Olympia Returns Home
April 29, 2014 – Morning had arrived and dawn was just breaking on the Delaware River. The cabin tops were still covered with dew as Captain Christensen stepped aboard and headed up to the bridge. Once there he fired up both Alco diesel engines on the Hercules, his 140 ft. ocean going tug. His crew was already aboard and they’d been looking forward to this morning for a long time. The next few days promised to be an interesting break from the normal routine of towing barges up and down the coast. Today they would be initiating the transit of a national historic landmark to her final home. A transit that when completed would also complete circumnavigation of the world by the USS Olympia (Olympia), a circumnavigation that was 119 years in the making. Their immediate destination was the heavy lift ship Falcon standing by near the mouth of Delaware Bay in anchorage area 110.157. The Falcon was standing by in that location, because the water depth is sufficient for Falcon to submerge enough to allow the Olympia adequate clearance to transition onto the Falcon’s deck. That is, if Olympia didn’t sink by herself before arriving at the designated spot. The threat the Olympia may take matters into her own hands and sink while under tow was a major concern.
August 1895 the last person on the west coast to see the Olympia was the Lighthouse Keeper at Point Bonita. Since then we have kept the light on for the Olympia.
The Olympia had lain rusting and forgotten at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River for some time now. While she had enjoyed a level of popularity among some small special interest groups, for the most part Olympia’s rusting hull was a reflection of a lack of public interest. The ship’s stewards had had tried unsuccessfully to engage the public to raise the funds necessary to sustain the Olympia. Turns out the story of how the United States had ascended to the role of a world power; the story of the population of our coastal cities once being nearly hysterical “knowing that a powerful Spanish fleet was about, dreading that their coast line should be ravaged, that their cities might possibly be put under tribute and their lives and property imperiled” ; the story of our ancestors united nationwide and for over a week thirsting for any scrap of information regarding the fate of the American fleet at Manila Bay was no longer a story that generated any interest. The lack of interest in the story of the Olympia had now manifested itself in a critical lack of funding to maintain the ship. The Independence Seaport Museum (ISM) had tried, but could never raise the funds necessary to repair the ship. Finally ISM conducted a feasibility study, which determined that the lack of public interest made it impossible to raise the substantial funds needed for Olympia’s preservation, and so the ISM decided to divest itself of the ship. In 2010 the ISM announced their intent to scrap or sink the ship.
The scrapping announcement led awoke a flurry of outrage and activity which eventually resulted in the ISM offering the ship to any entity who could demonstrate the wherewithal to operate her as monument. The ship was made available to other entities and a number had applied. There had been efforts from around the country to provide a permanent display site for her: She could have been towed to Paris Island where a group in South Carolina planned to display her aboard a barge or she could have been towed to the west coast where a group had a had secured a historic granite dry-dock ready to display her out of water where she would be protected from further corrosion. This was the same dry-dock that had been used in the 1890’s to dry-dock her prior to her famous battle at Manila Bay. What all these solutions had in common was a need for money to capitalize their respective efforts. Money was needed to repair her hull, to tow her and to make the other repairs. The efforts to raise funds had all begun with great optimism, but the philanthropic realities of the post-mortgage crisis economy and the general lack of interest in historical resources from the Spanish American war soon dimmed that optimism. By early 2013 the fundraising effort were not even close to approaching the $20M needed to bring the Olympia back to her home in California. But then a series of events took place changing what had been a dismal picture.
It started when a Vallejo City Councilman arranged a meeting with the Philippine Consul General of San Francisco to discuss the plight of the ship and the efforts to preserve her. It was not surprising that the discussion resonated, because the 90 million people of the Philippines can trace their independence to a spot on the forward bridge deck of the Olympia. It was from that bridge deck that Admiral George Dewey leaned into the brass communication tube and said “You may fire when ready Gridley.” That command not only resulted in Philippine independence, but it also proved to be the tipping point in the United States emergence as a world power. With that command, the United States Ship of State threw the helm hard over away from isolationism and accelerated to flank speed onto the world’s stage. There would be no turning back, and the course of world history was forever changed.
The discussions with the Consul General regarding the Olympia were brought to the attention of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III who, in turn, suggested in meetings with President Obama that it would be unfortunate for both countries if the Olympia were to be lost. Given that the US foreign policy was undergoing a pivot to the Pacific this resonated with the President Obama.
President Obama needed only to look to the proactive action taken by President Reagan to save the Statue of Liberty for a model of how to proceed at a time when government alone was not in a position to underwrite the maintenance required to save a historic landmark. In 1982 President Reagan made Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca an offer he, as Chairman of the recently bailed out Chrysler Motor Corp. and as the son of immigrants, couldn’t refuse. Lee Iacocca was asked to lead a Centennial Commission to raise private funds to Repair the Statue. That effort had proven to be a successful collaboration between government, private industry and the public. An effort that had raised over $400 million through donations, grants and the first time ever use of a cause marketing campaign by American Express to raise the required funds. President Obama decided it was appropriate to take similar action and directed that call be placed to the recently bailed out General Motors Corporation. The Chief Executive Officer of General Motors, Daniel F. Akerson’s, phone rang and he soon committed to lead a commission to raise the $20 million needed to save the Olympia. As before with the statue of liberty, it was that phone call that gave the Olympia fundraising campaign the kick it needed to bring the Olympia home.
Visibility, endorsements and donations began to flow in as the public responded to the opportunity to participate in bringing their National Historic Landmark back home. Consistent with the old axiom “success breeds success,” Offshore Heavy Transport AS, a Norwegian oil service company, donated the heavy lift ship Falcon for the duration of the transit. The MIHPF was responsible for crew salaries and consumables. Then Chevron weighed in donating the oil for the Falcon to carry the Olympia from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Vallejo, California. The Panama Canal Authority (with the support of the Electoral Tribunal) voted to allow transit of the Olympia at no cost in honor of her history. However, as important as these donations in-kind were, it was the dramatic increase in interest and small donations from the public that had turned things around. The other significant factor was the dramatic decrease in the budget required to capitalize the establishment of the Olympia as a monument at Mare Island. In a key finding; the MIHPF had secured approval to conduct the transit of the Olympia without incurring the costs and delays associated with what most had assumed was a mandatory dry docking of the ship in Philadelphia to complete hull repairs. That finding was a huge cost saver reducing the capitalization costs for putting the Olympia on display back home in Northern California by over $10 million.
Once the diesel was up and running Captain Christensen went down below to make sure that the crew had the coffee brewed and he checked the buoy reports and weather forecasts. These all looked good; current conditions of light winds and waves and no change in weather predicted for several days. While sipping his coffee he got on the phone to Jesse at the ISM who confirmed that the tow was on. The Navy, the United States Coast Guard and others had all reported readiness. He had directed that the crew cast off and made way for Penn’s Landing. By 08:30 he had Hercules connected to the tow bridle, and the harbor tug Samson was standing by to assist him in moving the Olympia out into the Delaware River. Also standing by in the river was a small fleet of the rescue and salvage ship USNS Grapple (T-ARS 53), USS Coast Guard Cutter Sailfish (WPB 87356), several USCG response boats, and over 50 private vessels including party boats chartered to view the departure, personal boats, and charter vessels carrying camera crews.
Now that the Hercules and Samson were hooked up and ready, Captain Christensen and his crew would await the conclusion of pier side ceremonies. Those ceremonies would go on for almost 2 hours as Philadelphia pulled out all the stops to wish the Olympia on her way. speakers discussed the significance of the Olympia highlighting her role as the platform from which the United States emerged as a world power; the fact that she was the flagship that ended over 300 years of brutal Spanish colonial rule of the Philippines; or that she is the world’s oldest surviving steel hulled warship. The speakers would go on to discuss the Olympia’s role in the Russian Revolution, peacekeeping in Balkans and her mission to bring the Unknown Soldier home from France for internment at Arlington. A number of the speakers would also refer to the incredible reception she received in 1899 in New York. When Olympia and Admiral Dewey returned from the battle at Manila Bay, an adoring public welcomed them in New York harbor in a naval parade with over 150,000 people aboard a column of ships stretching 12 miles in length. Then, at a land parade, 3.5 million people participated in Admiral Dewey’s reception with more than 1 million people coming from outside New York.
Finally, the last speaker was on the podium at 10:30AM discussing how the Olympia was returning to the home of great monument that was erected to the Olympia out in San Francisco where Olympia had been built in 1892 and repeating much of what the prior speakers had to say. Captain Christensen was getting nervous. Slack water was 10:27 and the ebb tide had begun. Captain Christensen’s goal was to move the OLYMPIA out of the harbor at Penn’s Landing at high tide and catch the ebb tide heading downriver. With the condition of the Olympia’s hull he needed to make the transition out of the harbor and into the Delaware River with as little current as possible. The opportunity for that transition was now and it would be gone in another 30 minutes if he didn’t get this show on the road. Captain Christensen radioed the Samson and together they began cycling their diesels to try and signal the blowhards on shore to get on with show.
The subtle hint seemed to have worked as a few minutes later Captain Christensen got the word that damage control personnel were on board and the Olympia was ready for departure. From there it only took about 20 minutes to maneuver the Olympia out into the river and he proceeded with the tow downriver accompanied by the flotilla of escort vessels and spectator vessels. Now the challenge was to keep her afloat until she reached the transition point, 100 miles downriver where she would be loaded aboard the Falcon.
During the months leading up to the tow there had been quite a debate about this part of the tow because she would be floating on her corroded hull. There had been much angst over the possibility that she would sink creating a navigational hazard prior to reaching deep water in the Delaware River or later following offloading from the Falcon in San Pablo Bay out in California. In order to address that concern a marine surveyor had certified her for tow based in part on an engineering analysis which had been conducted on her hull. That analysis had concluded that in the water repairs to the corroded sections of the hull along the waterline were sufficient to ensure that, even though she would never see open waters, she could survive the dynamic forces of open ocean tow in wind and seas up to force 7 on the Beaufort scale (31 to 38 mph). In addition to that, the MIHPF had arranged for the presence of a Navy damage control team on board with pumps and other damage control equipment as well as the presence of a salvage ship, the Grapple standing by to render assistance when Olympia was floating on her own bottom. The Military Sea Lift Command was providing the Grapple and a Navy damage control team as training exercise. After the Olympia was safely in the river Hercules proceeded downriver with her tow. Soon after leaving Penn Landing the majority of the pleasure fleet lost interest and dropped off. The much smaller flotilla then reached the transition point at anchorage 110.157 around midnight where they rendezvoused with the Falcon. Once there, they dropped anchor for the remainder of the night. The transition aboard the Falcon would take place at high tide the following morning.
Beginning at 08:00 a final check was made on the cradles which had been welded on the deck of the Falcon to hold the Olympia. Following that check the Falcon was submerged to her maximum depth to await slack tide. At 09:46 high tide arrived. Winds were within specification and Capt. Christensen got the word to begin maneuvering the Olympia over the Falcon. By 10:30 Olympia was in position and the order was given to begin the pump-out of the Falcon’s ballast. Pump out was done in a very controlled manner to allow Olympia to be slowly raised into the cradles. Pumping continued, to allow the inspection of the hull interior and exterior as the loading was increased. At 13:00 the deck of the Falcon and the hull of the Olympia were out of water and exposed for the first time since 1945. Visual inspections of the hull commenced and continued to dark. The inspections confirmed the results from prior ultrasonic inspections of the hull and inspections by dive teams. Essentially, the significant corrosion damage was confined to the waterline and a small area of the hull beneath a cistern. The following morning, May 1, 2014, the hull was secured and the marine surveyor conducted a final inspection. Falcon was certified for departure to San Francisco. With that, the Captain of the Falcon, set course out of the Delaware Bay past Cape May. Thus, on the same day that in 1898 the Olympia engaged the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay she now departed for San Francisco 5,321 nautical miles away. This return voyage would result in the Olympia’s circumnavigation of the globe and her return home to San Francisco for the first time since she departed Mare Island in 1895.
Olympia was now en route to the Panamá Canal 2,000 nautical miles away. If all went well, she would reach the canal 6 days later. Weather remained favorable and the canal was reached on schedule. The transit of the canal was completed without incident and on May 8 the Falcon was in the Pacific headed for San Francisco 10 days away. News coverage had been growing with the images of the canal transit and while the route of the Falcon through San Francisco Bay had long been published, interest was now peaking as local news outlets were providing coverage highlighting the best viewing locations along the shoreline for viewing the Olympia and a rush was on to charter all available vessels for viewing of the return of the Olympia.
On May 16 the Falcon rendezvoused with USS Dewey and the USNS Salvor of San Diego. The Dewey was named after the famous Admiral who had commanded the fleet from the decks of the Olympia in the long ago naval battle at Manila Bay. In addition, the Military Sealift Command Rescue and Salvage Ship USNS Salvor (T-ARS 52) had been dispatched from Hawaii to accompany the Dewey, Falcon and Olympia on the transit to San Francisco. Dewey would escort the Olympia under the Golden Gate and fire a 21 gun salute in the Olympia‘s honor as she passed along the San Francisco Waterfront. The Olympia was now 2 days from returning home under the Golden Gate Bridge. Meanwhile up in San Francisco an incredible spike in interest was taking place. It seems that the fact that great warships had once been built in San Francisco, built from steel that had been milled in San Francisco and iron that had been mined in California was resonating. That, coupled with the realization that the great monument in Union Square was actually a monument to Olympia and the fleet she led further increased interest. Given the growing level of interest, one would almost think that it was 1899 again and the Olympia was returning for the first time to her home in San Francisco rather than the wild welcome she received in New York City in that year.
The fog bank had just moved back outside the Golden Gate Bridge at noon on May 18. Just outside the gate the USGS High Endurance Cutter Boutwell (WHEC 719) along with several rapid response boats and the San Francisco fireboats Guardian and Phoenix emerged from the fog. The fireboats were pushing arcs of water high into the air. The first thing observers on the hills saw was the spray from the nozzles on the fireboats. Then the small flotilla emerged from the fog. Thousands of people lined both walkways on the Golden Gate Bridge. A bridge that had not existed until 42 years after the Olympia had last transited through the Golden Gate. Thousands more also lined the cliffs along both sides of the Golden Gate. The collective gasp from the thousands of onlookers was audible as the fleet emerged from the fog. Within moments, the fleet was greeted by the horns whistles and bells of the huge fleet that had assembled to view the spectacle. This was truly a moment for the ages and everyone who had assembled to view it was aware of that fact. No one was left alive from the day the Olympia last transited the Golden Gate and never again in course of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people lining the shores would the opportunity present itself to view the Olympia in transit San Francisco Bay. Olympia was headed for permanent safe harbor out of water in Mare Island’s historic granite drydock.
The Falcon and the Olympia were off Marina Green in 20 minutes and the Dewey began a 21 gun salute. Immediately following that salute a flight of Super Hornets overflew the Olympia and the waterfront. Following transit along the San Francisco waterfront, the Falcon turned north towards the transition point where Olympia would once again be floating on her bottom for the final leg of the trip to the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard. For now, the Falcon, Dewey and the Salvor would anchor on Southampton Shoals for the night to await the next day and the coming high tide. The next morning Navy damage control personnel were again stationed aboard the Olympia as the Falcon steamed two miles to the transition at a deep hole just past the Brothers in the southernmost part of San Pablo Bay. By 09:30 the Falcon was settling to the bottom and 10:00 the Olympia was once again floating free on San Francisco Bay in the very spot she would have passed by on her last trip out of the bay in August of 1895. The tugs Delta Linda and Delta Deanna soon had the Olympia under tow the short distance to Mare Island.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s Yacht Potomac welcomes the Olympia. During the darkest hours of WWII President Roosevelt personally countermanded the Secretary of the Navy’s order to scrap the Olympia because of her historical significance.
The hills along the Carquinez Straits, and the Mare Island and City of Vallejo waterfronts were lined with people as the Olympia approached. She remained under the escort of the Salvor and the Dewey and the fireboats Guardian and Phoenix. Again, the first thing observers on the hills would see as Olympia approached was the spray from the nozzles on the fireboats. Olympia entered the Napa River an hour later and was soon standing by Mare Island’s Dry Dock 1, a National Historic Landmark. In the days preceding Olympia’s arrival permanent cradles had been cast in place on the floor of the dry dock, the entranceway had been dredged and the caisson had been removed. Now all that remained was to await high tide the following morning and move the Olympia into her permanent home. The following morning the final leg of Olympia’s journey commenced. As high tide and slack water approached Olympia was moved in place over her cradle in Dry Dock 1. The caisson was then floated into place and submerged against the dry dock seals. Pump out of the dry dock commenced as temporary brows were lowered into place, all because you cared enough to donate to this great effort.
The Officers and Directors of the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation thank you for your generous donation and we look forward welcoming you aboard the USS Olympia when she returns home to her permanent safe harbor in Mare Island Naval Shipyard’s historic granite dry dock.
Awesome, I am donating now!