Steam, Guns and Furniture

Olympia is the ship that brought America onto the world stage in 1896 as the flagship of the victorious American fleet in battle of Manila Bay. America’s part in a half century struggle for control of the Pacific began at Manila Bay. Japan entered the struggle in the Russo-Jap war of 1904 –1905 and it was only in 1945 that the outcome was definitive. The warships of the time were only just becoming modern; they were an amalgam of the Civil War ironclads and the sailing ships that preceded them. When built Olympia carried sails, not to fight with but to conserve coal, a concept we may yet get back to. She was powered by two coal fired triple expansion steam engines, not the oil-fired steam turbines that would soon follow. Olympia had a fleet of boats, and in amongst her guns she had structures aptly described as deck furniture.

         Stepping aboard one is immediately struck by the class system of the time. The officers had cabins and the crew hammocks. The cabins were outfitted with writing desks, lockers, a proper bunk, and a wash basin. The common sailor had all he owned in a bag and his hammock was rolled up and stowed when he was not in it. The next thing to strike one is the technology of the time, this is the industrial revolution encapsulated in a riveted steel shell. There are steam engines for the steam engines, There was steam everywhere in the ship powering ash hoists from the boiler room and providing a modern way to do laundry. To stand in her engine room is to stand in the very center of the industrial revolution and be awed by the might and power of steam.  Equally impressive is how hot the ship must have been in the tropics, but there is a steam powered ice maker aboard.

         On land one of the uses of steam power was millwork.  The Victorian era loved its millwork and it was steam power that made it all possible. As with anything humans have just learned how to do they took great joy in doing it just because it could be done. Every piece of wood went through a battery of machines to be ogeed, bull nosed, beaded and turned. When it was time to build a ship, particularly a flagship, it was only natural that this technology should be turned loose wherever possible, On Olympia it is seen in the deck structures; the hatches, skylights, pilothouse and signal house. Below decks it is seen in the officers quarters reaching an apogee in the Admirals cabin. Standing in that space it is clear not only that an Admiral lives very differently from the common sailor bedded only fifty feet away but that a warship was designed to be a diplomatic tool as well as a weapon, The two functions appear to be on an equal footing here. “Walk softly and carry a big stick” is a sentiment clearly expressed throughout the ship.


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