Monday, September 27, 2010

USS Olympia - The Bridge

I'm going to start this post with the same confession I made in the comments on yesterday's post.

Before this weekend, despite the fact that bloggers who are better than I have been repeatedly trying to draw their readers' attention to the fate of this historical ship, I would have failed my own quiz. Sometimes I just don't pay close enough attention to things that I should.

But I didn't go to Philadelphia for the maritime history - or at least not the maritime history that's on the verge of being lost forever. Nope, I actually went to Philadelphia to see Cabaret Red Light's pirate show on board the tall ship Gazela! I'd planned to take TQ to see one of their shows at Atlantic Basin here in Brooklyn; unfortunately the Sunday night performance to which I'd bought tickets was rained out, and the next day, the day of the rain-date performance, the bug I'd been trying to brush off as "a little bit of a cold" all weekend finally just knocked me flat about 2 hours into the work day. My boss told me to go home & as soon as I finished my morning report, I did, and once I got home I didn't leave the house again until Wednesday. When blogging/boating friends Will (Tugster) & Elizabeth posted about going, I left a comment on her post mentioning how disappointed I was to have missed it. She instantly suggested a Philly road trip & the rest, as they say, is history.

I wasn't even thinking of how short the time for visiting Olympia had grown. Tugster Will gave me a ride down, Elizabeth was meeting us there after spending a couple of days in DC. We were getting there in the midafternoon, so we had some time to play with before meeting friends for dinner; not having had time during the week to do any research on interesting ways to spend an afternoon in Philly, I simply asked Will what we should do & he immediately reminded me that we are running out time to visit the ship that was Dewey's flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay.

So of course we went - and having SEEN her, I am now properly, deeply, and thouroughly appalled at the fate that may be facing this ship.

Not just because of the tremendous historical role that she played in our nation's history as a naval power, either.

So many of the historical sites and objects that we treasure are primarily of interest because of their associations. Take this house, for example -

Nice enough old place, right? Classic design, dignified & simple, without ostentation, pleasant enough to look at, but with that ugly blot of a blue tarp spoiling the basic scenic-ness of the view, why did I bother taking (and saving) this picture?

Because this was General Washington's headquarters. That's the backside of the Ford Mansion, in Morristown, NJ. The front is definitely more photogenic -

- but still, I don't think I would have thought of taking a single photo of the place if it hadn't served the role that it did in the winter of 1779-80.

But Olympia?


I think that even if I'd somehow managed to find my way on board without having even an inkling of the role she played in our nation's naval history, I would've still been amazed, fascinated, and TOTALLY shutterhappy!

The bridge shown in the photo that leads off this post is perhaps the most famous site on the entire ship. It was there that Dewey (a commodore at the time, promoted to rear admiral 10 days later*) began the Battle of Manila Bay with the command, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley".

But that's not the only kind of bridge that I found myself thinking of as I toured the ship.

She was built in 1893, 50 years after Great Britain, the first large passenger ship ever to use a combination of steam power, screw propulsion, and an iron hull.

That earlier was a technological breakthrough, but she still had the appearance of a full-rigged ship.

Olympia, on the other hand, struck me as really being something of a bridge between ship designs (especially warship designs) as they passed from the age of sail to the age of the modern vessel (steam, and eventually diesel and beyond).
Look one way, and you could be on an old square-rigger.

Another, and it could be the 20th century -

It wasn't the purpose of the trip at all - but I'm SO glad I had the chance to see her, and hope that in the end, it turns out that we weren't among her last visitors after all.

If she goes - it's not just a loss of a vessel that played a pivotal role in our country's military history - it's also a loss of a remarkable piece of boatbuilding, engineering, and technological history. It's mindboggling that something that's this old & interesting in & of itself (on TOP of being Dewey's flagship at the Battle of Manila) is facing a future as scrap metal, or a condominium for fish. Insane.

The really infuriating part in this horrible story is that the imminent loss of this treasure was caused, at least in part, by corruption & greed. Want to read more? Tugster's post (linked yesterday) included a link to a very good article in Proceedings, the magazine of the US Naval Institute.

Well. May the outcry continue to grow, and may she find her benefactors, as did the SS Great Britain herself.

Want to help? Visit the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia website.

*I did a fair amount of internet surfing while writing this post & having spent the weekend with college professors who have strong feelings about attribution, I'm feeling self-conscious. Plus you might even find the information interesting - this being a blog post, not a research paper, I didn't really GIVE that much info, but it's all good background, I think.

Naturally, I have spent some time visiting Wikipedia's articles on the Olympia, Admiral Dewey, and the Battle of Manila Bay.

In addition, I found myself getting very interested in finding out where Olympia fits in on the timeline of the development of the steamship. Found a couple of helpful spots for that:

A Timeline of the Industrial Revolution on

Infoplease had a nice little summary (although at least one date seemed to be off by a couple of years) - had information about the Great Western Steamship Company, the owners of Great Britain, including the detail about her restoration. A bit more searching led me to the website for -- which it turned out I'd actually been to before through some blog or another, anyone want take credit? - where I found more of the ship's history & pictures of her looking exactly like a full-rigged ship.


Anonymous said...

wow! i love this post. if this doesn't raise some ire or prevent Olympia from "going quietly," I'm not sure what will.

bonnie said...

Thanks, Will. Still a little shocked at myself for not paying more attention & making the effort to go to see her before it was too late. Nearly missed something quite special. Glad I went to Philly with the right people!

Buck said...

This is an awesome post. I think that the photographs help make a deep connection to the vessel in ways that mere words cannot. Yet, without the words, the photos, like Washington's HQ, are merely... quaint.

Excellent, excellent post.

Mage said...

Thank you so very much for this post. I would think that if we in San Diego can rehull the Medea, we in the US can save both the Olympia and the SSUS.

bonnie said...

I really had to see her to appreciate what's about to be lost - words & pictures just can't approach an actual visit. Think that's why I didn't become appropriately outraged until I went.

But I had to try, and add my own squeak (or would that be a ribbit?) to the chorus of protest.

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Pandabonium said...

While the ship is quite a marvel for its day it sadly represents a disgraceful chapter in the history of the American Empire - the Spanish American War spurred on by Hurst newspapers and followed by the genocide of the Philippine War of Independence and subsequent occupation and oppression of those people by the US until after WWII.

bonnie said...

Another reason for preservation - "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it".

I am sure that I learned about the Spanish-American war in high school, but as I was "researching" this article (I put "researching" in quotes because I was just doing the most cursory of memory-refreshers about the conflict in which this ship was involved), I found reminders that this was the war that gave us the term "yellow journalism".

Things haven't changed much, have they?

Pandabonium said...

It really is remarkable how little things do change, at least the same patterns repeat. Sigh.