Almost gone, and already forgotten

On saving the U.S.S. Olympia’

6 minute read
Dewey on the 'Olympia' bridge, Manila, 1898: 'Fire when— glug glug— ready, Gridley.'
Dewey on the 'Olympia' bridge, Manila, 1898: 'Fire when— glug glug— ready, Gridley.'
A dream.

Yes, It must have been a dream, for here in the unassailable black-and-white front-page headlines of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Sunday editions (May 23) was the grim news: "Olympia facing a sunken future; historic Penn's Landing fixture may meet an ignoble end as a reef." Over on the jump page lurked another sharp thrust to the psyche: "Historic ship may be under water."

Barry. Jones, Farragut, Nimitz— wherever you are, can you not hear the historic orders as a treasure of our nation's glorious past dribbles from Admiral Dewey's lips: "Glub glub glub, Gridley, you may fire when… glub, glub, ready!"

But I digress from the dream.

Flash back to the year 1958— not too distant a past for some of us still alive, but obviously beyond the scope of the Inquirer's morgue or greybeards.

Into the modest offices of W.S. Roberts Inc. Advertising, enter one Charles Fish, salesman of WCAU-TV, and an unknown Francis Pastorius III— unknown to me (the younger partner of the two-man agency) but a hallowed name in the history of Penn's Greene Country Towne.

Fish and Pastorius, a former assistant secretary of the Navy, were on a crusade, a mission to rescue the historic cruiser Olympia from an ignoble end on a scrap pile.

Blown to matchsticks

Seems the Olympia was still on the Navy's active tonnage lists, listing ominously in the Philadelphia Navy yard, the lone survivor of the first all-metal warships afloat, the hero of the Spanish American war when it led a flotilla into Manila Bay to blast a doomed squadron of lumbering lumbered Spanish warships to matchsticks without suffering a fatality or injury of its own.

Little note had been taken of the Olympia's impending doom in the late 1950s. No committees of righteous Tea Party patriots, no naval McCains or paltry Palins, just Pastorius the Third and a shanghaied Fish to bang on doors and work the bars of Chestnut Hill and Helen Sigel Wilson's.

But to us Roberts brothers their crusade sounded a cut above the Old Philadelphia world of "I feed my doggie Thrivo" and "Nearly everybody reads the Bulletin" (maybe, but they sure didn't advertise in it when TV hit the hustings).

The power broker

I suggested we try to raise donations from successful power players like the lawyer Sam Blank— my first suggestion, because I thought he would at least take my call. He did, and Charlie, Francis and I were ushered into Sam's inner sanctum.

"Well young men (we were), what's on your mind?"

Charlie and Francis made their impassioned pleas and Blank's reply cut through the purple, heartfelt prose with a precision and logic I've taken as a mantra ever since: "That's a very laudable objective, gentlemen, and I wish you well. But I've got a few of my own."

Truer words were never spoken, I thought. But where to find the virgin wells of potential support within a sea of causes?

Chump change today

My older brother Wilmer— the mind half of our mind-and-mouth partnership— suggested a version of his penchant for collectibles. Not things like the "limited edition of private mints" (I would learn later that Wilmer's collectibles included such trifles as the handwritten four-page chronicle of President Lincoln's final hours in the hand of the physician who attended following Booth's shot to the head). No, Wilmer suggested we produce memorial coins from the metal innards of the historic ship and offer them to collectors and the public.

As I recall, the basic restoration needs for the Olympia's survival were in the neighborhood of $250,000-plus— real money in the 1950s, but chump change today, when the cost to salvage the magnificent S.S. United States (which also spends its terminal days on the Delaware) is put at $500 million.

But I digress.

Something of value

Flash backward to the "Final Cruise of the U.S.S. Olympia," or so the ticket I'm staring at reads. "Departure Keystone Drydock and Ship Repair. Date: Saturday, October 4, 1958. Boarding time: 9:30 a.m. Buffet Luncheon and refreshments Contribution: $25:00 Please present this at the Gangway."

Well, having learned well from my older brother that something like this cardboard ticket to a unique event may some day have both a material as well as a spiritual value, I hereby confess that I paid the $25 but kept the admission ticket. And thanks to my insider's connection, I absconded with a handful of the brass or copper coins, each bearing a relief of the ship on one side and the date and occasion on the other.

Some years later, before he passed away, Wilmer asked if I still had any of those Olympia coins that one dollar of a greater donation obtained.

"Yes," I admitted to the great collector, whose suggestion had contributed mightily to preserving the Olympia.

"Hang on to them," Wil advised. "They are now worth about $9 each, according to the Journals of Collecting."

The Inquirer's oversight

But I know all this aging prattle must be dream-induced, for how could that grand "final cruise" have ever taken place October 4, 1958 from Keystone Drydock down the Delaware River to its first berth on the north side of the Ben Franklin Bridge when the May 23rd Inquirer cries gloom and doom without an agate of reference to the successful effort to save one of Philadelphia's most powerful attractions, embodying as it does the first beginnings of the U.S. military's technological achievements?

The principals in that 1950s rescue were four guys, plus some metal from the propeller of the old warrior. In 2010, maybe we should call 911 and ask for the office of the Tea Party patriots whose greatest concern seems to be the right to bear arms in public.

Maybe they'd like to save a real part of our history. And maybe, before writing about the Olympia, the Inquirer's new owners should consult the paper's morgue.♦

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