Each year on Memorial Day most of us, at one time or another, have witnessed the commemorative laying of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. On Nov. 11, 1921, an unidentified soldier who had been killed in France was buried there in a temporary crypt over which a marble slab was placed. The completed tomb was dedicated as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Nov. 11, 1932.
What most of us don’t know is how that original unidentified soldier was transported from France to the United States. That unknown soldier was delivered to Washington D. C. by the USS Olympia. The Olympia is the oldest steel warship afloat in the world. She was launched in San Francisco, CA, in 1892. Today she resides dockside at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia.
On May 1, 1898, Olympia devastated a Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in the Philippines, beginning the Spanish-American War. Olympia helped catapult the United States into the role of superpower and won fame for her most famous officer, Commodore George Dewey, who was later promoted to Admiral. It was from Olympia‘s bridge that Dewey delivered his famous order, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” Olympia also served her country during World War I.
Cruiser Olympia was decommissioned in 1922 and has been part of Independence Seaport Museum’s Historic Ship Zone since 1996. Olympia is a National Historic Landmark, a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is part of the Save America’s Treasures program.
An iconic symbol of American history, Olympia now risks sinking at the dock and being forever lost. Her hull is severely corroded, compounded by weather leakage through her rotted exterior deck. She has not been hauled since 1945 and currently has 62 patched holes below the waterline and two compartments that are flooded.
Because Olympia has not been out of the water for more than 60 years, she is in critical need of dry docking for major hull repair and exterior deck replacement. The entire restoration project, which also includes visitor and educational enhancements, will cost $19.5 million. This project will be a significant regional economic stimulus. Multiple industries and workers will be required to perform the dredging, towing, ship repairs, and visitor enhancements, plus the newly refurbished Olympia will spark increased attendance and revenues for local and regional tourism.
Now is the time to memorialize this fading piece of history by saving her. If you want to protect this national treasure please contact the Independence Seaport Museum with your donations.