Beaufort News

Local group wants to save famous battleship and bring to Parris Island

A group of Beaufort-area residents hopes to give a famous but ailing 19th century battleship a new home on Parris Island.

For the past two months, the group -- calling itself the S.C. Olympia Committee -- has looked into moving the USS Olympia from its home in the Delaware River near Philadelphia to a dry-dock facility it hopes to build on Parris Island.

Launched in San Francisco in 1892, Olympia is the world's oldest steel warship still afloat and was used by Commodore George Dewey to defeat a Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in the Philippines in May 1898 at the start of the Spanish-American War. The ship also was used in World War I before being decommissioned in 1922.

Pete Richards, one of the local group's leaders, said the ship would generate tourism in northern Beaufort County and would tie in with the area's other Spanish-American War sites, such as Fort Fremont on St. Helena Island.

"This is one of the most important ships in American history," Richards said. "We think that the impact on Beaufort of having the Olympia here could be very positive."

The 344-foot cruiser has seen better days.

The ship has not been dry-docked in 55 years, its hull is deteriorating, and necessary repairs are so costly that its caretaker -- the Independence Seaport Museum -- can no longer afford to keep the vessel.

"We've estimated that it will cost about $10 million between the hull work and the deck work," said Jesse Lebovics, the museum's manager of historic ships. "We've done what we could with limited sources, but the dry-dock and the deck repairs she needs are beyond this organization's capabilities."

Lebovics said the repairs would be the tip of the iceberg for the Beaufort-area group and others hoping to free Olympia from the mud in the Delaware River.

"That $10 million would be the cost of getting her back to the condition she was in when she arrived," Lebovics said. "She's not in any condition now to be towed down to South Carolina. An offshore tow around Cape Hatteras would cost -- well, that's up for Mr. Richards and his group to determine. They could also use a heavy-lift ship, which would certainly cost millions of dollars."

Though the group has yet to determine how to fund the project, Richards thinks Parris Island is where the ship belongs because it was once home to Naval Station Port Royal, a Navy dry dock and coaling station used to repair and refuel battleships like the Olympia during the Spanish-American War.

Richards said the group has been in talks with senior depot officials and plans to privately fund a study to determine whether a new permanent dry-dock facility could be built on the island and house Olympia.

"The Marine Corps was responsive to our proposal once we made it clear that this was a non-money issue for them," Richards said. "We think it could be good for the Marine Corps to be the long-term home of Olympia."

A Parris Island spokesman said depot officials have received Richards' proposal and will "forward it to higher headquarters for further consideration."

Richards said he hopes the study will be completed by late summer.

Museum officials said groups from Baltimore, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Philadelphia also have expressed interest in becoming Olympia's new home, and all groups must submit an application outlining their plans for the vessel by Sept. 1.

"The most important aspect of all this is preserving Olympia," said John Gazzola, the museum's president. "The location is secondary."

If a new home for the ship cannot be found, the Navy has recommended it be sunk off the coast of New Jersey and become a reef, according to museum officials.

Knowing they face an uphill funding battle and steep competition from other cities, Richards said the group remains confident about its plans for the troubled battleship.

"If we're able to save Olympia, it will be a true legacy, not only for Beaufort and South Carolina, but for this country," Richards said.