She was built as an unsinkable ship, a claim allegedly attributed to Bruce Ismay, the managing partner of the White Star Line, the direct shipowning company of the famous RMS Titanic. The year was 1912, and liner companies were in fierce competition with each other for the Transatlantic passenger trade. Fate would not be kind to Ismay and RMS Titanic as both soon floundered spectacularly, both literally and metaphorically.
Four decades later, a longer, beamier, stronger, more powerful passenger vessel would be built in the US at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Virginia for the same trade. Like RMS Titanic, her maiden voyage made great news as well at the time as she crossed eastbound the Atlantic Ocean in record time of about three days and eleven hours. Soon thereafter, she pulverized the record for the more challenging westbound leg of the Transatlantic trip with a record of about three days and twelve hours. She earned the Blue Riband, the trophy for the fastest average cruising speed on both directions of the round Transatlantic voyage, a record that she still holds today, six decades later. Now, an arthritic, gracious, old lady past her prime and with the memory token of the trophy misplaced somewhere in the attic that today’s grandchildren of history would barely care getting bothered about. The name of the distinguished old lady is SS United States and her figurative attic is Pier 82 on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.
Her speed may have placed her name on the record books, but she has been a remarkable ship in more ways than one.
With 990 ft length overall, the SS United States was 110 ft longer than RMS Titanic and well within comparison to the 1,000-ft length commanded by today’s supertankers and monster containerships. Despite her length, her beam was kept narrow at 101 ft so that she could pass gracefully through the Panama Canal if her voyage called for it. Her steam turbines were capable of producing 248,000 shaft horsepower (SHP) – more than twice the power of today’s either typical supertanker or a two-engined Boeing 777 airplane. She brought the Blue Riband to American shores from Queen Mary by sailing as fast as almost 36 knots (approximately41 mph), which is believed to be even today the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in both directions by a standard mono-hull, merchant vessel.
Last decade, when the world economies were growing robustly and just in time inventory was in vogue, containerships – the fastest commercial vessels these days – were crossing the oceans at twenty-four knots maximum speed, while in today’s anemic economic environment and high bunkering fuel cost, the fastest containeships typically slow steam at sixteen knots. Cruiseships are capable of achieving close to thirty knots, but usually barely sail above twenty knots in order to economize on fuel expense. Being built after RMS Titanic’s tragedy, the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) in 1914, and after her sistership SS Olympia, SS United States was an embodiment to prevention and safety in the event of unforeseen events.
The vessel was launched in 1952 at a contract price of $78 million, or approximately $690 million in today’s purchasing power. With 4,060 berths, her contract price was 50% more expensive than today’s cruiseships (though she was a different, now extinct ‘asset class’, an ‘ocean liner’); efficiencies in shipbuilding can attribute to savings, but SS United States was distinctly a luxury vessel with half of her passengers traveling in first class (versus one-third of RMS Titanic) and she had one crew member for every two passengers (versus one crew member for every three passengers on RMS Titanic.) The high cost of the vessel was also partially attributed to increased specifications for military use, as less than a decade after World War II and with Cold War just settling in when she was built, the US government wanted access to passenger vessels in order to move rapidly military troops worldwide in case of military action.
Although the vessel could accommodate up to three thousand passengers on a commercial voyage, five times as many (15,000) soldiers would be transported on one of the vessel’s military trips. As such, the vessel’s hull was built with re-enforced steel in order to sustain hostile fire and she was heavily compartmentalized with water-tight doors and bulkheads in order to prevent heavy flooding. For the right of having access to the vessel in time of emergency, the US Navy paid $50 million of the contract price, while $28 million was paid by her official shipowner and manager, the now defunct United States Lines (signage of the company can be seen today along the Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River in Manhattan.)
There were twenty-two decks and plentiful luxurious common areas for the enjoyment of her privileged passengers, amenities such as indoor and outdoor promenades and sundecks, huge library with high ceilings and large, sunny windows in the front of the ship, ball room and dance floor with a dome structure, theater stage, tennis court, an elevator to the the master staircase, a luxurious bar opening to the sun deck in the rear of the vessel, a swimming pool complete with sand around it for the passenger’s enjoyment. All such luxury had to be dispensed without the presence of wood onboard the vessel in order to avoid fires; extensive use of aluminum substituted for wood, and Steinway himself had to demonstrate that the specially made piano for the ship was fire proof indeed and could actually cannot be set on fire (the piano and the butcher’s block were the only two wooden pieces ever allowed onboard.)
Two 65-ft tall, brilliantly red-painted funnels with small wings and gently leaning backwards, with a white stripe on top in parallel to a white stripe along the upper end of a black-painted hull, and almost a vertically raked bow and round ‘spoon shaped’ stern typical for ocean liners of that age, SS United States was cutting a graceful figure over the water and on the horizon and her New York City port calls have been immortalized on numerous post cards. Even today, the fainted red color of the two funnels is an eye-catcher when one is crossing the bridge approaching Philadelphia and from afar form the Seaport up the Delaware River; almost like two faint, red candle-flames over the horizon, two candle flames of the memory and glory, a prayer that the wind of modern times will not peel off the colorful existence altogether.
In her 800 Transatlantic crossings over her seventeen year career ending in 1969 (about one crossing per week), notable politicians and celebrities enjoyed unparalleled luxury in her fast and graceful sliding over the ocean; Marlon Brando, Coco Chanel, Sean Connery, Gary Cooper, Walter Cronkite, Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are known to travelled with her. Four U.S. presidents sailed aboard SS United States overtime, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, the last as fresh graduate from Georgetown was on his way to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1968, one year before the retirement of the vessel.
Ever since her retirement from active duty in 1969, the ship has been having a tumultuous life seeking a purpose and a permanent home; she has changed ownership several times since then, with buyers hoping to find commercial uses for her. She was designed as a passenger liner vessel to travel fast and her conversion to a cruiseship or theme vessel or a floating hotel is not absolutely ideal, as she’s too narrow by her beam and her fuel consumption (replacing diesel powered steam turbines) will be high. She has been gutted internally and most of the asbestos has been removed, so she’s ready for her next development stage. There have been proposals for her to be developed as a museum or theme vessel and get relocated to major metropolitan areas, possibly New York, perhaps along the historic aircraft carrier Intrepid or find a place with Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan.
At present, the vessel is owned and controlled by the SS United States Conservancy (http://www.ssusc.org/), an non-for-profit organization, under the leadership of Susan L. Gibbs, the granddaughter of ingenious William Francis Gibbs, the naval architect and marine engineer who designed SS United States (and also notably the vessels that would be known as ‘Liberty Ships’ during WWII.) Through sizeable donations and ongoing fund raising efforts, the Conservancy has kept a close watch over the vessel and her constant need for upkeep and continuous cleaning efforts. However, a couple of recent proposals for the ship’s development have fallen apart, and the running costs of keeping the vessel at her present location is more than $60,000 per month.
We have had the distinct honor to be invited recently by the SS United States Conservancy to board and tour the vessel, to be allowed to get a glimpse through history’s spider-webbed, broken glass of a porthole into another age and way of life. It was a breezy, sunny day in March after a long winter in Philadelphia and the Northeast; just to envision for a few hours the luxury ship built with military grade steel and aluminum superstructure careening effortlessly fast over the ocean, with Marilyn Monroe lingering on a chaise lounge chair on one of the sundecks portside and Salvador Dali pondering on surrealism by his cabin starboard, John Kennedy leaning over a book in the library while there was a stage performance in the theater abaft, it was indeed a unique invitation to have a front row viewing to a maritime and historical miracle, a project of supreme American engineering and soaring ambition, to a ship that links us to the roots of American maritime tradition which regrettably seems to slip further away from us by the day. While ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic got crushed by fate soon in her maiden voyage, SS United States, more than sixty years after she was launched from a navy shipyard, still stands tall, a testament to her shipbuilder’s ambition for building a ship that ‘you cannot catch her, you cannot set her on fire and you cannot sink her’.
‘America’s Flagship’ has done her duty to her country and to her owners and her passengers, glamorous or not; she has served history well. We owe it to her to keep her afloat in glamor and perseverance, to get involved, to volunteer or donate for her maintenance until the right development is found for her. One can find more about the vessel and the Conservancy at http://www.ssusc.org/ and donations are strongly encouraged at http://www.ssusc.org/give-and-join/donate/ or at https://www.savetheunitedstates.org/
The pictures taken during the recent visit are a testament to her magnificent structure and an invitation and challenge to see the ship restored to her past glory; we owe it to her!