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Sinking the symbol of a superpower's rise

Can the Olympia be saved from a watery grave?

"You may fire when you are ready, Gridley." Those words were uttered by Commodore George Dewey aboard the Olympia on May 1, 1898, as the United States was about to assert itself as a superpower.

The setting was the Philippines, at Manila Bay, and the enemy was Spain, whose colonial dominance over the Philippines and much of the American hemisphere, including Cuba and Puerto Rico, was about to be successfully challenged.

More than 100 years later, the United States continues to exert a worldwide influence that was born at that moment. So it's ironic that the Olympia - which has been docked and displayed on the Delaware River waterfront, here in the cradle of U.S. history, for more than 50 years - is about to meet its demise at friendly hands.

The old gem of naval architecture is decaying. The Independence Seaport Museum, its host, estimates the cost of restoration at $20 million. Given the weak economy and lack of spirited suitors, the ship seems destined to be sunk off the coast of Cape May to form an artificial reef, seen only by serious divers and sea creatures.

The Olympia happens to be the world's oldest floating steel warship, and its significance has not been lost on generations of visitors. When I was a youngster, my parents took me to see the charming vessel, its cramped quarters belying its huge role in the war. It is a source of pride in our nation, and a feeling that our democracy did much to free people from colonial rule.

It's fitting that the Olympia rests on the shore of Philadelphia, near the hill William Penn ascended when he founded the city. The ship is closely linked to our nation's founding and its growth.

The nonprofit group Friends of the Cruiser Olympia is leading an effort to raise money for the ship's preservation, and it has begun receiving pledges from individuals and corporations.

The Olympia "was a symbol of America's might and freedom," said the organization's president, Harry Burkhardt. "Now she's a symbol of negligence."

If you want a final glimpse of a national treasure that's on life support, my advice is to pay the Olympia a visit by September. By then, its closing could be imminent.

But if Dewey, the "Rough Rider" Teddy Roosevelt, and the other heroes of that war with Spain were able to succeed in their missions, why can't it be our mission to raise the money needed to preserve this chunk of history?

John Locke wrote that "all the light we can let in upon our minds, all the acquaintance we can make with our own understandings, will not only be very pleasant, but bring us great advantage, in directing our thoughts in the search of other things." Let's continue our search by preserving a vessel that navigated uncertain waters in its day. Let's have a stay of execution for this treasure.