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The SS United States: A Throwback Ocean Liner That Refuses to Die

It is a ship, which was once the envy of the world. A gleaming leviathan motoring back and forth across the Atlantic at a record-breaking speed (a record for passenger liner that it still holds fifty-one years after it last sailed). 

The SS United States was the pride of the nation when it took to the seas in 1951. A true pearl that was inspired by classic the British liners RMS Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth which visited the American shores frequently during World War II and which carried many thousands of men back across the ocean to take part in the epic struggle to liberate Europe. 

The story of the SS United States is both short and long – in that it remained at sea for only 17 years, but has for the last 51 years passed through a series of different locations and owners and regularly seemed on the verge of either making a comeback or being scrapped for good.

America’s fabled ocean liner currently sits beside Pier 82 on the Delaware River in Philadelphia – her paint chipped, her skeleton slowly rusting. A true icon that refuses to go quietly.

A Man Named Gibbs

The tale of this boat begins over a century ago, with a man by the name of William Francis Gibbs. Disillusioned with life as a real-estate lawyer, Gibbs quit law in 1916 to focus on his dream of building the fastest ship in the world. The fact that he had next to no experience in this field didn’t seem put him off, and his enthusiasm managed to capture the attention of JP Morgan Jr one of the directors of the International Mercantile Marine (IMM), who agreed to finance his project. 

The American entry into World War I derailed this endeavour as IMM soon backed out. However, while the war may have scuppered his ambition of building his own ship from scratch, it did bring the next best thing. The German SS Vaterland, a 54,282 gross ton passenger liner, had arrived in New York shortly before the outbreak of war. Considering the dominance of the British navy at the time it was deemed unsafe to leave and in 1917, the ship was seized by the U.S government. It was first renamed USS Vaterland, then, on the recommendation of President Woodrow Wilson, changed again to USS Leviathan. 

What does this all have to do with Gibbs I hear you ask? Well, guess who was placed in charge of the renovation. 

After the war, Gibbs and his brother formed a company, Gibbs & Cox, in 1922 and began work designing their own ships, which culminated with SS America which was launched on 31st August 1939, the day before Hitler began bulldozing his way into Poland. The speedy ocean liners that Gibbs had envisioned were now no longer needed, but as the war progressed, and U boats began inflicting terrible losses on the merchant navy, he redirected his efforts to design a merchant ship that could be built quickly and efficiently. The result – the Liberty Ships. Now, we’ve already done a video on the Liberty Ships so I won’t go into more detail, except to say they may well be the unsung heroes of World War II, so it’s well worth a watch.   

The Big Ship 

With the triumphant end to war and his credibility now sky-high after the success of the Liberty Ships, it was finally time for what Gibbs had long described as, ‘The Big Ship’. The rapid industrialization of many sectors of the United States meant that the stars had now aligned, it was now or never for William Francis Gibbs. 

As I mentioned at the start of the video, the Americans had taken a shine to the large, regal British liners that often visited their ports. It’s probably fair to say that the burgeoning confidence that had come with victory led many to question why the United States didn’t have anything similar. The SS America was a glorious ship, but still fell short of being a true world-beater – and anyway, it needed a running mate.

The first thing you need to bear in mind with the building of the SS United States was that the construction of superstructure involved using the largest amount of aluminium used on any project by that point in history, either at sea or on land. Not only did this make the ship significantly lighter than if it had been constructed with wood, it meant it was far less likely to incur the same kind of disaster as the SS Normandie, a French liner that had caught fire in New York harbour and sunk in 1942 – a visual memory that seemed etched in the mind of many during design deliberations. 

In fact, not only was the superstructure made of wood, practically every part of the ship including accessories, decorations, and interior surfaces were either aluminium, glass or other kinds of metals. The mahogany grand pianos were only allowed after a demonstration in which they were doused in petrol then ignited (the pianos themselves did not catch fire). The only wood that was otherwise permitted onboard the SS United States were the wooden chopping located in the galley. 

To comply with U.S Navy guidelines, the ship was to be heavily compartmentalised, which in theory meant it would be safer in the event of an accident at sea and its hull, which was mostly prefabricated, would eventually be composed of 183,000 different pieces. 

Lastly, the United States government had agreed to fund two-thirds of the construction cost with one condition – that it would be used as a troop transport in the event of war. It had to be able to be converted into a ship capable of transporting 14,000 soldiers in as little as 48 hours. You might be thinking that World War II had just ended, what could the U.S possibly anticipate coming, but as the construction of the ship began, U.S troops were again deploying overseas, this time in Korea.     

SS United States  

The keel of the SS United States was laid down on 8th February 1950 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, making it the first ocean liner to be constructed in a dry dock, with the help of 3,100 workers. 

In just over two years and three months, the vast ship was ready, and it came with a catalogue of innovations that made it one of the most technologically advanced non-combat ships on the planet. It has cost $78 million to build, roughly $780 million today. 

It came with four propellers – two four-bladed and two five-bladed – that had been designed by the pioneering female engineer Elaine Kaplan. Remember, this was the 1950s, a time when women struggled to forge their own employment paths, let alone design the propellers that would be pivotal to the ship’s record-breaking speed. Each propeller was built from manganese bronze and weighed a massive 27,215 kg (60,000 pounds).   

On the ship’s deck were four masts called King Posts, each with two booms which acted as cranes allowing the crew to load cargo faster than ever before. In total, the ship could carry 4,190 cubic metres (148,000) cubic feet of cargo – the equivalent of 37 modern semi-trailers.  

The two giant funnels were the highest ever to be installed on a ship. At 19.8 metres (65 ft) in height, they are equal to a six-storey building and come with “wings” located at the back designed to deflect smoke away from the passengers on the decks below. If you look closely you’ll notice they are at a slight slant backwards which was said to give the ship an air of motion. They are also asymmetrical meaning the funnel behind was slightly smaller and impressively, they even went to the trouble of calculating the percentage of red, white and blue paint needed to keep it all neat and tidy – in case you’re interested, the forward funnel was 75% red, 10% white and 15% blue, while the aft funnel was 70.8% red, 11.7% white, and 17.5% blue.  

As you might expect with this new air of safety, there were ample lifeboats to go around, which contributed to the ship often being referred to as the safest ever built. The 24 lifeboats and additional small rafts could hold 4,060 people – over 1,000 more than if the ship was at 100% capacity. Somewhat coincidentally, one of the lead investors in United States Lines, which had partially funded the ship, was Vincent Astorm son of J.J. Astor who had died on the Titanic. It was clear that absolutely no chances were being taken of that tragic accident repeating itself. 

The ship measured 302 metres (990ft) in length – roughly the height of the Chrysler building in New York. Its beam (width) was 30.9 metres 101.5ft and its draft (the height from the waterline to the deck was 9.5 metres (31ft). It weighed 53,330 tons, which is about twice as heavy as the Statue of Liberty.  

OK, let’s talk speed because that is often the first thing that is mentioned when talking about the SS United States. It came with 4 Westinghouse double-reduction geared steam turbines and 8 Babcock & Wilcox boilers, producing a phenomenal 240,000 horsepower which pushed the ship along at a speedy 35 knots (70.9km/h – 44.1mph) – meaning it could outrun many of the battleships at sea at the time. There were even whispers of it being able to go as fast as 44 knots (81km/h – 50mph) but this was never fully verified. 

Ready for Service

Chief Officer Harry Manning, United States LInes

As you might imagine with power like that, this ship began life at a thunderous speed. On July 3rd 1952, the SS United States steamed clear of New York harbour and set a course east. At the helm was Commodore Harry Manning, a well-known personality who had at one point acted as pilot for Amelia Earhart. Those involved with the ship’s launch had been careful not to le talk of a record-breaking crossing get out of hand. On the first day the ship encountered a fog bank but once clear of it, Commodore Manning ordered the ship’s engines to be increased to full power and the SS United States roared into life. 

She arrived in Britain 3 days, 10 hours and 40 mins after leaving New York, shattering the transatlantic speed record by more than 10 hours. On the way back she broke the westbound journey record with a time of 3 days 12 hours and 12 minutes at an average speed of 34.51 knots (63.91 km/h; 39.71 mph). 

These were dizzying days for the SS United States as it rocketed back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. Her 23 public rooms, 395 staterooms, and 14 first-class suites often filled to capacity, while those on deck could enjoy games such as shuffleboard and deck tennis with the large wind deflectors providing a comfortable environment to relax on the high seas. 

It quickly became known as America’s Flagship and attracted passengers from all over the world, including Bob Hope, Princess Grace of Monaco, Salvadore Dali, Rita Hayworth, Harry Truman, John Wayne, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Duke Ellington. In 1963 it carried a very different kind of precious cargo as the Mona Lisa was transported across the Atlantic to be exhibited in Washington DC. The ship was even used as a film set on three separate occasions for Walt Disney’s Bon Voyage! Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, and Munster, Go Home! 

These were the glory days, but alas, they wouldn’t last. 

Trouble Ahead 

Pan Am - The New Airline Airbus A300B4-203
Pan Am – The New Airline Airbus A300B4-203 by Aero Icarus is licensed under CC-BY-SA

As the 1960s dawned, the role of the transatlantic liner was under threat. The introduction of Pan Am’s international flights in 1958 acted as a direct competitor and though numbers on board the SS United States during the summer months remained high, overall, they quickly began to drop. 

As the decade progressed things got steadily worse. The popularity of flying really took off – pun intended – while the increasing cost of oil meant that running the SS United States with dwindling passenger numbers became a substantial loss. 

In 1969, the ship that had been the envy of the world when it appeared in the early 1950s, was pulled from service. Over the next few decades, the ship was passed from owner to owner as it waited patiently in Norfolk, Virginia. There was talk of using it as a casino that would be moored off the Atlantic City coast but it was eventually sold for just $5 million ($33.5 million today) to a company who wanted to use the ship in a timeshare cruise ship format – but again, this plan eventually fell through. 

In 1984, to pay creditors, much of the interior of the ship and furniture was sold at auction, and the ship itself was again sold, this time for $2.6 million ($6 million today) to a Turkish shipping family. The ship was towed to Turkey then on to the Ukraine where it had much of its original interior stripped out. 

It’s not immediately clear what happened at this point, but the ship was towed back to the U.S in 1996, where it was docked in South Philadelphia. Back stateside, ownership passed to Edward Cantor, then on to Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL who again made a lot of noise about refurbishing the vessel – but once again, nothing came of it, and by 2010, NCL were actively looking to scrap the ship, unwilling to continue paying the $800,000 a year to keep her afloat. 

At the 11th hour in 2011, SS United States Conservancy, an organisation looking to preserve the ship as a historic monument succeeded in purchasing it for $3 million ($3.4 million today) – but where would they put it? The options seemed to be New York, Miami or to leave it in Philadelphia, though a feasibility study eventually found that Philadelphia was unsuitable. 

The last five or six years have seen painfully little progress, except to say that the grand ship appeared to be heading for scrap on numerous occasions. The $60,000 a month rental and upkeep has proven to be a huge stumbling block, but miraculously the SS United States has survived thanks to some wealthy donors, some of which have remained anonymous. The nation may not be sure what to do with this historic ship, but they sure aren’t ready to let it go just yet. 

An Uncertain Future

A study done a few years back found that the total cost of putting the ship back to sea would be in the region of $1 billion. As recently as March 2020, RX Realty announced its intentions to turn the ship into a 55,740 m2 (600,000 sq ft) hospitality and cultural space – but at this point, we’ve heard it all before – only time will tell.   

The fate of this historic vessel is still very much in the air. It’s highly unlikely that it will ever sail unaided again, but there is still hope that this ship might have a second life in it. And on a personal level, I hope it does. This was a groundbreaking ship on some many different levels. Speed, safety, comfort – it had it all. And it remains one of the last of its kind anywhere in the world. A relic of a bygone era, a time of moving slower, enjoying the sea breeze for days on end and getting in the odd game of paddleboard between the extravagant dining experiences on offer. This was the end of the golden age of travel.  

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