The USS Olympia Is a Cruiser with a Battleship’s Guns And A Very Long History

U.S.S. Olympia, Dewey's flagship, Battle of Manila Bay. Undated photograph,(Photo Credit: Irving Underhill / Getty Images)
U.S.S. Olympia, Dewey's flagship, Battle of Manila Bay. Undated photograph,(Photo Credit: Irving Underhill / Getty Images)

The USS Olympia is the physical representation of the saying “big things come in small packages”. Launched in 1895, the comparatively small cruiser was armed with weapons much larger than what would be normally found on similarly sized ships, like Britain’s Eclipse-class cruisers. Over her 27-year career, she certainly had her fair share of exciting moments.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the US Navy was unsure about which direction they should go heading into the 20th century, in terms of new ships. Wooden-hulled vessels were coming to the end of their usefulness, everybody knew that, but at this time newer steel ships were making even the Civil War-era iron ships obsolete.

Sail ships were efficient and, naturally, cheap to run, but they were outclassed by the much more flexible steamships in battle. In addition, the US desperately needed more vessels to patrol its coasts and to establish itself as a competent military power.

All the while budgets governed the cost of these ships.

USS Olympia

USS Olympia in early 1900s
USS Olympia, Port Bow, 10 February 1902. (Photo Credit: U.S. Federal Government / Wikipedia / Public Domain)

The Navy was faced with a tough decision: do they use sail or steam power, make lots of cheap ships or focus on coastal defense. Technology was moving fast, so making large commitments down any avenue was risky.

The Navy decided to build ships that were steam-powered but also carried masts so they could use wind power on long voyages. Each ship would be armed to the teeth to make up for any lack of numbers.

The pinnacle of these new ships was the USS Olympia, a vessel that checked all the boxes that needed checking at the time. She was 344 feet long, 53 feet wide and weighed over 6,000 tons. It had sails if needed, but with its steam propulsion, it could cut through the ocean at almost 22 knots (25 mph). The previously mentioned British Eclipse-class could only reach 18 knots (21.3 mph).

In terms of armament, the Olympia was what some may call overkill for a cruiser. Two turrets – fore and aft – contained the ship’s main armament of four 8 inch guns. Another ten 5 inch guns backed up the primary guns.

Later the ship received even more weapons – including Gatling guns – to increase its offensive capabilities. At the time many believed the USS Olympia to be an under-armed battleship or an over-armed cruiser that had no place in the Navy.

However, the vessel’s unique arrangement meant it was extremely capable; it was fast and powerful and capable of either outranging or outrunning its enemies.

USS Olympia’s service

USS Olympia Service
The USS Olympia on display as a museum ship on the Delaware River near Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. USS Olympia (Photo Credit: Jan’s Cat from Philadelphia / Flickr / CC By 2.0)

Commissioned on February 5, 1895, the USS Olympia was assigned to the Pacific where it became Commodore George Dewey‘s flagship. In 1898 the even more heavily armed cruiser USS Maine exploded violently in Havana Harbor. The actual cause of the explosion was likely an accident involving the crew or an overheated bulkhead, but the US blamed the Spanish.

Shortly after the explosion Commodore Dewey led a fleet towards the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. The USS Olympia went first, with the rest of the fleet sneaking in behind to try and bypass the Spanish coastal guns. The US fleet pulled up at the correct range, aimed, and with Dewey’s words “You may fire when ready,” they let loose on the Spanish ships. The American ships devastated the fleet and took control of the Philippines, which they would come to own in the peace treaty that eventually came.

After this action, Dewey and Olympia, from which he directed the battle, became celebrities. Nearly two decades later the ship was much lower on the food chain but was still in use, serving as a convoy escort during WWI and providing naval fire for an amphibious assault during the Russian Civil War.

In 1906 the HMS Dreadnought arrived, instantly making nearly every single warship obsolete overnight. Her influence was so great that she spawned an entire generation of battleships named after her. By the end of WWI, newer dreadnoughts with mammoth proportions outclassed even HMS Dreadnought herself.

Olympia was no longer relevant. The US, now able to afford a much more capable fleet, had no use for the aging cruiser. She was decommissioned in 1922 and destined for the scrapyard.

Fortunately, donors were able to raise enough money to save it from the gas-ax thanks to its significance. It was moored up in Philadelphia, where it has remained ever since.

Today the Flagship Olympia Foundation is hoping to place the ship in a drydock and give her an overhaul but is still trying to secure enough money to do so.

Let’s hope the USS Olympia will stay afloat for many years to come.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE