SS United States: The Rusting Hulk of America’s Last Great Ocean Liner

ss-united-states-philadelphia-6 (All images © Laura S. Kicey for Philadelphia Magazine)

In 1952, Popular Science ran an article about America’s latest ocean liner, marking the first time in 75 years that the country had built a ship worthy of competing for the coveted Blue Riband. At the time of her launch, SS United States held a series of records. She was the largest passenger vessel ever built in the US, displacing 51,500 gross tons and capable of carrying a 1,000-man crew along with 2,000 passengers. She also used more aluminium in her construction than any other single structure on land or sea, ever.

This article examines the famous ship’s history, while offering a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse into her eerie, forgotten innards, long since off-limits the public.

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Making the SS United States a reality was an epic undertaking, involving 1,500 miles of welding, 8,400 master drawings, 1.5 million blueprints, and a construction crew of thousands – with up to 3,000 men labouring at any one time. The final cost: $78 million – in 2014, that would be the equivalent of $780 million.

The grand liner was so large that she was never officially launched. At least, not in the traditional way. Instead, the dock she was built in was flooded, introducing her 990-foot-long hull to the water. She was wide, too, but narrow enough to squeeze through the Panama Canal with a few feet to spare.

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When SS United States was launched on June 23, 1951, a new threat was looming on the horizon – the Soviet Union. For that reason, the vessel was designed with a wartime purpose in mind – that of a troop carrier – and its development was partially funded by the US military.

Such funding came with its share of secrets – the military was keeping tight-lipped about the location of watertight bulkhead doors and the ship’s power plant, which had been developed using state-of-the-art technology with the help of America’s leading metallurgists. That conversion to troop transport never happened, but it if had, SS United States would have been able to carry 14,000 soldiers 10,000 miles, without having to stop.

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In addition to its complex construction, the ultra-modern SS United States’ forthcoming domination of the high seas was evident from its maiden voyage, when the ocean liner claimed the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing, making the trip in three days, 10 hours and 42 minutes. The record still stands today.

Over the next 18 years, the ocean liner made more than 800 similar crossings, but its days were short-lived. SS United States – like its European counterparts – was no match for the competition. No one wanted to pay to spend days at sea when airlines were stepping up and taking over.

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Its target market all but gone, the elegant vessel was retired in 1969. Until 1978, she was a reserve ship for the Navy, sealed and waiting for action. But they never needed her. And now, she sits and rusts.

After passing through a series of owners, the Big U, as she is known to some, was moved to south Philadelphia’s Pier 84 in 1996, where she can be seen today from the cafeteria at IKEA. The fate of America’s last great liner, which is overseen by the SS United States Conservancy – a group run by the granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, the architect and engineer who was in charge of building the ship from start to finish – remains up in the air.

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Slowly decaying over the years amid a variety of preservation efforts, the ship’s future has at times looked dire, with millions of dollars required to restore the grand vessel and cover its astronomical mooring fees. During the second part of last year Wired reported that the Conservancy was running out of money, and may have been forced to cede ownership, at which point the rotting vessel would likely be sold for scrap.

Such a fate would prove an ignominious end for the record-breaking ship, and it’s one the owners have been trying hard for several years to avoid. But in February an anonymous donor gifted $250,000 to the Conservancy, which is slated for an onboard museum and may have given the liner a new lease of life.

Grand Designs

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Descriptions of the ship as she was built echo those of a five-star hotel. Unlike many liners of the age, no wood was used, even in the decorative interior. It was said to be all very American, state-of-the-art and made of steel and aluminum. Screens, dividers and sculptures were all crafted from glass, and unsightly beams, pipes and plumbing was hidden behind smooth metal. Absolutely everything was fire-retardant, from paint to the cushions on the aluminum furniture.

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The designers wanted to ensure that nothing onboard would burn, and only one concession was made for a wooden fixture – the ballroom’s grand piano, which was made from a rare, fire-resistant mahogany.

She might have been suitable for use as a troop transport, but SS United States captured a luxury that any modern cruise liner would envy. The ship boasted two movie theaters, swimming pools (indoor and outdoor), nightclubs, restaurants, and libraries. There were beauty parlors and barber shops, private baths in the first class cabins, as well as gyms, lounges, gift shops and three sports decks.

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No expense was spared designing the interiors, hiding the fact that everything was extremely functional. The white walls and black floors were surrounded by a sea of reds, greens, golds and blues; in strict observance of the no-wood policy, artwork was made of spun glass and had an appropriately patriotic theme, featuring the four freedoms, and murals of constellations and ocean currents.

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Her maiden voyage set the tone for what passengers would come to expect. The kitchens were fully stocked, and their stores included 500 pounds of caviar. It’s no wonder, really, that the ship enjoyed a passenger list that included four presidents and other famous names, from Salvador Dali and Walt Disney to Grace Kelly, Cary Grant and John Wayne. And, in 1963, a different sort of celebrity made the crossing – the Mona Lisa, heading to America for exhibit in Washington, D.C. and New York.

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Today, it’s a completely different story. Homeland Security has restricted access to Pier 84 where she’s docked, making it impossible to approach the ship. Decades-old opulence and luxury still peek through her rusted facade, though, and there’s something infinitely sad about the liner’s current state. When she was finally decommissioned, her crew wasn’t even made aware. Some left their belongings on board, expecting to be back at work after a few days off. When they returned, they found the ship sealed. And it has remained so ever since.

ss-united-states-philadelphia-11 (All images © Laura S. Kicey for Philadelphia Magazine)

Only time will tell what fate lies in store for SS United States. As the Conservancy continues to fight for her future, we hope that their efforts will bear fruit, and that one of the world’s last elegant ocean liners won’t go the same way as her fleetmate, the SS America (also known as SS American Star).

 

About the author: Debra Kelly

 

 
 
 


 
 

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