Project Update: Cruiser Olympia

Paul B. DeOrsay
Vice President for Operations, Independence Seaport Museum, Philadelphia, PA, USA.


My assignment today is to present a case study of a preservation work in progress: the U.S. Navy Cruiser Olympia, which is located in Philadelphia and has recently become the responsibility of the Independence Seaport Museum, of which I am V.P. of Operations. I realize that this is a conference primarily dedicated to technical aspects of preservation, and I will try to concentrate in this area, but it is only fair that I admit that, in technical matters, I have come here primarily to learn from others. This project is in its early stages, and we have been largely concerned with the broad strategies of preservation, rather than front-line tactics.

Ship History

The Olympia is a 5500-ton Protected Cruiser, built by Union Iron Works here in San Francisco, launched in 1893, and commissioned into service in 1895. She is, we believe, the oldest steel warship preserved today; Mikasa in Japan and Aurora in Russia being the two closest in age. Technologically, the ship represents an interesting transitional period for the US Navy, coming at the beginning of a decade when the fleet evolved from a wooden coastal defense force into the second most powerful navy in the world, capable of sustained distant action.

Olympia was designed and built entirely within the U.S., a stipulation which Congress imposed in order to force advances in American industrial technology. This tactic was successful, and though further advances after the turn of the century quickly left Olympia behind, she was very sophisticated for her day. In many ways, she embodies the vision of American sea power as articulated by Alfred Thayer Mahan, and executed by Teddy Roosevelt.

She served most notably as flagship of the Asiatic Squadron from 1895 to 1899. Her moment of glory came at the beginning of the Spanish American War in 1898, when she annihilated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay under the command of Commodore George Dewey.

After another year of service in the Philippines, she returned to the U.S., and was featured prominently in national celebrations of victory in that "lovely little war," as T. R. called it. After the turn of the century, she served briefly with the Atlantic Squadron, but with the advent of Dreadnaughts, she was soon de-activated and used for little more than midshipman cruises for the Naval Academy, and later a barracks ship.

She was re-activated for World War I, and served with the Atlantic Patrol Force. After the war, she did some "show the flag" cruising in the Mediterranean and environs. Her final cruise took her, in 1921, to Le Havre, France to bring the body of the Unknown Soldier to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery. She was retired at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1922.

COA Years

In the late 1950's a non-profit organization was formed to preserve the Olympia and operate her as a museum and memorial in Philadelphia. She was drydocked at that time, though circumstances (bankruptcy of the shipyard) prevented any significant work being accomplished. Various replications were carried out to return her to her appearance of 1898. The 8" turrets were mocked up and installed on deck, masts and fighting tops were reconstructed, and the missing 5" battery was replaced with similar weaponry to her original.

From 1959 until 1995, the Cruiser Olympia Association maintained and operated the ship and the submarine Becuna (acquired in 1975) as a museum and attraction in Philadelphia.

How the Museum became involved

In 1995, the Association, faced with mounting debts and recognizing that they were falling seriously behind in ship preservation, approached our museum about merging the two organizations. We were faced with a serious dilemma: we were in the midst of a $10 million construction project, moving the museum and collections, doubling the staff, and installing all new exhibits. Not a great time to take on two old ships! However, we had to recognize the significance of the ships, our own ability to do right by them, and the possible consequences should we decline. We agreed to take on the ships, and did so effective January 1, 1996.

What We Found

It has taken us some time to figure out exactly what we took on. In general, the ship shows every outward sign of a lack of routine maintenance; one of the first challenges has been to prioritize the needs list, which usually seems endless. So many things are so obviously in need of attention, that it is easy to get distracted. Given our situation, it was extremely important to develop a coherent strategy in order to address issues in their order of importance, and to harbor and develop our resources as efficiently as possible.

I suspect that we were moved more by heart than mind in accepting the ships. Internally, we are still adjusting to rapid, 100% growth in our operations; adding the liability of two ships (whose only asset at present is gate receipts and attraction value) has strained our resources considerably. What we are attempting to do is to hold our own and keep the ships open on a budget we can afford, while energetically seeking support elsewhere. Given our modest success to date, I am cautiously optimistic that we will be able to do right by the ships, without sinking the museum. I do want at least ten years to work with.

Good Stuff

Since most of my presentation seems to dwell on fairly horrendous problems, I want to take a bit of time to show you what is so special about Olympia, and some of the aspects of her preservation which give us hope.

Much of the ship's interior is reasonably intact, and from time to time I happen upon an area or piece which is absolutely astounding. I need to be a bit cautious since we are unsure as to the extent of replication carried out in the past, but there are many clearly original aspects which are absolutely astounding. Here are some slides of the best:

Officers' Country

The oak-paneled officers' cabins and wardroom, aft on the berth deck, have been restored and maintained quite well. It is interesting to note that these wooden bulkheads are all latched in place, so that they could be struck below in battle.

Enlisted Quarters

Note the original mess table overhead, ditty box racks, hammock hooks, etc.

5" Gun Admiral's Quarters.

The admiral's and captain's cabins are truly astounding, with extensive built-in furniture including glass-fronted china cabinets. Period photographs show these loaded with silver teas services, trays, loving cups, etc. The original decor was very reminiscent of a Victorian parlor.


Technologically, Olympia is a magnificent piece of work. She had electric power, refrigeration, hydraulic steering, and other engineering advances which are distinctive.

Engine Room

The port engine has been pretty thoroughly stripped, but here are some views of the starboard main engine room. 8,000 horse power, triple-expansion, a National Historic Engineering Landmark.

DOI Standards for Preservation

Our steering document has been the Secretary of the Interior's "Standards for Historic Vessel Preservation Projects." With the ship clearly showing an abundance of glaring needs and problems, it has been very useful to have a document with some authority to fall back on. For all intents and purposes, we have progressed little beyond the first few pages! We are still in the process of "assessment" and "protection," with some necessary work on "documentation." Knowing that a number of people here today participated in the creation of this document, I want to publicly thank you for your efforts. This is a very useful tool.

Early in our involvement, we drafted a Preservation Plan based upon the standards. This is a living document, revised and adjusted regularly as we learn more about the ship and her needs.

Assessment & Protection

What follows is a progress report on the project, with some specifics of what we have found in certain areas. In order to keep our perspective in light of an apparently overwhelming situation, I have developed my own Hippocratic Oath:

1. Do no harm.
2. A "serious threat" means nothing less than sudden and total loss of the ship.
3. What happens if we leave it alone?
4. Is the contemplated action reversible?


It was readily apparent that leaking decks were the source of the greatest on-going deterioration. Olympia's original decks are fir laid on steel beams. Over the years, various layers have been added to try to stop leaks, the most significant being a layer of concrete and a layer of fabric which contains asbestos fibers. The decks were leaking prodigiously when we came aboard.

Since most of the ship's remaining historic fabric lies below the weather decks, we gave a very high priority to stopping the leaks. Both wood and steel elements below decks have suffered from water and humidity damage. Our lives were complicated somewhat by the fact that our predecessors had arranged for the donation of services to "fix the decks." This consisted of laying a layer of plywood over the top (thus encapsulating rather than disturbing the asbestos cloth) and coating this with rubberized non-skid material. We were reluctant to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it began to become clear that this method was not going to keep water out. Ultimately, we secured and caulked the plywood, and applied a coating (Vulkem 350-351) to the work already done by our benefactors, and feel reasonably confident that we have bought five years or more of tight decks, through an entirely reversible system. There is a 5-year warrantee.

Making the choice as to the ultimate action to take on the decks is deferred, but I still dread it. Cost of replication in like kind is expected to be very high, yet the wooden decks are a key element of the ship's character. I am open to suggestions.


The same benefactors who did us a bit of a disservice on the decks did us a wonderful favor in re-wiring the ship. Original ship's system was 80 volts DC, wired through wooden conduits; not surprisingly, she was wired for 110/220 AC when she became a museum. Again not surprisingly, time and deck leaks had taken their toll, and the system was frightening. Having personally experienced a ship fire caused by an extension cord, a leaking sink, and old sneakers, I was particularly concerned that we not combine wiring and water on the Olympia. We had identified fire as the most likely and most serious threat to destroy the ship. In addition to achieving a safer system, we were able to upgrade exit and emergency lights throughout the public access spaces. We had identified "visitor injury" as a serious threat to the future of the ship, especially in light of an experience our predecessors had some years ago.

Looking Deeper

Corrosion / ACM

The problem which ranks closest to deck leaks in making our lives difficult (and in large part a result of those leaks) are ACM's - asbestos containing materials. Two months after taking over the ship we commissioned an asbestos survey, and the day after we got the results we closed the ship to all personnel. We had exposed, friable asbestos everywhere. For a relatively low cost, we encapsulated everything on the two decks open to the public, sealed off other areas, and re-opened. The engine room, which was open to the public, is repairable for less than $50,000. Our big problem is the boiler spaces, which contain so much asbestos and have suffered leakage and attendant corrosion perhaps uninterrupted since 1922. The frustration is that the boiler rooms are the only access to much of the hull interior; we cannot adequately inspect, let alone maintain, much of the ship because of this. We have much more to investigate, but my hunch at the moment is that the only cost-effective way to deal with the situation is to remove the boilers in as few pieces as possible. Even this could prove very costly.

Junk accumulation

If you're my age, you may remember that classic line in Alice's Restaurant: "...And having all that room downstairs...they got to thinking they didn't have to take out their garbage for a long time..." Tempting though it is to start chucking this stuff overboard, we have had neither the manpower nor time to ascertain what is garbage and what is Olympia's loose original equipment and fabric. But boy, will it feel good when we do!

Deck Structures & Coatings

As you can clearly see, rain and weather have wreaked havoc on coatings and wooden deck structures. Tempting though it is to tear into such things as the pilot house, we have had to back off. First things first, and we need time to determine what is there and what we plan to replicate. We have succeeded in collecting a fairly comprehensive set of ship's plans, and hundreds of photographs are available. We are now feeling confident that when the time comes, we will be able to carry out accurate reconstructions.

We plan now to remove existing coatings and recoat the exterior of the ship, above the waterline, in her present berth. Among the issues we had to weigh: We estimate that 90% of the existing coating is too bad to try overcoating with surface-tolerant epoxies. What is there must come off. Getting to a shipyard will require dredging her out and the attendant costs of drydocking, requiring money we do not have. Our plan is to have enough in hand when we get to the shipyard to do most of what needs doing. Coatings now in place contain lead. After discussions with many, many contractors, environmental agencies, paint reps, the SSPC, etc., we believe that it is possible to achieve adequate containment working in the water. Given the visibility of our berth, there is no question of taking any liberties with the letter of the law. We have not yet contracted the work, but are leaning toward a bridge-painting firm. These folks are used to working in sensitive areas, and are fully qualified for steel coating work. We have had to balance surface prep of the steel with how disruptive we can be in a very public berth, and recognize that we will have to settle for a less than ideal surface profile for the coating. Again, however, we expect to get ten years from the epoxy undercoat, and nearly that from an alkyd topcoat.


The mooring system is atrocious, and has been for twenty years. Between the location of the only mooring points (the cluster pilings), the fact that for now the ships must stay side-by-side (no water into which to move them) and the existing brow system, we are faced with an expensive problem. Clearly not good for the long term, but not an immediate threat. We may be finding a few affordable improvements to make in the current system.


When we came aboard, the old staff informed us that bilges drained into a common inner bottom compartment, which they pumped as needed. After we got some plans and a good man aboard, we found twenty-seven discreet inner bottom compartments, and what we believe to be historic rain water in many of them. We have de-watered, located sounding tubes and manholes, and cobbled together enough portable pumps to deal with the situation we found. This remains a concern for the long term, but we suspect that most of the water we found was from ship's plumbing or rain. With the decks nearly tight and the plumbing in better hands, we will soon have empirical evidence of the water source. I am actively seeking good ideas for a solution to the bilge pump problem, and for the best choice to make in the trade-off between ventilation and compartmentation.


For a number of reasons, sinking is not something we placed at the top of our list of concerns. (This is not to say that we don't care if we float!) First, the ship is afloat during all but the lowest tides. Were she to sink, she couldn't go far. Second, she is berthed in fresh water. Were she to sink, we would lose less historic fabric than in other catastrophes. Third, we simply cannot afford to do much about the hull below the waterline at this point in time. We have done some random audio-gaging, and there appears generally to be a decent thickness of steel left in the plates. We are taking steps to enhance our de-watering capacity, and to limit the possibility of progressive flooding.

Further, more detailed surveys are obviously called for.

Cathodic Protection

There is some slight possibility that the two ships have historically been protected by zincs, but we have not found any documentation that these were inspected, maintained, or replaced on any regular basis. (We do know that Navy dive teams conducted "inspections" from time to time, but we have yet to find any reports or records of same.) Every book tells us how important this is to ship preservation; at present, we are deferring action on this front, based upon the apparent low level of galvanic corrosion experienced in twenty years in her present berth.

Again, we need to investigate further.


In conclusion, I would like to state boldly that I am not embarrassed by our situation with regard to Olympia. (Frustrated and discouraged, quite frequently, but not embarrassed.) Faced with a seriously threatened historic ship of national significance, I believe that we are approaching the problem responsibly. I also believe that the Independence Seaport Museum offers the best hope for the ship, despite our lack of experience in "macro artifacts." What we do have to offer is professionalism, commitment, and a track record of developing the financial resources to handle major projects. I expect in a few years to be able to present a much more positive report on our accomplishments.

I thank you for your time, and for sharing your knowledge so generously with us. I will be happy to answer questions now, as time permits, and anytime later throughout the conference.

Slide List:

1 Evers Painting 25 Deck - rolling
2 Landmark Plaque 26 Deck - finished
3 Ship from ISM 27 New Wiring
4 Oly/Bec bow shot -good 28 Boilers - yuck
5 Officers Quarters 29 d'o
6 Ward Room 30 d'o
7 Jr. Officers mess 31 d'o
8 Crew's Mess 32 Asbestos sign
9 5" gun 33 Encapsulated ACM
10 Admiral's cabin 34 Legion Room
11 Historic Eng'rng plaque 35 Junk Room
12 Main eng 36 Chairs
13 eng 37 Boiler passage
14 eng 38 Bunker - good
15 eng 39 Topsides - coatings
16 Boiler 40 Topsides -paint
17 Reefer 41 Stack
18 Dynamo 42 Pilot House
19 Olybec bow NOW 43 Boat
20 Missing deck plank 44 Moorings
21 Corrosion 45 Manhole
22 Corrosion 46 Sounding tube
23 Deck Job - ply 47 Skylight aft
24 Deck - gooping 48 Gleaming profile

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