Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office

USS Olympia in Delaware River
USS Olympia in Delaware River

Celebrating Keystone’s Silver Anniversary with the USS Olympia

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Happy Fourth of July Pennsylvania – and Happy Anniversary Keystone Fund – from the PASHPO staff!

As we celebrate this holiday, I would like to reflect on the many historic resources in the Commonwealth that serve as reminders to our nation’s efforts in the pursuit of freedom and the hard work of our partners to preserve these symbols of our freedom for future generations. One of these significant resources is the former USS Olympia, an active naval vessel from 1895-1922. Now under the stewardship of the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, the USS Olympia is a floating museum on the Delaware River.

We also want to celebrate the anniversary of a very important program that makes saving national treasures like the USS Olympia possible: the Keystone Recreation, Park & Conservation Fund.

A quick note about the Keystone Fund

The Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund (Keystone Fund) was created in 1993 by the PA legislature as dedicated funding for conservation, recreation, and historic preservation projects in the commonwealth.  Since 1993, the Keystone Fund has improved communities across Pennsylvania by providing grants for parks, trails, open space, libraries, and over 570 historic preservation projects in 65 counties!  Help us celebrate the anniversary of this amazing program all year long!

Crane fixing clock on building.

Follow the Keystone Fund celebrations this year with #KeystoneFund25.

The USS Olympia Story

From the moment of her launching in 1892, Olympia was a rare treasure in the U.S. naval fleet, as no sister ships were ever built. She is the world’s oldest floating steel warship, the sole surviving naval ship of the Spanish-American War, and is one of only two American warships that served in World War I that are still afloat.

USS Olympia in Delaware River

The USS Olympia at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. Photo by ISM.

Olympia served as Admiral Dewey’s flagship at the 1898 Battle of Manila Bay, which marked the United States emergence as a world naval power. Olympia’s last official naval mission was to carry the body of the Unknown Soldier from France to the United States in 1921. The cruiser is considered a National Historic Landmark as well as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

It’s next chapter…

No longer in active service, the ship attracts 110,000 visitors to the Independence Seaport Museum, including many from outside the Southeastern Pennsylvania region.

The ship plays an important role in the Museum’s education programs for students in grades K-12, welcoming over 12,000 students annually for standards-aligned thematic tours, multi-faceted STEAM-based learning and mentorship projects, and out of school time workshops and summer camps. The museum offers public programs about the ship’s history, technology and engineering feats, and the experiences of officers and enlisted men who proudly served aboard. They include lectures, behind-the-scenes tours, and special events – all while still on the water!

How does an organization maintain such a significant vessel? 

The answer is through careful study and continual stewardship. The Independence Seaport Museum completed a Historic Structure Report (1999) to guide most of the preservation work. It, coupled with a full archive of architectural and builder’s drawings and photos from her service period (1895-1922), is the basis of their interpretative and restoration programming.

This impressive archive includes over 500 full ship construction drawings, plans for engines, boilers, deck arrangements and all machinery and equipment as well as hundreds of photographs and other archival materials. Luckily, the ship retains the vast majority of her original materials, including machinery that are still in working order.

Room with wood panelling and metal machinery.

Pilot House on the USS Olympia. Photo by PA SHPO staff.

Over the years, Independence Seaport Museum has worked on a number of projects to improve the visitor experience, expand programming and protect the vessel. The Olympia has also been a recipient of the National Park Services’ Save America’s Treasures Grant and a two-time recipient of its National Maritime Heritage Grants.

Large wheels below wood deck.

Completed deck repair on the USS Olympia. Photo by PA SHPO staff.

The museum is also a partner in the PHMC’s Keystone Historic Preservation Grant program for the restoration of Olympia’s pilot house, after bridge deck (signal bridge), casemate windows of the Admiral’s Cabin, Captain’s Cabins, and the Stateroom, and extensive hull repairs to ensure her continued watertight integrity for the next five to eight years until she is drydocked.

Independence Seaport Museum was selected for a Keystone Historic Preservation Grant in the PHMC’s 2017 round of funding to create a comprehensive electrical and wastewater collection and transfer systems plan for both the Submarine BECUNA, the World War 2 era submarine, and the Olympia.

Large metal submarine.

The WWII-era Becuna submarine at Independence Seaport Museum.  Photo by PA SHPO staff.

Like their other Keystone funded projects, the goal is to improve visitor experiences and ensure the safety of visitors and staff. It will provide the museum a path to reactivate several historic systems of the vessels, such as ventilation systems, electric deck winches, and historic lighting circuits, for better preservation, interpretation, and educational programming.

Interior room with cable at ceiling.

Poorly run electric cabling on the USS Olympia. Photo by ISM.

Keystone Grants make a difference!

This investment from the Keystone grant program enhances the Independence Seaport Museum’s role in the revitalized Delaware River waterfront, displaying interpreting and connecting the maritime past with modern issues affect the watershed today.

Although the Olympia was not associated with Philadelphia historically, her presence along the river since 1957 has made it a lasting impression in the cultural memory of all Pennsylvanians. And most importantly, ensures this symbol of our nation’s maritime history is shared with our next generation.

To learn more…

To learn more about the Independence Seaport Museum and Cruiser Olympia, please visit http://phillyseaport.org/olympia about their tour opportunities and special programs. Or visit https://flagshipolympia.org/ to learn more about the history and technology of the vessel.

To see the recent press release about the Keystone Historic Preservation Grants, please visit the PHMC website at: http://www.phmc.pa.gov/Pages/default.aspx.

To learn more about the Keystone Fund, visit https://keystonefund.org/.

Decorative logo for Keystone fund

Author: Karen Arnold

Karen Arnold manages the Keystone Historic Preservation Grant program at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

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