George and Mildred, Charles Gridley, the “Hikers” of the Spanish-American war era, the “Doughboys” of the successor generation and the Jack Tars of both, perhaps even the spirit of the Unknown Soldier could relate to those words. Somehow, too, I think the Olympia ’s soul – for most certainly ship’s have souls and particularly “the Queen of the Pacific” does – would also smile from her berthing there at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware in the City of Brotherly Love.

Finally, then, the Olympia IS the last “Hiker” (of the SPAM era) and the final “Doughboy” of the “War to End all Wars.”  What would the ghosts say about what we are about to do here?   All that depends upon us and having determined the “why,” we must now determine the “how” for saving this particular national treasure.

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  1. Martin L. Ventura

    I’ve been following the debate and have read several articles about the fate of the USS Olympia. I find it disheartening to think that there may not be enough funding or interest in saving this iconic ship of U.S. naval history. As a boy, I remember reading the story of the Battle of Manila Bay and Admiral Dewey leading the U.S. fleet to victory aboard the flagship Olympia. As a US Navy veteran myself, I take pride in being part of Olympia’s legacy, of Admiral Dewey and the other great naval leaders that emerged in the 20th century.
    That is why I think that today’s Navy leadership should step in and take charge of the repair,preservation and display of the Olympia. The Secretary of the Navy should recommission the USS Olympia and give it the same status and honors as the USS Constitution. Two ships that represent the United States; one as a emerging seapower in the age of wooden warships; the other as a ship of New Steel Navy that changed our seapower projection forever after. And what more a fitting place to display the Olympia than at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. with its beautiful Navy museum and waterfront. I have visited the USS Olympia and the USS NewJersey across the river and will continue to donate to their causes. I hope to visit them again for years to come. Martin L. Ventura

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  3. Michael E. Dortch

    Also as a boy of 12, I accompanied my Father, Donald E. Dortch, whom served on the Board of Directors of the Cruiser Olympia Association, almost every weekend from 1974 to 1978, restoring the interior Six Pound as well as the 2 dozen Krags still housed in the ship’s Armory. Although most likely frowned upon today by any parent today, I was permitted to explore the entire ships interior of the ship, down to her keel. I spent many a lunch time eating my bagged lunch with others below deck. My father was a very young man in his teens when he read an article in the Philadelphia Bulletin regarding the possible fate of an old ship docked at the Navy Yard. In those days the prefabricated turrets and cannons had not even been installed returning the old girl back to her former elegance. After serving his county in the United States Air Force, he returned home to Philadelphia in the early 60’s and started helping those making her worthy of receiving visitors while docked under the Ben Franklin Bridge. Although funny to me and not many others, in 1975, both the Olympia and Dad’s 3 day old 75 Cadillac Coupe Deville received a new Speckled Blue Paint Job compliments of the cities of Philadelphia and Camden. Not so funny to me, I spent that Sunday removing thousands of tiny blue dots from his car with rags and light paint thinner. Later, I witnessed Dad as one of the few association members on board when the Olympia took her latest voyage to her current home. I have 3 reels of Color Super 8 Movie Film to document the day. These are all cherished memories now. I wish I could recall them all. I’m confident there are scores of others whom recall their own while spending time aboard her as well. I enjoyed reading your article. Michael E. Dortch April 2019

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