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Steampunk Days Out-USS OLYMPIA

The USS Olympia is arguably the second most historically significant preserved warship in the United States. She fought in the Spanish American War as Admiral Dewey’s flagship. Later she had the somber task of returning the body of the Unknown Soldier to the United States from the hell of Great War France. She was one of the United States Navy’s first modern warships and is the last of her breed. I went to visitor her last fall in what seemed to be her darkest hour. The Independence Seaport Museum was about to close this old lady down and was actively pursuing a course of action to have her sunk as a reef. That effort appears to have receded somewhat, but the ship still needs to find a museum that wishes to preserve her, noy submerged under the ocean, for future generations. Here is a site that will let you donate to help her find that new home http://www.preservationnation.org/travel-and-sites/sites/northeast-region/the-uss-olympia.html

Now, kicking my soapbox to the side let’s get on with exploring a glorious piece of steam and military technology!
USS Olympia is currently berthed in Philadelphia, PA at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing. To get there I took light rail in from New Jersey and walked through historic downtown Philly. Having recently watched National Treasure I was amused to look at the locations where the film, and far more importantly the amazing events that begat the United States of America took place. The walk took me past a very nice traditional hobby shop as well as the cradle of liberty. Independence hall was undergoing a renovation. The riverfront itself was preparing for an air race and an EPA research vessel was docked as well.

I entered the Museum and had made contact with the staff. I had called ahead but was a day early. I made arrangements to see the restricted areas of the ship the next day and headed out to see the public spaces. Tickets for the museum, the Olympia and the submarine Bacuna are 12 dollars, admission between 10 am and noon on Sundays is “pay what you wish”. The ships are not handicapped accessible. The museum’s page is located here http://www.phillyseaport.org/. The museum has a really excellent small boat shop, where craftspeople restore wooden boats. It was wonderful to watch them work using old techniques. There is a great collection of small boats. There are a number of other good displays as well. Some very nice models and dioramas complelment period artefacts and displays. The museum has a great gift shop. I dropped a bit of change on their selection of books and on a USS Olympia T shirt.

With that said I took the short walk through the museum and down the to the ships. As is usual I skipped the submarine (as I did at Chatham) and boarded Olympia. Even though the museum had been hard pressed to provide for her upkeep I learned that a number of dedicated volunteers were still hard at work aboard her. She might not have met the standards of an active Victorian Warship but she was still tidy and clean. The period woodwork is lovely as is the brass.

I love being aboard both HMS Warrior and SS Great Britain and the interior reconstructions on both ships are amazing. In those cases they are both heavily reconstructed as both vessels had been gutted and abandoned for decades before their restorations. Olympia was never so misused and many, if not most, of her interior fittings are original. All the various valve covers have their original markings and the various doors and compartments have metal identification plates. The vessel served until the 1920s and was extensively rebuilt during her active lifetime.

Certain areas have been restored to their Spanish American War appearance and function. The ship has a dental office and surgery. These are fully equipped and look ready for patients. The surgery has an autoclave and a mechanical suction system. The period medical equipment is something that you don’t see very often, especially set up for use. Take a lot of pictures here.

The machine shop is also worth looking at. A large number of machine tools are present and they run off an overhead system of belts off a main shaft. When a button is pressed the machines operate (the overhead shaft is powered by electricity) and the activity there is fun to watch.

The junior officers’ mess looks much as it did in the 1890s as does the wardroom. Original woodwork and in some cases original furniture enhance the historic value of the compartments. The Officer’s cabins are generally quite small, until the senior officers such as the Captain’s cabins are reached. This compartment is as elegant as one would expect. The woodwork and furniture are wonderful. The bed seems a bit small but all things considered it was good to be the Captain or the Admiral!

I was able to access the below deck spaces and it was like visiting a cathedral. One of the engines is nearly complete. The other has been partially disassembled over the years. Its amazing to get to see such a large power-plant in situ. The decks and walkways criss-cross all over the place in purposeful chaos surrounded and surrounding gauges, pipes, valves and hoses. Brass is everywhere! I was surprised by wooden steam drum which is part of the condenser system. The intact unit looks like it could get steam up fairly quickly if needed. The various holds and coal bunkers were visible through assess hatches. It is obvious that the ship needs substantial refurbishment. Hopefully she’ll find a good home and dedicated caretakers who will give her the love she needs.
One great thing about Olympia is her assortment of armament. When built she mounted a main battery of eight inch guns. These were mounted in twin turrets fore and aft. Her secondary battery was 5 inch/40. She had a number of light weapons including 6 pdr and 1 pdr rapid firing guns. The 8 inchers were removed before the Great War and the 5 inch guns replaced with more modern 5 inch/51 weapons. Currently the 8 inch guns and turrets are representations. They are the correct exterior shape but have no interiors at all. The secondary battery consists of an assortment of guns some five inch and at least one six inch weapon. There are also a number of lighter guns including 6 pdrs. The guns are in good condition with much of the brass polished. The guns and carriages are much more complete than most museum weapons. They are also mounted in the original battery positions. The casemate batteries seem odd to those more familiar with turret batteries on more modern ships.

Speaking of more modern ships Olympia is sandwiched between a pair of the most famous US ships of the twentieth century. The USS New Jersey is berthed as a museum and memorial in her namesake State right across from her older sister. The United States, the greatest ocean liner ever built and last holder of the Blue Riband awaits her still uncertain future just a few piers down from Olympia. New Jersey is open as a museum. United States is not open to the public but she is a stunning view from one of the bridges or from various locations along the water front. Please go to the conservancy linked below and check what they are doing to try and save this great ship.
Here are links to those vessels:


Within sight of each other are three of the most historic ships in the United States. Sadly two of them do not have the assured future they deserve and that the nations owes to them and that our generation owes to future generations (sorry the soap box came back out again, but its my blog and I can pontificate if I want to-but I promise to do so infrequently and only about really cool things like historic ship preservation)
A Ritz Carlton Hotel overlooks the ship and offers great views of the ship. I didn’t stay there on my visit but one of my coworkers did and shot some excellent pictures of Olympia from an angle not usually seen. And I’ll finish with comments on food. There is a restaurant just past the Spirit of Philadelphia, a nice looking ship and dinner spot. I chose a place who’s name escapes me at this time. The food was awesome as was the view of USS New Jersey. This was one of the most amazing meals a historian could ever hope food. Great taste and a view of one of the greatest warships ever built within the shadow of two of the most historic vessels in the US. Although the newer vessels are outside the VSF Steampunk period it still made for a wondeful Steampunk Day Out!