History Stories

In the summer of 1978, the S.S. America sent passengers over the edge.

It was a little after 3:00 a.m. on July 2, 1978 when those aboard the S.S. America realized the voyage was doomed.

Things had gotten off to an uneasy start nine hours before, when some 900 passengers assembled at Manhattan’s West 54th Street pier and found a problem with the tickets. Some paying customers had never received them, while others couldn’t find their names on the manifest. Finally, with the ship running late, a voice barked: “Get on board, tickets or no tickets!”

A 1978 brochure for the S.S. America.

A 1978 brochure for the S.S. America.

With crime rates soaring and its economy in the ditch, New York was a difficult place to live in 1978. Little wonder so many locals in need of a summer escape noticed Venture Cruise Lines’ advertising for the S.S. America, a shopworn ocean liner restored to its prewar elegance. Venture promised no end of onboard pampering, but it was the ticket prices that seduced. Fares for a two-night cruise to nowhere started at $99—a fare so low it was hard to believe.

But now that the voyage was underway, passengers couldn’t believe the predicament they were in. Many discovered that faulty plumbing had flooded their cabins. Beds lacked bedsheets—and often mattresses, too. Toilets refused to flush. While dismayed passengers darted around trying to find a spot to settle, so did a phalanx of cockroaches and rats. S.S. America, one woman later said, was a “floating garbage can.”

Bad as the cabins were, the factor that tipped anger into chaos was this: at least 100 paying passengers never found cabins at all. Homeless at sea, they massed outside the purser’s office and began chanting: “We want to get off!”

Conditions deteriorated quickly. The angriest passengers picked fistfights with the crew. Harbor police boarded the ship. By now the America had dropped anchor near Coney Island, and the captain acceded to the mob’s demands. After the crew opened the hull’s watertight doors, 250 passengers clambered down rope ladders, jumping down to the decks of tugboats pulled up below. The tugs dumped the cruise refugees on Staten Island, then took off. Venture’s promise of chauffeured limousine rides home for everyone came to nothing.

The next morning, tabloids feasted on the overnight debacle. DREAM CRUISE LIKE NAUTICAL NIGHTMARE hollered the front page of the Daily News, which recounted the “mini-mutiny” in sordid detail. Without admitting the company had booked passengers on decks that were uninhabitable, a Venture representative said: “We goofed.”

For New York, a port city that had once berthed the most opulent passenger ships in modern maritime history, no incident would embody the postwar decline of ocean-liner travel like the one that took place aboard the S.S. America on that summer night in 1978. Not only was Venture’s “goof” the work of a company that had no business operating ocean liners, it had unfolded, paradoxically, aboard what had once been New York’s most prestigious one.

When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt christened the America on the last day of August in 1939, the 723-foot vessel was the largest, fastest and most luxurious American-built passenger liner afloat. But Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the following day augured a change of course. The Navy appropriated the vessel, renamed it the West Point, and used it as a troop carrier until the end of World War II.

Eleanor Roosevelt breaking a bottle of champagne while inaugurating the S.S. America at Newport News in Virginia on August 31, 1939.

Eleanor Roosevelt breaking a bottle of champagne while inaugurating the S.S. America at Newport News in Virginia on August 31, 1939.

But by 1946, the America was back to steaming from New York to Le Havre in “5 gay days,” quartering a who’s who of celebrities and power brokers in its spacious staterooms and feeding them Roast Philadelphia Capon in its two-story dining salon. For nearly two decades, the America promised “no finer food and service afloat.”

By the mid-1960s, the boat had changed owners and was running from Europe to Australia. As it aged, it became a liability. But for a new concern called Venture Cruise Lines, the prewar ocean liner looked like the perfect opportunity. 

Incorporated by a group of travel-agency executives, Venture paid $5 million for the ship in June of 1978, then threw another $2 million into repairs. Venture’s business plan was to make money on volume, using super-low rates to fill the ship’s hundreds of cabins.

“The $135 all-inclusive price you’re staring at in amazement is not a mirage,” cooed the glossy brochure. “It’s [a] very real, very low-priced cruise being offered as part of Venture Cruise Lines’ fabulous summer and fall program aboard the sensational 2,200-passenger SS America.” Venture promised no end of luxuries for those low rates, including swimming pools, shopping, a casino, nightclub shows, and six meals a day.

But marketing was one thing and nautical engineering another. Though the America’s infrastructure was in need of serious work, Venture’s refurbishments were, at best, cosmetic. Shortly before the America’s summer 1978 voyage, the writer and maritime historian Bill Miller slipped aboard at Pier 92. 

Details of the S.S. America in a 1978 Venture Cruise Lines' brochure.

Details of the S.S. America in a 1978 Venture Cruise Lines' brochure.

Almost immediately, Miller discerned “very serious problems” including rust, leaking pipes and corrosion holes. He found college boys—hired at minimum wage—charged with painting the ship. In the passageways, Miller walked past trash bags, soiled linens and old mattresses. There was also, he’d later write, “a stale stench—a foul mixture of kitchen odors, engine oils, and plumbing backups.” Miller found himself wondering if the America “might best be sent on to the scrappers.”

It would be sent to sea instead.

Though inadequate accommodations had touched off the mutiny of July 2, 1978, the torments that Venture administered to its customers had not stopped with deficient cabins. Promised amenities including the sauna, beauty salon and disco never materialized. The swimming pool was open, in a sense—but the crew had filled it with bags of garbage.

At dinner, one passenger noticed that, instead of washing the china, the staff made do with wiping the dirty plates off with towels. It came as little surprise that the captain’s table was conspicuously missing the captain. “Maybe he was afraid the passengers would make him the main course,” said one passenger.

Incredibly enough, on the heels of its first voyage to hell, Venture managed to repeat the performance a second time. On July 3rd, the New York Post’s front page announced THAT SHIP IS BACK TO LOAD UP AGAIN, as the America—now dubbed the “mutiny ship”—took on passengers for a 5-day cruise to Nova Scotia. Near Martha’s Vineyard, as heavy seas slammed into the hull, the America’s portholes began leaking, a water main fractured, and toilets backed up. When the ship finally limped into Halifax, the boarding health inspectors stepped aside for the droves of passengers who were, once again, abandoning ship.

Venture admitted that it “goofed” once more, but promised it would clean up its act and take to sea again. On the next voyage, Venture’s president promised, “you will see a shipful of happy people aboard a great lady named the S.S. America, about to have the time of their lives aboard a tip-top vessel.”

It was not to be. By now, State Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz had caught a whiff of the S.S. America, and confined it to port. (Later, he would charge Venture with “deceptive advertising and business practices.”) When U.S. Public Health Service inspectors boarded the ship, they gave it a sanitary score of 6 out of a possible 100. Cancelled bookings cost Venture close to $400,000. Then the U.S. Customs Service slapped the company with $500,000 in fines—$339,000 of it for having stood by as passengers literally jumped off the ship into tugboats. 

Its assets frozen, facing mounting lawsuits and angry creditors, Venture collapsed. At an auction on August 28, 1978, S.S. America sold for one-fifth what Venture had paid for it.

Perhaps inevitably, the America met an end as tragic as its maligned cruises of 1978. In January of 1994, while being towed to Phuket, Thailand, for conversion to a floating hotel, the ship broke loose of its towing cable south of Gibraltar. After floating free for two days, the abandoned vessel ran aground in the Canaries, where the pounding Atlantic surf snapped it in half.

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