America's flagship: Admirers of SS United States send an S.O.S.

The SS United States made 800 trans-Atlantic crossings without incident, but finances threaten to sink the great ship

PHILADELPHIA – Even now, with her beauty faded, the casual observer can see why there has never been an ocean liner quite as grand as the SS United States.

Docked at Philadelphia’s Pier 82 on the Delaware River, so much about the ship remains exceptional. Close to 1,000 feet long, she’s nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall. And with a hull constructed almost entirely out of aluminum, she was fast and light. To this day, she holds the passenger liner record for crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s the most famous ship that didn’t sink,” said Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy. “It came after the Titanic, and frankly, it could go faster in reverse than the Titanic could go forward.”

That pride springs from her personal connection to the ship. Her grandfather, William Francis Gibbs, conceived of the ship’s unique design around 1916. He labored for nearly 40 years to bring his dream to life. Combing through his letters, she discovered the depths of his obsession.

“He was absolutely in love with his ship,” she said. “He would tell reporters that he loved this ship more than his wife, more than life itself.” 

That obsession resulted in a ship that was designed faster, stronger and safer than any that had ever occupied the Atlantic.

“The Titanic motivated my grandfather that his ship would not succumb to catastrophe,” Gibbs said. “You can’t set her on fire, you can’t sink her and you can’t catch her. He was maniacal about safety on the vessel.”

Ready for war

The SS United States was always prepared to go to battle.

But it took more than monomaniacal dedication to bring the ship to life. In the end, it was the U.S. military that stepped up to help finance Gibbs’ dream. After World War II, the U.S. had been forced to rely on British ships to bring troops home from Europe. Gibbs pitched the ship as vital to national security.

“He was like, ‘Gosh darn it, we need our own ship that is able to do that,’” Susan Gibbs said.

With the Cold War looming, the military agreed and financed two-thirds of his dream. If war with Russia ever were to come, it could quickly convert to transport 14,000 troops up to 10,000 miles without refueling.

Yet, it never received the call to military service. Instead, the SS United States became synonymous with luxury, attracting much of the country’s elite in two decades of service. She carried more than 1 million people on her decks, including A-list Hollywood celebrities and presidents Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy. 

It’s the most famous ship that didn’t sink. It came after the Titanic, and frankly, it could go faster in reverse than the Titanic could go forward.

Susan Gibbs

SS United States Conservancy

As one of the main forms of trans-Atlantic transportation, the ship also carried thousands of immigrants to a life in the new world.

“There were thousands and thousands of ordinary Americans that would use this vessel to get overseas to Europe, and there were just as many immigrants that came to this country aboard the SS United States,” said Dan McSweeney, also a member of the SS United States Conservancy. “After Ellis Island was shut down, this became a floating immigrant processing center. So a lot of people, including my own father, came to America in connection with the SS United States.” 

McSweeney’s father fell in love with the ship, too. He left his home in Scotland, and in 1952 came aboard as a steward. He served her first-class passengers for 17 years, through her final crossing in 1969. “It did 800 trans-Atlantic crossings and never had a mishap, was always on time,” McSweeney said. “So, this is the anti-Titanic.”

Sending out an S.O.S.

Supporters of the SS United States realize that with monthly berthing fees of more than $60,000, it'll be difficult to preserve the historic ship.

But what couldn’t be sunk by Atlantic icebergs was eventually done in by the jet airplane. By the late 1960s, air travel became so popular that the luxury liner was obsolete. Her ballroom fell silent. The first-class cabins were stripped bare. Today, the ship is an aging curiosity, viewed mostly from a distance. At $60,000 a month, keeping her berthed in Philadelphia is shockingly expensive, and that doesn’t take into account any repairs. Her caretakers calculate that it would take $1 billion to put her back on the high seas. At some point soon, they admit, the only option might be to sell her for salvage.

“It would break my heart. The ship is the last of its kind,” said Susan Gibbs. “It’s the last great ocean liner. It bears the name United States and for us to just let it go would be tragic, really. We can’t get her back if that happens.”

To prevent that from happening, the SS United States Conservancy, led by Gibbs and McSweeney, is looking to find a savior for the ship, one with the vision to see it as 5,000-square feet of floating waterfront property.

As the clock ticks down, one potential investor recently submitted a formal proposal to New York’s Economic Development Corporation to bring her back home.

“New York City is a great place for this ship to return to,” McSweeney said. “It sailed from New York for 17 years. It’s an amazing piece of engineering and design. It’s also a great symbol of our country and the opportunity that our country offers.”

It’s a voyage that Susan Gibbs said even the ship herself is eager to take.

“She still has this incredible strength,” Gibbs said. “You see the ship sitting there, she’s held fast by these bright blue lines and you just get the sense that she’s like, ‘I am ready to get on with it … I’m ready to go somewhere and into my next chapter.’”

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