Great video of the SS United States in the early 1960s…
Monaco’s Prince Rainier and his princess, the former Hollywood star Grace Kelly, were guests aboard the SS UNIED STATES.
Final ‘SOS” – SS United States faces the scrap heap unless more money can be found to save the historic transatlantic cruise liner… She may go the way of Detroit… A bankrupt shell of what she was… Where is America when you need her?
• SS United States carried more than one million passengers over 400 round trips…
• Guests included President Kennedy, Salvador Dali and Elizabeth Taylor…
• SS United States Conservancy group are campaigning to save the ship…
The SS UNITED STATES today….
The SS United States is sending out what may be its final distress call unless money can be found in the next two months to save the transatlantic cruise ship from the scrap heap.
A preservation group is leading a campaign to secure a permanent home for the 990-foot-long vessel but is in desperate need of funds to keep it afloat.
Talks have been under way with developers and investors about the ship’s long-term future, but without the emergency funding, its caretakers fear they will run out of money before a deal is inked. The only one profiting from this appears to be the City of Philadelphia and their port authority for docking the ship. They’ve made over $20,000,000.
P&O’s RMS Canberra being scrapped in India. The SS United States may end up looking like this. She will be cannibalized to death by scrapers until there is nothing left of the great liner.
Cruising The Past thanks: Valerie Neff Newitt for the following from The Reporter…
SS United States in danger of losing her race against time…
Resting in her Delaware River berth in South Philadelphia, the SS United States looks like a ghostly apparition succumbing to the pallor of neglect, the indignity of rust blemishing her skin, and the insistence of time and weather chipping away at her red, white and blue smokestacks.
She was a mistress, this one; the ultimate passion of her Philadelphia-born creator, marine engineer and naval architect William Francis Gibbs, whose 53,300-ton lady love was built as a joint venture with the U.S. Navy. This superliner would be the crowning achievement of Gibbs’ already astounding career. He rose to fame during the 1940s when his company, Gibbs & Cox, designed 70 percent of the naval vessels used for U.S. WWII war efforts. His design genius turned up time and again, on destroyers, Liberty ships, as well as the landing craft used on the beaches of Normandy, France, on D-Day. His face was splashed across a 1942 cover of Time magazine proclaiming him “the top U.S. Naval architect and marine engineer.”
But it was the sleek and slender SS United States – 100 feet longer than Titanic, yet svelte enough to glide through the Panama Canal – that was Gibbs’ fantasy. Even his family referred to her as “the other woman.”
An enduring love
“He was on record saying he loved this ship a thousand times more than his own wife,” revealed Susan Gibbs, the designer’s granddaughter as she and this reporter used flashlights to work our way through a darkened, empty interior. Susan is now the executive director of the non-profit SS United States Conservancy, an organization focused on saving her grandfather’s beloved ship from the ravages of time and neglect.
Her grandfather, she said, was like an insistent suitor when it came to “the Big U” (as she was affectionately nicknamed): “He called the ship every day that she was in service. And he would wake up at dawn to be the first person to see her when she returned to her home port – Pier 86 on New York’s Hudson River.”
While he travelled with her on her maiden voyage, his name would never again appear on any of her official passenger lists. One former crewman insists that on one other sailing, Gibbs snuck aboard and stayed in the engineer’s quarters, but even the family cannot confirm such a clandestine tryst.
“But we do know he adored her from afar,” said Gibbs. “He could see her all the way from the window in his Manhattan office.” It’s no wonder the ship had such a hold on the designer’s psyche – she had lived in his dreams for nearly 40 years. “He dreamed of building a great ocean liner one day, and started making notes and sketches as far back as 1914,” said Gibbs. “He was eventually involved in every aspect of her creation – from the grand scheme of each deck right down to the aluminum hangers used to hold passengers’ clothing. Even they are achievements of design.”
As we stood in the a grand ballroom’s bandstand where the great Duke Ellington once played for passengers, Gibbs pointed out that large portions of the ship were crafted from non-combustible high-tensile steel and light-as-a-feather aluminum. (In fact, more aluminum was used in the building of this ship than in any other structure on land or sea until the construction of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.) There was no wood hull for this beauty. We wandered into one of the lounges where an original bar still stands; the outer tufting is torn away, revealing a brushed aluminum skeleton.
“My grandfather was fanatical about building a ship that would not burn. He knew that fires at sea meant tragedy,” Gibbs explained. “The only wood on the ship were the butchers’ blocks and the pianos. My grandfather actually asked piano-maker Theodore Steinway to build pianos of aluminum. Steinway balked; he said it would ruin the tone. However, he did find a type of mahogany that would not burn and once he proved it to my grandfather, the pianos were approved.”
Other innovations aboard included the first use of tempered glass along the grand promenade (still a bright expanse of deck and light, extending the length of a football field), and the use of a sloping floor in the first-class theatre. Despite a highly opulent look to the former interior, the ship was devoid of marble floors (too heavy). The spare weight only served to exaggerate the ship’s mighty power derived by propellers so perfectly designed that they were classified by the U.S. Navy.
Certainly this ship, America’s first “prestige” ocean liner, would be the diamond in the crown of the elder Gibbs’ career. Yet her pedigree would go even farther; she was also designed to be a convertible troop ship at the start of the Cold War era. And because she had a dual purpose in her blood line, she had to be solid, swift, safe … and dare we say “unsinkable”?
“You hear a lot about the Titanic, the Andrea Doria, the Lusitania, because they all sank,” said Gibbs. “But the SS United States is the one great ship that didn’t sink. In all of her years of service, she never had a mishap, almost never arrived late to port. Not even when she had to plow through 90-foot waves on one stormy crossing. She kept moving – fast enough to blast the paint right off her sides. Other liners crossing the Atlantic during that storm sustained damage and limped back to port. But the SS United States made it right on time.”
Indeed she was already an elite athlete on the occasion of her July 3, 1952 maiden voyage. The Big U sprinted across the north Atlantic — from New York City to Bishop’s Rock, U.K. — in 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, almost half a day faster than the previous record holder, Cunard’s Queen Mary. As it became clear that a new transatlantic record would be set at dawn, it was a moment of unbridled excitement in that era of luxury ocean travel. Mink stoles and “smoking jackets” were cast aside as passengers formed an impromptu Conga line, their sea legs undoubtedly bolstered by the 16 varieties of champagne and 49 labels of Scotch that were stocked in the lounge.
Commodore Harry Manning was captain of the superliner which carried 1660 passengers, including President Harry Truman’s daughter, Margaret, on this first historic crossing. As officers gathered on the bridge of the ship for the record-breaking moment, the Big U was cutting through the water at about 41 mph (consider that today’s cruise ships travel at about 20 mph), despite prevailing gale force winds that blew one of her spanking new ping pong tables overboard. At the moment of truth, with Bishop’s Rock firmly in sight, the ship’s orchestra played “The Star Spangled Banner” and passengers celebrated with champagne and a mighty chorus of cheers.
The captain, a veteran ship master, explained his own excitement in typical Yankee style. The 55-year-old skipper would tell The New York Times, “I feel like a pitcher who has pitched a no-hit game.”
Despite the technological explosion that followed in her wake – and the years that would catapult civilization past space exploration and instantaneous internet connections – no other ship has ever come close to breaking her speed record. She remains the one-and-only.
As we wound our way to the first class quarters, Gibbs mentioned some of the passengers who had been aboard the Big U. Three presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy) and a future president (Bill Clinton, still a student on his way to his Rhodes scholarship) all made crossings, as did assorted royalty (Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, England’s King Edward VIII, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and more), and celebrities (Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Ava Gardner, Bob Hope and so many others). And as one might imagine, proximity to such luminaries gave rise to some offbeat situations.
“One room steward who tended to Ava Gardner removed the toilet seat – because it had been so ‘close’ to her – after she left the ship,” said Gibbs through a laugh. “Then he sawed it into little pieces and sold them as souvenirs.”
And then there was another stratum of passengers – the ones who never glimpsed First Class opulence. The SS United States also had a less expensive Tourist Class which carried tens of thousands of immigrants to their new lives in post-war America. And perhaps most inspiring is the fact that right from the beginning of her service, the Big U was a fully integrated ship, even in those days before Civil Rights proactivity. Black passengers had full access to her many amenities. The ship was a living example of what a free and equal United States of America should be.
In 1969, the world had changed. The 747 and jetliners became the preferred mode of travel to Europe and beyond. And as the Big U had been more a mode of perpetual transportation than a “cruise ship,” she was taken out of commission. After a string of failed attempts by various purchasers to return the ship to service, Norwegian Cruise Line purchased her in 2003 with hopes of returning her to the high seas, but refitting proved too expensive. Still, they kept her in one piece – longer than any other ship in lay-up to date.
The Conservancy eventually purchased the ship and took title to her in 2011. It has feverishly and creatively been raising funds and seeking donations to keep her safely berthed and preserved until such time as she can be redeveloped to a multi-use complex – complete with hotel, fine dining and a museum (the SS United States Center for Design and Discovery).
If the necessary money – $500,000 is needed to keep her safe in the short term, while $250 million will be necessary to complete full redevelopment – is raised, she will be permanently docked in an East Coast city – most likely Philadelphia, New York or Miami. Visitors will be able to see reconstructed staterooms, the grand promenade, a restored bridge, the kennels, the brig, engineering spaces (“… most of the ship’s record-breaking power plant remains fully intact,” said Gibbs) and much more. They will be able to wine-and-dine aboard, feel her decks under their feet, and generally glimpse a bit of an exceptional era of ocean travel.
It seems unconscionable that a vessel so esteemed for her engineering, design and social accomplishments, and known for breaking world speed records, is now locked in a race against time – one she could lose. If adequate funds for her current safe-keeping and eventual restoration and redevelopment are not raised, “…the Conservancy would be in the horrifying position of having to scrap her,” said Gibbs. “It is something I have a hard time even thinking about.”
On this very day she sits in Philadelphia – as she has for the past 17 years — in urgent need of a cosmetic makeover. Her substructure remains at 92 percent of its original strength, thanks to the over-engineering that went into building a ship able to react in times of armed conflict. She is virtually a ready-to-go blank canvas for redevelopment.
And on this very day she waits – as dock workers go about their daily business moving cargo from pallets to trucks. While I stood on the pier taking one last look and trying to imagine her during her glory days, I overheard one boisterous worker bellow, “It’s just a big boat, lady, and it’s in my way!”
I guess he didn’t know that the real lady on site was the noble SS United States, the only object privileged by Congress to be called “United States.” Susan Gibbs summed it up so well: “This ship will never be replicated. She embodies post-war cultural pride and technological innovation. She’s an icon on par with the Statue of Liberty. We hope we can do right by her and give her the chance that she has waited for … and that she deserves. We want her not only to survive, but to thrive, and endure, and inspire future generations.”