Monday, June 27, 2011

A Little Naval History: The USS Olympia

We recently took a quick trip up to Philadelphia for both business and pleasure and T managed to find some time to take a tour of the USS Olympia, which is berthed at Penn's Landing as part of the Independence Seaport Museum's exhibit.   According to the museum, it is the oldest steel warship still afloat in the world, having been launched in 1892 and retired in 1922.  It is famous for its role in the US Navy's destruction of the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay on 1 May 1898, the start of the Spanish-American War.  The Olympia was the flagship of the American Asiatic Squadron and from her bridge, Commodore George Dewey at the start of the engagement famously told the ship's captain, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley."  The Olympia served in World War I and in 1921 sailed to France and brought the body of the Unknown Soldier home to its final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery.  Walking its decks provided a fascinating glimpse back to the birth of the steel US Navy.

The Olympia in 1899.

And today.  The Olympia is what was known as a "protected" cruiser, a type of cruiser of the late 19th century so known because its armored (steel) deck offered protection for its machine spaces from shrapnel caused by exploding shells above (the ship's coal bunkers also helped provide protection).  The protected cruiser was something of a bridge between  ironclads, which came to the fore in the 1860s-1870s, and fully armored cruisers.
Starboard side.  The submarine sitting next to her is the Bacuna (SS-319), a veteran of World War II and the Cold War.  Launched in 1944, the Bacuna made five wartime patrols and sank three Japanese ships.  Modernized in 1951, the Bacuna spent the Cold War trailing Soviet submarines with eavesdropping equipment.  She was retired in 1969.
Starboard shot of the Olympia's bow showing forward main guns, two 8-inch guns mounted in a cylindrical gun turret. The ship also had a turret mounted in the stern with two 8-inch guns.  The gun on the left is a 5-incher and part of the ship's secondary armament. 

Officer quarters.  This area was known as "Officer's Country."

Individual officer quarters.

Mess area for the officers.

6-pounder gun.  These were scattered throughout the ship and used to ward off torpedo boats.
Best view of the engines I could get as this area of the ship was closed.  According to Lawrence Burr's US Cruisers 1883-1904, the Olympia was powered by two vertical three-cylinder, triple-expansion reciprocating engines and had six boilers.  During trials, the ship's engines produced in excess of 17,300 horsepower and a speed of 21.7 knots.  With full coal bunkers, the ship had a 6,000 mile range.  Recommend Mr. Burr's book for further research by the way.

Machinery room.

Most of the ship's 417-man crew bunked, stored their gear, and ate on the berthing deck.
The "scuttlebutt" dispensed cool drinking water, a new innovation for such ships.  The Olympia also had the first onboard refrigeration plant.

Operating room.

Enlisted men's latrine.  Not much privacy.

5-inch guns.  The Olympia had 10 of these; five along each side.  The noise must have been incredible. 
And the projectiles they fired.
And, in honor of H's food interests, some shots of the galley:

Time honored duty of peeling potatoes.
Bread oven.
And the rest of the ship.

Weather deck.
Forward gun turret.   The Olympia was the only protected cruiser with turrets.  Unfortunately, I could not go inside either of the turrets.
The bridge.
Protected wheelhouse.  The slit of light at the top is a tiny slot for the sailor manning the wheel to look through during battle.
And some old photos of the ship's crew:

Sailors.  They sure do look small.
Marines.  Looks like mustaches were the thing to have in those days.
Washing clothes.
Making tattoos.
Officers entertaining a lady friend.
Ship taking on coal.

Shoveling coal.  Uggh.  What a nasty job that would have been.


  1. Very nice presentation of the story of the Olympia. Your pictures are excellent. I am always looking for folks getting her story out since my group, the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia, is working hard to make sure that she will be preserved and presented to the public in an even more exciting fashion for generations to come. We have some exciting news about her on our website. Please check it out.

  2. Friends of the Cruiser Olympia:

  3. Many thanks for your comments and the (very well done) website, Jay. The Olympia is truly a unique piece of American naval history, and even an old Army guy like me enjoyed walking her decks. I commend the mission of the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia and will become a regular follower of your efforts. It would be a shame to see the ship fall victim to neglect.