USS Olympia saw service in the United States Navy from her commissioning in 1895 until 1922 as a 5,300-ton protected cruiser. She launched on November 5, 1892. Her claim to fame came when she led five warships in to Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War on May 1, 1898. Navy Commodore George Dewey stood on her bridge and utter the famous words: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” The fleet destroyed ten Spanish cruisers and gunboats without losing a single American life.
The ship was decommissioned after returning to the United States in 1899, but returned to active service in 1902. Her first duty was to serve as the flagship of the Caribbean Division.
She served until World War I as a training ship for naval cadets and as a floating barracks in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1917, she was mobilized again for war service as the flagship of the US Patrol Force, patrolling the American coast and escorting transport ships. She patrolled the eastern seaboard of the United States in search of German warships.
Following the end of World War I, Olympia participated in the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War in 1919 as well as conducted cruises in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas to promote peace in the unstable Balkan countries. In 1921, the ship carried the remains of the First World War's Unknown Soldier from France to Washington, DC, where his body was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Olympia was decommissioned for the last time in December 1922 and placed in reserve.
In 1957, the US Navy ceded title to the Cruiser Olympia Association, which restored the ship to its 1898 configuration. Since then Olympia has been a museum ship in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which now part of the Independence Seaport Museum. It is currently the oldest steel warship still afloat and the only surviving vessel from the Spanish-American War.
There were about 19 documented deaths (all various accidents) aboard the USS Olympia. One being that of Coxswain John Johnson who was killed in an accident involving one of the 5 inch guns during its first gunnery practice on April 20, 1895. She has seen her share of paranormal experiences. Witnesses have reported shadow figures, apparitions, footsteps, voices, and unexplained knocking.
The USS Olympia has been a maritime museum since September 11, 1957. However, due to lack of funds and poor ship conditions, she is in danger of being sold for scrap or be scuttled somewhere offshore, becoming an artificial reef. The Philadelphia museum is soliciting bids from other organizations to acquire the Olympia, saving it from such a fate, but its future remains uncertain. For more information on the efforts to save the USS Olympia go to www.tcohs.org.