Two ships at risk of not staying afloat

Baltimore Sun

There is a preservation battle brewing in Philadelphia, which might become the last port of call for two historic, aging ships whose survival is in jeopardy.

The two vessels are the cruiser Olympia, Admiral George E. Dewey's flagship, whose victory over the Spanish naval squadron at Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War marked the nation's transformation into a world power; and the luxurious United States, the crack trans-Atlantic liner that completed only 400 voyages during her all-too-brief 17-year commercial career sailing between New York and Europe.

The United States set a world's record for an Atlantic crossing on its maiden voyage (its top speed remains classified) that still stands nearly 50 years later.

Completing an eastbound voyage July 7, 1952, the ship had crossed from New York's Ambrose Lightship to Bishop's Rock, off the English coast, the official measured Blue Riband course, in 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes.

With an average speed of 35.59 knots - about 41 mph in land speed - the United States set a pace that was 10 hours and 8 minutes faster than Cunard's Queen Mary, whose average speed on her record-breaking voyage in 1938 was 31.69 knots over the 2,938 miles of ocean.

Authorized by Congress in 1888, the Olympia, 344 feet long with a beam of 53 feet and a displacement of 5,870 tons, was built at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco.

Commissioned in 1895, the ship, with a top speed of 21.7 knots, became the flagship of the Asiatic Squadron, and on May 1, 1898, led the squadron into Manila Bay.

Standing on the bridge in the early morning light, Dewey turned to the Olympia's commander, Capt. Charles V. Gridley, and famously said, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley."

The Olympia served in World War I and in 1921 embarked on what was perhaps its most solemn mission, when it returned the Unknown Soldier from Le Havre in France to Washington for burial.

Finally, decommissioned in 1922, the ship languished in the backwaters of the Philadelphia Navy Yard for nearly 40 years, until being transferred in 1957 to the Cruiser Olympia Association, which then docked the vessel at Pier 11 near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in the Delaware River.

Since 1976, the ship has been one of the main maritime attractions at Penn's Landing, and in 1996, the Independence Seaport Museum took over maintenance from the Cruiser Olympia Association, which had struggled for years with limited funds to care for the ship.

Now, the Olympia, the only surviving warship afloat from the Spanish-American War and a major national historic treasure, is sailing into an uncertain future.

After having spent more than $5.3 million trying to keep the vessel afloat, its current owners are looking for a new steward or stewards who have the estimated $30 million to $40 million dollars needed to make the Olympia shipshape.

"We have spent a heck of a lot of money and put a lot of tender loving care into the Olympia, but we now have to put our role into context," said Peter McCausland, chairman of the Independence Seaport Museum's Board of Port Wardens, the other day.

"We're at the point now that we can't do what we've been doing anymore, and we've told the Navy that. We're hoping they'll step up and find a home for her, and we've told them that we'll cooperate in any way that we can," McCausland said.

What is of immediate concern to McCausland and his museum is the deteriorating condition of the Olympia's steel hull and decks.

"We don't think she's in imminent danger of sinking, but then again, she hasn't been pulled from the water since 1945. We have monitors and alarms, but for every week or month that goes by, problems could develop," he said. "She simply needs the $30 to $40 million to stabilize her and receive the care and attention she deserves."

About a mile away from the Olympia along Delaware Avenue in South Philadelphia, rises the United States - known as "The Big U" - with its enormous, faded, winged red, white and blue funnels, and hull and superstructure of peeling and rusted paint.

Visitors get to glimpse the vessel behind an industrial fence, docked at Pier 96, where she has been tied up since 1996.

And despite its appalling condition, the grandeur of its design, courtesy of the great naval architect William Francis Gibbs, is still capable of moving those who come to remember, pay homage, snap a few pictures and ponder its fate.

It was built between 1950 and 1952 at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. in Virginia.

In addition to its speed and comfort, the ship's statistics are impressive. At 990 feet, it is 108 feet longer than the Titanic, and has 12 decks as compared with the ill-fated White Star Liner's nine.

The United States could accommodate 1,928 passengers and a crew of 990, while Titanic's passenger and crew capacity was 3,547.

Since 1969, after it completed her last voyage, the United States has been laid up.

"She is an iconic liner, there is no doubt about that," said Matthew Schulte, executive director of the Steamship Historical Society of America, in Providence, R.I., whose organization preserves printed and photographic material and records relating to liners, steamship companies and maritime artifacts, but does not physically preserve or maintain retired passenger vessels.

When plans to convert the United States and put it into the Hawaiian cruise business fell through, its owner, Norwegian Cruise Lines put it up for sale last year. NCL, a part of Genting Hong Kong, purchased the ship in 2003 and has faced annual maintenance costs of $800,000.

NCL, which had offered the ship to the SS United States Conservancy for $1.5 million, is now in a desperate race to keep the vessel from falling into scrappers' hands.

In a March 3 statement, NCL announced that the "vessel continues to be listed with a ship broker who is focusing on a sale to a U.S. entity," and that the company has continued to have discussions with the conservancy.

"But to date, they have not made an offer to purchase the ship. ... Therefore, we continue to seek alternative arrangements with the intent of selling the vessel to the suitable buyer."

"Fewer and fewer ships survive once they are out of active service," Schulte said. "It takes a bunch of crazies like us to get the word out and still we lose ships like the E.M. Ford, a Great Lakes freighter that went to the scrappers, or the Delta Queen, whose ultimate fate is unknown."

Schulte says that ships are "time capsules that ply the waters and tell stories; however, they are cost-prohibitive to maintain" without proper long-term funding.

"It's the biggest, best and fastest passenger ship, and if everyone in the maritime community gave $5 to the conservancy, the United States could be saved. It could happen," said Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman and chairwoman of the federal Maritime Commission who, as maritime editor of The Baltimore Sun, was aboard the vessel for its epoch-breaking 1952 voyage.

"Actually, NCL ought to give it as a gift to the U.S. because they've made so much money here and they can afford to do it," Bentley said recently.

Regarding the fate of the Olympia, which Bentley thinks is a historically critical vessel that needs to be spared, she suggested that its current owners prevail upon the Pennsylvania congressional delegation to get the funding through a federal earmark.

"That's exactly what Paul Sarbanes did when he got the necessary money for the preservation and restoration of the Constellation," she said. "The United States could be converted into a hotel. Philadelphia needs hotel space, and think of the jobs it would create."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad