With a powerful blast of its steam horn, a truly titanic ocean liner departed New York City on its maiden voyage on July 3, 1952. Built for luxury and speed, the mammoth SS United States—100 feet longer than RMS Titanic—inspired bursts of patriotic pride as its towering red, white and blue funnel smokestacks passed by the Statue of Liberty on the eve of America’s birthday.
Once in the open waters, the muscular yet sleek ship sliced through the Atlantic Ocean at 36 knots, a pace so swift that passengers who ventured out on the decks struggled to catch their breath as the wind slapped their faces. SS United States arrived in England after a record crossing of 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes—slashing 10 hours off the previous best of Britain’s Queen Mary. For good measure, she shattered Queen Mary’s speed record on the return trip as well to become the first American ship in a century to hold the prestigious Blue Riband award, given to the fastest trans-Atlantic passenger liner. Capable of traveling at nearly double the speed of cruise ships today, SS United States still retains those records more than 60 years later.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a constellation of Hollywood stars ranging from John Wayne to Elizabeth Taylor traveled in luxury on the “Big U” between New York and Europe. “America’s Flagship” whisked Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and even a 22-year-old Rhodes Scholar named Bill Clinton across the Atlantic. The ship itself took a star turn in movies that featured everyone from the Munsters to Marilyn Monroe. Even the Mona Lisa took a cruise aboard SS United States on a trip home to France after the painting’s 1963 tour of the United States.
Ultimately, however, the jet age and fast, affordable air travel to Europe forced the ocean liner into early retirement in 1969 after only a 17-year career. The vessel was hermetically sealed for possible use as a reserve ship until the U.S. Navy sold it in 1978. Since then, it has passed among various owners.
Today, the ship that once epitomized American might languishes on a pier in south Philadelphia across the street from an Ikea and Chick-fil-A, and its owners warn that unless enough money is raised by the end of the month, SS United States is destined for the scrapheap.
The SS United States Conservancy, a preservationist group that purchased the vessel in 2011, has attempted to breathe new life into the rusting hulk, which has approximately 600,000 square feet of floor space. The conservancy has explored plans to convert the ocean liner into a floating museum, hotel and office space, a project that could cost upwards of $300 million and result in it moving to Miami, Boston, Baltimore or its former home port, New York.
Faced with monthly expenses of $60,000 to dock and maintain the ship, however, the conservancy announced last week that unless enough money is raised from new donors and investors—or another buyer is found by the end of October—it will sell the historic vessel for scrap. “We will have no choice but to negotiate the sale of the ship to a responsible U.S.-based recycler,” the conservancy’s board said in a statement. The conservancy has already formally authorized a ship broker to work on a possible sale to a scrap company.
“We’ve never been closer to saving the SS United States,” Susan Gibbs, executive director of the conservancy, told the New York Times, “and we’ve never been closer to losing her.” For Gibbs, the loss would truly be personal. Her grandfather, self-taught naval architect William Francis Gibbs, designed the ship that was once the swiftest and most luxurious in the world.
The mighty vessel, which was stripped of its furnishings in 1984, has faced the scrap heap before. After Norwegian Cruise Lines abandoned plans to retrofit the ocean liner for service in Hawaii, it accepted bids from scrappers. With the help of Philadelphia businessman Gerry Lenfest, however, the conservancy purchased the ship and granted it a reprieve.
The conservancy is holding out hope that enough money can be raised to save the vessel, and it is hosting a special fundraiser in Philadelphia on October 29 that will re-create an evening aboard the ship. Anyone interested in making a donation can do so at the conservancy’s website at www.savetheunitedstates.org.