Setting sale: USS Olympia now on the market

The USS Olympia is now officially on the market.

The caretaker of the floating museum–the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia–has invited potential buyers to kick the tires of the former warship during a three-day summit this week.

Groups from Baltimore, South Carolina, San Francisco and Philadelphia are vying for the iconic ship.

The Olympia was commissioned in 1895 as one of the first warships designed for electricity. The last surviving ship of the Spanish American War, the Olympia also saw combat during World War I.

“The period of this ship saw vast changes in navies. America was coming out as a world power,” said Mike Kearny of Jenkins Hill International, a Delaware County-based consulting firm bidding for the Olympia. “She’s the only ship from that era, very unique and important to preserve.”

The ship is in desperate need of maintenance. It has not been dry-docked in 55 years and rests in the silt on the bottom of the Delaware River. The ship has risen with the river tide and then settled back down into the mud, every six hours, for 55 years. Each cycle damages the hull a tiny bit more.

Repairing the damage is estimated at $10 million.

The competitive bidding process brings the plight of the ship to a wider audience, with each organization chasing preliminary funding. But that could hurt fundraising efforts in the long run.

“This is a maritime heritage site–how big is that in the scheme of tourism around the United States?” says Bruce Harris, director of the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia, based in Philadelphia. “You’re dealing with a small pool of people who would donate to that–now we’re going to diffuse the pool amongst everybody else.”

The Seaport Museum wants to find a good steward of the ship because it has had difficulty raising money for the Olympia’s upkeep. The ship does not fit in with the museum’s strategic plan of representing the history of Delaware River maritime culture.

The Olympia, which was never in Philadelphia during its active service, arrived as a floating museum. Although the ship had no ties to the city in its heyday, its afterlife as a cultural destination has become part of its historical significance.

“I was struck by the chapel in the bow of the boat,” said Seth Bruggeman, a historian at Temple University, on a tour of the ship. “It was added during the ’50s, after the Olympia was brought to Philadelphia, as a spot local couples could get married. There are aspects to the Olympia’s history that really speak volumes as to how a community values a historic resource that may not be immediately evident to historians.”

Regardless of who buys the ship, and where it lives out the next phase of its life, the Olympia cannot leave Philadelphia until the Delaware River is dredged deep enough for the hull.

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