Museum puts giant metal band-aid on Olympia

The historic ship staff of the Independence Seaport Museum applied a 16-foot-long metal patch to the Cruiser Olympia on Tuesday, July 26, to help protect the ship’s deteriorating hull.

The repair job was performed at low tide, when the most severe decay of the ship’s exterior was exposed.

The repair crew worked from a small motor boat and floats adjacent to the ship, which has been berthed at Penn’s Landing for more than 60 years. It is hoped that the patch will help sustain the hull’s integrity until the Olympia can be towed to dry dock.

When that will happen is still in question.

The historic ship has not been out of the water since 1945, and its hull is an eighth of an inch thick at the worst spots. Inspectors have estimated the Olympia will sink in place within three years if it is not towed to dry dock and repaired at a cost of about $20 million.

At least six organizations, including the Philadelphia-based Friends of the Cruiser Olympia, have expressed interest in becoming the next steward since the museum hosted a summit to save the ship last spring. The deadline for any group to apply and submit a plan to be a “transfer candidate” for the Olympia is Sept. 2. The application can be found at www.phillyseaport.org/olympia_transfer.

The Olympia is the oldest steel warship afloat. Launched in San Francisco in 1892, the Olympia was Commodore George Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, where he gave his famous order on the ship’s bridge: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridely.”  The 344-foot Olympia, which carried 34 officers and nearly 400 sailors, features two-ton piston heads, exquisitely crafted gears, rods, tubes and levers, and hand-oiled walnut casings of two notable 3-cylinder triple-expansion steam engines. Under full speed of 22 knots, about 25 miles per hour, the Olympia devoured 20 tons of coal every hour, and carried enough onboard to last three months.

The Olympia devastated the Spanish fleet and lifted the U.S. up as a world power. The ship has been designated a National Historic Landmark and National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. She is on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of the Save America’s Treasures program.

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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