Historic battleship wasting away in Philadelphia

    USS Olympia needs $10 million in repairs to escape scrap heap

    Preservationists are delighted that philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest has pledged more than $5 million to rescue the aging ocean liner SS United States.

    But there’s no such good news for a historic battleship that could be headed for the scrap yard.

    Moored at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia is the USS Olympia, the oldest steel battleship in the world.

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    It was U.S. Adm. George Dewey’s flagship at the battle of Manila during the Spanish-American War in 1898. The ship was dispatched to Murmansk to fight the Bolsheviks in 1918.

    It’s now owned by the Independence Seaport Museum.

    Historic ships manager Jesse Lebovics loves to acquaint visitors with details of its history, like the fact that her sailors didn’t have sleeping quarters with bunks.

    “Three hundred people swung in hammocks on this vessel, almost a hundred on this deck alone,” he said. “Two people lived back there – the admiral and the captain.”

    If the Olympia’s past is colorful, her future is uncertain.

    Ships of her vintage should be drydocked and repaired every 20 years. Lebovics said the Olympia is about 45 years overdue.

    “It needs to be hauled out of the water, and the steel plating repaired or replaced where needed,” he said. “There are 64 holes that I have personally patched, almost all of them.”

    Lebovics said they need about $10 million to get the ship to a drydock and make repairs, and another $10 million as an endowment.

    Without the money, he said, the ship could be scrapped or towed somewhere and sunk as a reef.

    Rachel Nessio, who was touring the ship on Friday, was shocked to hear that the vessel’s 52 years as a floating museum could come to an end.

    “That’s just amazing. It would be a real tragedy to not keep up all these historical landmarks,” she said. “We’ll forget where we came from.”

    Lebovics said the museum is working hard to find some high-profile donors to get the preservation effort moving.

    But as things now stand, public tours will end the week after Thanksgiving.

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