Great Video – save the SS UNITED STATES
Every ship has a soul – Franklin D. Roosevelt
The great steamships and liners – UNITED STATES, AMERICA, CONSTITUTION, BRAZIL, SANTA ROSA, LURLINE, PRESIDENT WILSON – were the pride of the nations that built them, an integral part of history, and a glorious symbol of an age passed. Their preservation should have been assured as a legacy to be gazed upon with a sense of wonder by the generations that followed the golden decades of transatlantic travel.
Great Britain had the Mauretania, the Olympic, and the Queens, Mary and Elizabeth. Italy built the Rex and the Conte di Savoia; Germany, the Imperator. The French launched the Ile de France and, later, the Normandie. America produced one ship that could fit into that august company of legendary ocean liners: the S.S. United States.
With the exception of only two, they are gone forever. They may have outlived their times, but the magnificent liners of the past earned a greater respect than what was ultimately accorded to them. Some of mankind’s grandest achievements were reduced to piles of metal junk.
Allied bombing during World War II destroyed the Rex. The Queen Elizabeth was consumed by fire in Hong Kong harbor. The Olympic, Imperator, Conte di Savoia, and Ile de France all fell victim to the scrap yards, as did the Normandie after she was ravaged by a blaze during refitting for war service in 1942. Franklin Roosevelt stated that sinking the Mauretania in the deepest part of the ocean was a far more worthy fate for her than the indignity of being stripped naked and then dismembered. He was right.
Marlon Brando and Salvidor Dali enjoying after dinner coffee in the First Class Lounge of the SS United States.
One of the Queens escaped. In 1967, the Queen Mary was converted into a hotel, museum and tourist attraction in Long Beach, Calif. Work is ongoing to restore her to her former glory.
At the other end of the country, time has not been as kind to the S.S. United States. She is moored, structurally sound and intact, beside Pier 84 on the Delaware River just south of downtown Philadelphia. Although the ship still presents an impressive sight, recalling the awe that she must have conjured as the flagship of the United States Lines, a closer look gives the viewer the unnerving feeling that she is slowly, but inexorably, just fading away.
Tracks of brownish rust now cascade down the once immaculate white superstructure and large flakes of peeling paint hang from the black hull. At one time, her two gigantic winged funnels were brightly painted in the nation’s colors, brilliant red, with a gleaming white band and topped in blue. Today, the stacks look as if they are both enveloped in a fine mist, the once vibrant tones are as muted and indistinct as a photograph left too long in the sun.
SS UNITED STATES – waiting for fate.
On her maiden voyage, the United States broke the speed record held by the Queen Mary for the previous 14 years, besting the Cunard liner’s time by 10 hours, to become the recipient of the coveted Blue Riband. It is an honor that she still holds over half a century later.
The United States was 108 feet longer than the Titanic and boasted three more decks than the fabled White Star liner. She was built in Newport News, Va., at a cost of $78 million. No wood was used in the ship’s framing or in her interiors to minimize the risk of fire. Launched in 1952, the vessel made 400 crossings during her 17-year career, traveling a total of 2.8 million miles.
After the United States Lines withdrew her from service in 1969, the ship passed through a series of owners. She was purchased by the Norwegian Cruise Line in 2003. The company’s plans to put her back into passenger service fizzled and she is now up for sale.
Even as the waters of the Delaware constantly slap gently against her hull, the specter of the scrap yard forever hangs over the great liner. The country that once took such an immense pride in the ship as a symbol of American might, ingenuity, and accomplishment seems to have largely abandoned her.
She has not been completely forgotten, however. Since 2004, the S.S. United States Conservancy has been attempting to save the ship from the ignominious fate that befell other great passenger vessels of the 20th century. Norwegian Cruise Line spends around $750,000 annually in docking fees for the United States, and they are understandably anxious to divest themselves of that expense. Last year, NCL granted the Conservancy first refusal on the sale of the ship, but the group has, thus far, been unable to raise enough funds to meet the $1.5 million purchase price.
We are a people who traditionally place a great value upon our past. Four American presidents were passengers on the ship. The loss of this noble vessel to the scrapper’s yard would be tantamount to blowing up Mt. Rushmore for the sole purpose of increasing the nation’s supply of driveway gravel. The preservation of the S.S. United States would endure, not merely as evidence of a maritime marvel, but as testimony to the people who built her, who sailed in her, and who recognized and rewarded the immeasurable contribution that she made to our nation’s sense of pride.
Conservancy member Mark Perry has produced an award-winning documentary film, “S.S. United States: Lady in Waiting,” that was broadcast on Public Television. Visit bigshipfilms.com to watch the trailer or purchase the DVD. It is also available at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester.
Please consider donating to the efforts to save the ship affectionately known as The Big U. My son was married a few days ago, and I would love to be able to take a grandchild to see her in all of her restored splendor some day.