As many of the Brethren are probably keenly aware, when times get tight for local and Federal governments, one of the first things to go is a budget for history. Museums shorten hours or close as do historical spots like homes, monuments and so on. Ships, of course, are no exception and in fact may be more susceptible to the creep of economic decline than land-based history. The push to privatize historic ships on display began some twenty years ago. The current economy hasn’t helped the situation much.
This article from the New York Times of last Wednesday points up in microcosm a situation that is going on across the country. The story focuses on three ships: USS Olympia (shown in the picture above, from the article), United States and USS New Jersey. All three of these ships are in peril of being scrapped or scuttled, some more than others.
USS Olympia was built in 1892 and, according to the article, is the oldest steel warship afloat. She was involved in the Spanish-American War, among her many duties during her prime. The ship is a National Historic Landmark and is owned by the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. Unfortunately she is in need of $10 million in exterior repair. Failing the sudden generosity of a very wealthy benefactor, the Museum will close Olympia to the public November 22nd. The plan, as of the writing of the article, is to scuttle her to make an artificial reef. U.S. history’s loss will be the fishes’ gain.
The cruise liner United States, which was summarily gutted and left to rust in 1996, was just about to hit the scrap heap. Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. Lenfest, whose father built parts for the ship back in 1952, infused the ship with a jolt of cash to the tune of over $5 million. A conservancy has been set up. The current plan is to refurbish the ship and turn her into a floating hotel and/or casino.
USS New Jersey, a World War II era battleship, is docked in Camden, New Jersey and gets 250,000 visitors a year. The state, who funds the ship as an historical landmark, threatened to cut financing and the ship’s executives had to scramble. The staff was reduced by half. Now, creative fund raising ideas include “Battleship New Jersey” wines with beers in the works.
The article notes that “… many of the 100-plus historic Navy ships in American ports are in need of money.” There does not seem to be a cheery outlook for the problem, either, particularly when one considers the drastic (some would say frightening) cuts being perpetrated on the modern U.S. Navy. The Olympia, whose interior is in tact and an historical treasure, is just one example of the potential carnage that will occur over the next few years.
The article is a good reminder that there is a lot to lose in our history, seafaring and otherwise, and that it may be time for the citizens of our country to take the reins – as we have so often in the past – and save at least some of our floating landmarks. It seems to me that the formation of conservancies (as with United States) or not-for-profits could raise private money and make viable the rescue of so much history. But then I hear Mike Rowe’s basso voice quoting once again: “Opportunity is often missed because it shows up wearing overalls, looking like work.” And all that would be a ton of work, wouldn’t it?