Historic Ships Struggle To Stay Afloat

The USS Olympia in Philadelphia helped defeat the Spanish flotilla at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898. Now, the ship needs a new steward and $10 million in repairs.

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At a dock in Philadelphia, there's a vessel that played a key role in the Spanish-American War, the USS Olympia. It's one of a number of historic ships around the country in need of immediate maintenance.

Yowei Shaw reports that the Olympia is in danger of being sold for scrap unless someone takes over the bills.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL TOLLING)

YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: On the cruiser Olympia, it's easy to get excited about history. The red and white, 344-foot vessel brought home World War I's Unknown Soldier. She helped win the Battle of Manila Bay. She's the world's oldest floating steel warship, and the first vessel to have electricity and ice machines. She's even been featured on an episode of Syfy's "Ghost Hunters."

JESSE LEBOVICS: As they say, there is activity on board. She's old enough.

SHAW: Jesse Lebovics is ships manager at the Independence Seaport Museum. It's poured over $4 million into the vessel since 1996.

LEBOVICS: I'll just grab a flashlight. The area is lit, but it's so far down that if the lights go out, it could be awkward.

SHAW: But the museum can't afford the $10 million needed to stabilize the ship long term. It's already cost 120,000 just to keep her floating each year.

LEBOVICS: Right next to it - see a little bit of water there? That indicates there's some leakage going on in this area here.

SHAW: Now, the Olympia is at risk of becoming a ghost herself. Lebovics says without significant repair, the ship could sink in five years.

BRUCE HARRIS: If someone said to you, you know what, we really can't afford to take care of the Statue of Liberty anymore, you know, everyone would be appalled.

SHAW: Bruce Harris is president of the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia. It's one of four nonprofit, largely volunteer groups around the U.S., hoping to take over ownership. But not surprisingly, the economy has made it harder to raise funds. Harris says part of the problem is getting people other than history geeks to care.

HARRIS: The modern-day person isn't as connected to ships anymore, which I find amazing, because a lot of your goods, your services, your produce, your automobiles all come and are delivered by ship.

SHAW: So it's up to the historic ship preservation community to make ships, well, sexy. In a step in that direction, the seaport museum will turn the Olympia into a temporary tattoo parlor later this year to raise a little bit of money. Other groups, like the SS United States Redevelopment Project, are focusing on the economic and commercial potential of ships. The SS United States was saved from the scrapyard with a $6 million donation. But now, managing director Dan McSweeney has plans to make the ship self-sustaining with restaurants, a hotel, maybe even a nightclub. McSweeney fell totally in love with her while on a road trip 12 years ago.

DAN MCSWEENEY: I got off the highway and just basically stared in awe of this incredible creation in front of me. This is kind of like my life's goal: to make this thing work.

SHAW: McSweeney has even gotten others excited about his dream. Grammy Award-winning producers Skip Denenberg and Andy Kravitz wrote a song last year to help raise money for the ship.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Well, she once was the pride of America, the best of the ships on the sea. She was built fast and strong, about 1,000 feet long and was powered by engines of steam.

SHAW: Whether or not they're successful, veterans, maritime history lovers and other volunteers will continue trying to save these pieces of American heritage. For NPR News, I'm Yowei Shaw in Philadelphia.

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