Beaufort group may seek to land cruiser Olympia

In 1895 the Olympia was in dry dock, being prepared for its fighting days ahead.

Independence Seaport Museum

For 90 years, the cruiser Olympia has been a fixture on the Philadelphia waterfront, but the museum that operates it as a tourist attraction said it wants to get rid of the historic ship. The Olympia played a key role in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898, in the Spanish-American War.

Maybe it's time for another historic museum warship to take up a berth on the South Carolina coast -- this one from the Spanish-American War.

A Beaufort organization is making a bid to become the next home of the cruiser Olympia, Commodore George Dewey's flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay that gutted the Spanish fleet in 1898, helping cement America's role as an emerging 20th century global power.

For the past 90 years the Olympia has been a part of the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia. But the museum that currently operates the vessel as a tourist attraction said the ship no longer fits in with its increasingly regional maritime thrust.

"She's expensive and she doesn't connect with our mission," said Capt. John Gazzola, president of the Independence Seaport Museum. Unless a new steward is found, the 344-foot ship otherwise might face being scrapped or scuttled as an offshore reef.

Museum officials hosted a summit this month on the ship's future where a half-dozen organizations from around the country showed an interest in staking a claim. One of the last entries came from the Beaufort-based S.C. Olympia Committee.

Group spokesman Pete Richards said the committee envisions the ship being a focal point of a national remembrance site to the Spanish-American War, where an overmatched Spain was soundly thumped by U.S. might, leading to territorial expansion across the globe.

"Our thinking was, this could be the only place in the nation that could focus on that Spanish-American War period," said Richards, who served in the U.S. Navy.

Beaufort's contribution during the war with Spain is little known outside the region. The expansive Port Royal Sound was relied on by the Navy as one of the largest deepwater harbors on the Atlantic.

And nearby Fort Fremont was part of the new line of coastal defenses built during that time.

The Port Royal area also had a strategically available dry dock and a coaling station that became vital to servicing the Atlantic naval fleet. The infamous battleship USS Maine is known to have made its last stop for provisions there before heading south to Havana, Cuba, where it later exploded at anchor, triggering the fighting.

Richards said the dry dock is still there, inside the gates of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, though filled with water and marsh. His hope is that the mud covering the estimated 400-foot-long dry dock could be cleared out and the Olympia placed in its space.

"It was the only major dry dock between Norfolk and Key West," Richards said. "This would be a major undertaking, for sure."

The Beaufort group met with representatives of Patriots Point on Wednesday to lay out its plans and seek advice about launching a museum project, Richards said.

Five other groups also have shown an interest in the Olympia, from Newport, R.I.; the Washington area; San Francisco, where the Olympia was built; Texas; and another group in Philadelphia, according to published reports.

For any of them making a serious bid, cost and long-term fundraising are sure to be major considerations. Estimates run as high as $5 million needed for immediate stabilization of the Olympia, and $20 million more needed to move it and tackle other much-needed maintenance and repairs.

One report estimates that the ship's hull has weakened to an eighth of an inch in spots.

When it was launched in 1892, many saw the Olympia as state of the art in warfare, straddling the age of sail and steel. Today, it is considered a National Historic Landmark, among several other listings that set it apart in U.S. maritime history.

For now, the various groups hoping to land the Olympia are in the process of drafting feasibility proposals of where and how they would move, preserve and present it. Richards said his group's fundraising plan hinges on appealing to anyone who served in the military, such as Marines who went through Parris Island, even schoolchildren.

The decision-making process of who gets the ship could go on for months, as a number of stakeholders in the ship's future are involved, including the U.S. Navy and the National Park Service.

Richards said the Beaufort effort still is in its early feasibility stage, but added that pursuing the Olympia is a worthy effort, considering its role in the story of America's expansion.

"The thought of this becoming a fishing reef is not acceptable," he said. "Times are tough, but this is one thing we don't want to let go. It's got too much national history."