In 1883, Moses Gulesian legally emigrated from Armenia to the United States. Reportedly penniless, his hard work and ingenuity made him a self-made millionaire. In 1905 when Secretary of the Navy Charles Bonaparte proposed sinking the USS Constitution by using her for target practice, Gulesian’s sense of patriotism for his new country led him to send a telegram to Bonaparte: “Will give ten thousand dollars for the Constitution, Old Ironsides. Will you sell?”

Although the offer was refused by the U.S. government, it created the same groundswell of support for the ship that had once compelled Oliver Wendell Holmes to pen his own poem in 1830 that saved her from being scrapped. The USS Constitution remains the oldest commissioned warship afloat (only Britain’s HMS Victory is older but she is in permanent dry dock). USS Constitution remains an integral part of this country’s naval heritage, a reminder of the maritime dangers that led the early Republic to build her and sail her in harm’s way. She is a visible reminder for every one who passes through Boston and the half million people who walk her decks every year.

Today another historic ship faces numbered days. Commodore George Dewey once stood on Olympia’s deck commanding the U.S. fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War and issuing the order: “You may fire when ready, Gridley.” Today, she remains unique – the world’s oldest steel warship afloat. More importantly, she represents the beginning of America as a Mahanian power.

According to the Independence Seaport Museum’s website, raising the estimated $20 million in capital necessary to restore and maintain her has been difficult. The Museum stated it’s approached “the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Navy, the federal government, and private funders.” Given the current fiscal challenges in both the public and private sectors, raising the funds can be problematic. But some have pointed out that even within government, funds for projects might be diverted to the Olympia. As pointed out by at least one milblogger, according to a July 7 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Pennsylvania’s new budget includes $20 million to housing the papers of the late Democratic Congressman John P. Murtha, and the soon to be retired Democratic Senator Arlen Specter.” On the federal level, approximately $20 million was spent for road signs promoting the so-called “American Jobs and Recovery Act.”

As a result of the inability to raise funds, the cruiser Olympia may be sunk, possibly as an artificial reef. According to ISM’s website, “the Navy has advised ISM that they are willing to authorize ISM to responsibly dispose of the Olympia.”Because of lack of funds, the museum was to cease public tours today, November 22, but recently announced that it had received sufficient funds to keep it open temporarily. To address this issue, “the museum also said it’s going to hold a summit early next year to discuss the ship’s future and funding. Officials from the Navy, National Park Service and Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission are expected to attend.”

If neither public nor private funds alone can be identified, then the answer may be in a third way: recommission Olympia.

There are many precedents for recommissioning ships for operations but perhaps the best precedent is that of the USS Constitution, recommissioned several times, the most recent in 1931. Like Japan’s Mikasa or England’s Victory, Olympia could simply be placed in a permanent drydock on exhibit, if not in Philadelphia, then perhaps at the Naval War College or the Naval Academy. Both sites have direct and historical ties to our Navy and maritime heritage, tourists, and students.

Recommissioning should not be a catch-all justification to preserve any ship, but should be reserved for those few that hold a unique status in our nation’s maritime heritage. If USS Constitution represented the boldness of a young, inventive republic challenging great powers in single-ship actions (not including her defeat of Cyane and Levant), the Olympia reflects the industrial and military force of the republic as it took its place among the great maritime powers.

If Olympia is allowed to be scuttled or scrapped, we might paraphrase a World War II quote: “Where is our naval heritage? The world wonders.”

LCDR Claude Berube, USNR, teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is a frequent contributor to Naval Institute Proceedings and Naval History. The views expressed are his own and not those of the Naval Academy or the Navy.




Posted by LCDR Claude Berube, USNR in History, Navy


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  • UltimaRatioReg

    LCDR Berube,

    Yours is a brilliant suggestion. It is unconscionable that we would lose such a historic treasure as Olympia to neglect and disrepair.

    Besides it would give Maggie something else to be in charge of.

  • Charley

    I’d love to see that ship at the Naval Academy – plenty of seawall space, or maybe over at the old David Taylor basin.

    Anyway, it is great ship to tour – lots of woodwork is still intact (or was last time I visited her) – and it’s totally different from the more modern museum ships.

  • Chuck Hill

    Perhaps the Navy League and the Naval Institute could make this a joint project.

    We build ships on land like the “Recruit” to teach naval traditions and usage. Why not use a truly inspiring ship.

    This ship is absolutely unique. It has enough innovation on board to fill a hall at the Smithsonian.

    It would be a crime to see it sunk. While not as good a location as the Naval Academy. The ship was built in San Francisco. They have a maritime museum. Perhaps that is also a possibility.

  • http://blog.usni.org Pat Towell

    Re non-East Coast options: Olympia apparently is within the lift capacity of the two Marlin-class heavy-lift ships and, perhaps, others. U.S.S. Cole, carried home from Yemen by the Blue Marlin, surely was heavier.

    The question is whether Olympia’s structure would support it’s own weight during an open-sea transit, assuming the vessel was encased in some kind of cofferdam.

  • Dirt Sailor

    One might consider a move to Boston. There is plenty of quaywall seaward of Constitution at the Charlestown Navy Yard and, if in commission, Olympia could perhaps share her crew. Moored directly across the pier is the Fletcher-class destroyer Cassin Young to complement a nice progression of warship design and Navy history.

    Ahead of Cassin Young is Drydock #1 and her shops which could presumably serve Olympia as well as her other customers.

    Finally we have the Constitution Museum, security provided by the National Park Service and a steady stream of Boston Freedom Trail visitors.

    What more do we need?

  • http://aw1tim.wordpress.com AW1 Tim

    It is beyond my comprehension how this nation can give tens of millions of dollars to Palestinian terrorists posing as a legitimate government, yet cannot fund the preservation of so important a piece of US Navy history. Despicable.

  • Wharf Rat

    I suspect our Navy doesn’t want to support (read pay for) another museum ship. I know Nautilus is not in commission, but isn’t it still owned by the Navy because of her nuke plant?

    AW1 Tim: I’m with you. The money spent on garbage in the United States is legion, but we can’t spend money on this vessel, if memory serves, a National Historic Landmark?

    I believe this vessel should be permanently berthed out of the water, and I’ve got to believe that with the state of ship building in the US, there has got to be a drydock no longer in use that could be used to permanently house her.

    U 505 is inside, USS Drum is on blocks at Alabama site, two vessels on gulf coast are out of the water. As crazy as this sounds, we ‘de-launch’, reverse what the navy does with all of it’s ships. We launch by sinking a dry dock, so why couldn’t we lift her up and out?

    But I do wonder, as another poster said, if she is out of the water, could her structure keep her from collapsing?

  • Wharf Rat

    but what a great idea

  • TeakwoodDave

    I love the basic concept of re-commissioning the USS Olympia and the folks already commenting have some excellent ideas. SOMETHING needs to be done to save USS Olympia, one of the top three historic ships to serve our country in the US Navy. Regarding the San Francisco option, there is at least one inactive drydock at the old Hunters Point Shipyard. At one time, the USS Iowa was proposed to be berthed there.

  • Alan Hawk

    One group that is actively trying to preserve the vessel is the Frieds of the Cruiser Olympia. Their goal is to preserve it in Philadelphia. Contact them to offer your support. Their website is http://cruiserolympia.org/index.html

    Another thing we need to do is for everyone to write their congressman to put a hold on the Navy to prevent the current owners from scuttling the vessel.

  • Scott Saunders

    I sincerely hope that at least the USS Iowa is re-commissioned of the Iowa class, and brought back to full combat readiness.There is no argument that holds up against this if the facts are examined. Cost for cost and results of the Iowa class speak for themselves, let alone the structure of armor etc. these ships could sail for a very long time, and be much more cost efficient than the constant building of new tin-can classes of vessels. As everyone probably knows, she is languishing in Suison Bay reserve fleet with no real hope of being made into a museum anytime soon. What a shame and disgrace for this symbol of American power. Oh, I’m a Canadian by the way. I wish the US Navy and your Govt.would wise up and realize what they have.

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