Olympia group working to save USS Olympia

OLYMPIA — The Washington State Friends of the USS Olympia want to assuage some guilt. They want to right a 120-year-old wrong.

The nonprofit group of high-ranking former state officials and maritime history buffs known as FOTO have launched a fundraising campaign to help save the world’s oldest steel-hulled warship from the scrap heap.

Anyone with a smidgeon of naval history knows a little something about the USS Olympia: It was the flagship of the Navy’s Asiatic Squadron under Cmdr. George Dewey, and fired the opening salvos at the Battle of Manila in the Philippines during the 1898 Spanish-American War. The fleet of nine Navy ships, including six warships, destroyed the Spanish fleet, and set the United States on a path of empire building that included the possession of Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Phillipines, Guam, Wake Island and Hawaii.

After the war, city officials invited war hero and newly annointed Admiral Dewey and his flagship to pay a visit to Olympia. They received a scathing rebuke from Dewey.

“The City of Olympia has not done its duty by its namesake,” Dewey wrote back. “All the other squadron ships have been honored by their cities (Boston, Concord, Raleigh, et.al.) The largest and best (USS Olympia) has not and is undervalued.”

At the Olympia Rotary Club lunch meeting Monday, rotarian and former Thurston County Commissioner Les Eldridge shared the story of the USS Olympia, a ship designed in 1889 — the year of Washington statehood — and talked of efforts under way to make amends for an historic oversight.

“We’ve done nothing to support the ship in 124 years,” said Eldridge, a maritime history buff and author of five Civil War nautical history novels.

City officials did raise $8,000 to purchase a silver tea service set that they donated to the ship’s officers in 1900, shortly after Dewey upbraided them. Then Olympia Brewery founder Leopold Schmidt donated a robust shipment of Olympia beer for the enlisted men of the ship.

Today, the silver tea service sits in the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia, on loan from the Department of the Navy since 1930. And the USS Olympia, which was decommissioned in 1921, sits in leaky ill-repair at the Independence Seaport Museum on the banks of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In 2010, museum officials said they could no longer afford upkeep on the vessel, which hasn’t been in dry dock since 1945. They sought a new owner with $30 million to tow, restore and maintain the historic warship. No viable offers surfaced.

Museum leaders officially announced last week that they won’t sever ties with the vessel, if they can raise the millions of dollars it will take to keep it afloat. The first restoration phase is a $7 million project to repair and replace a leaky, thinning ship’s hull. Add replacement of the rotting, wooden deck and other long-term repairs and maintenance, and the bill quickly climbs to $20 million.

FOTO’s leadership group includes former governors Dan Evans and Chris Gregoire, former secretaries of state Sam Reed and Ralph Munro, former chief justice of the state Supreme Court Gerry Alexander, Olympia ex-mayor Doug Mah and Dave Nicandri, past executive director of the Washington State Historical Society. The group’s first task is to catalog and digitally display ship artifacts found statewide. Next, the friends of the old warship will produce educational programs for students and adults to tell the story of the USS Olympia’s place in world history.

It’s a pretty lofty position. The ship served with distinction in World War I. It was assigned a peacekeeper’s role after World War I in the Adriatic Sea and had a gunboat diplomacy role during the Russian Revolution. The ship’s last, somber assignment was an Atlantic crossing from Le Havre, France in October 1921, returning the remains of the American Unknown Soldier for burial in the Arlington National Cemetery.

Eldridge shared other historical tidbits about the ship. For instance:

USS Olympia Capt. Charles Vernon Gridley was gravely ill with cancer when Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay issued his famous command: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” The captain died two weeks after the battle.

Olympia became the ship’s namesake by default. The new state’s U.S. Sen. Watson Squire recommended Olympia to Navy Secretary Benjamin Franklin Tracy. The senator steered clear of recommending Seattle, Tacoma or Spokane to avoid political — and voter — fallout in the more populated cities, if one were chosen over the other two.

FOTO will also launch a website next month, complete with a video and a crowd funding campaign on behalf of the Independence Seaport Authority’s ship-saving efforts. The group will target members of maritime history groups, service clubs, veterans associations and others. The message is compelling: The USS Olympia is in its final battle, just to stay afloat.

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