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The SS United States: Time is Running Out

Updated on February 10, 2011

Size, Speed and Style

With a top speed of over 40 knots and a normal cruise speed of 31 knots, the Big U to set many speed records. Some remain unbroken today.
With a top speed of over 40 knots and a normal cruise speed of 31 knots, the Big U to set many speed records. Some remain unbroken today. | Source

The Big Ship's Glory Days

She Sits In Philadelphia at Pier 82 Awaiting Her Fate

The scrapper's torch is again ready to chop up the SS United States, but it's going to have to wait a while...again. The faded giant has not carried a passenger since 1969, but against all logic, still she floats. Why is the "Big U" so special?

Why The Fuss?

Any other ship would've been scrapped and recycled immediately after being taken out of service. Why not the "Big U"? After all, it was only in service for 17 years but it has been out of service for 41 years...yet, still she floats.

A Secret Mission

Maybe the talisman for the SS United States is it's ties to the glory days of trans-ocean travel by ship and maybe also to her little-known standby service during the scary days of the cold war. This heritage and her amazing technology has attracted many different buyers over the years ... mostly with schemes that didn't pan out.

Etched Glass, Steel and Vinyl ... No Wood

The booth and tables are typical of the modern style that was popular in that era. Since no flammable material or wood was allowed on board, the glass and chrome décor was ideal.
The booth and tables are typical of the modern style that was popular in that era. Since no flammable material or wood was allowed on board, the glass and chrome décor was ideal. | Source

A Restaurant is Home to the Original Bell

The ship's bell resides at Windmill Point Restaurant  in Nags Head, NC. The restaurant uses original furniture from the SS United States and displays many artifacts.
The ship's bell resides at Windmill Point Restaurant in Nags Head, NC. The restaurant uses original furniture from the SS United States and displays many artifacts. | Source

Why Was She Built in the First Place?

The SS United States was built to bring prestige to the US maritime industry which was going after a larger share of the lucrative transoceanic passenger market. Secretly, the big ship was also to serve as a troop carrier in time of war. It's construction cost was mostly funded by the US Dept. of Defense, and the US Navy was heavily involved in every phase of construction, to protect that vested interest.

For Peace or War

The new ship's commercial service capacity was 1900 passengers and 900 crew. A lesser known fact was that in 48 hours it could be converted into a troop carrier holding 15,000 troops.

What the Public Didn't See...

  • The superstructure is mostly made of aluminum for lightness, and this allowed for a smaller, sleeker hull.
  • Since the Navy contributed it's technical expertise, a top secret hull and propeller configuration was included and these both contributed much to it's amazing speed.
  • There are two redundant engine rooms so if one was knocked out, the other could take over.
  • All areas were highly compartmentalized, like a warship, and, for fire resistance no wood was used anywhere on the ship.
  • The breech resistant steel hull is two inches thick.

...Can't Sink What You Can't Catch

The Big U's main wartime advantage would be its speed -- it could probably outrun any sizable warship of the time. The ship's cold war inspired features weren't apparent to the passengers as they strolled about the roomy decks and marveled at the modern d├ęcor. No creature comforts were sacrificed for it's secret, secondary function of wartime troop carrier.

Fast and Fabulous

The big ship entered service in 1952 and on her maiden voyage she set two speed records for crossing the Atlantic; one in each direction. The westbound record still stands today. Celebrities loved the huge liner, and Walt Disney filmed "Bon Voyage" with Jane Wyman and Fred MacMurray aboard her. A young Bill Clinton sailed on her in 1968.

Master Staircase Eagle

This giant aluminum emblem now decorates the Windmill Point Restaurant.
This giant aluminum emblem now decorates the Windmill Point Restaurant. | Source

The Voyage Since 1969...

Where the Faded Lady...

By the late 1960s it became clear that passenger jets were now the preferred means for trans Atlantic travel. After retirement in 1969, the big ship was towed to Norfolk Virginia so the Navy could refit her for a troop carrier. The funds for this were never authorized and finally, in 1984, the ship's fixtures and fittings were sold.

Plan B: Wasn't much Better...

Next, new owners towed the ship to Ukraine for asbestos removal, then, in 1994 it was towed back to Philadelphia where it sits today. It costs about $800,000 per year just to keep it there while it slowly rusts away.

The Lady in Waiting

The Big U will soon learn if it's to be an entertainment mecca or scrap iron.
The Big U will soon learn if it's to be an entertainment mecca or scrap iron.

41 Years of "Deferred Maintenance"

The power plant is intact but age has taken it's toll.
The power plant is intact but age has taken it's toll. | Source
How many famous celebrities walked down this stairway?
How many famous celebrities walked down this stairway? | Source

View A Pictoral History

Picture History of the SS United States (Dover Maritime)
Picture History of the SS United States (Dover Maritime)

This has over 150 rare photographs of the ship's construction and its christening, as well as views of modern lounges with paneled walls and fireplaces, staterooms and dining rooms, a gymnasium and pool, theaters, a ballroom and more. Captions provide data on tonnage, size, (etc.). Some information on other ships is provided as well.

 

Will the Conservancy Be Able to Save Her?

In 2003, she was rescued by Norwegian Cruise Lines who purchased her and planned to use her once more as a cruise ship. The idea fell through and it went up for sale -- yet again.

Norwegian Steps Up

In July of 2010, a miracle occurred ... A Philadelphia philanthropist named H. F. Lenfest donated enough money to the The SS United States Conservancy to purchase the ship (for reportedly $3 million) from Norwegian, plus enough money to keep it docked for another twenty months. Norwegian Cruise Lines turned down an offer from a scrapper for about twice that amount.

The Conservancy Takes Over

The Conservancy is proposing that the ship be used for a hotel in an entertainment complex with a casino. Harrah's is working on a casino deal with the city of Philadelphia but they have said they are not interested in the SS United States being a part of it. So, the ship's future is still undetermined.

A Forgotten Marvel

The SS United States has seemingly lived a charmed life with no collisions, no iceberg encounters and no giant wave damage. But now, as she tries to outrun the scrap buyers, 40-plus knots may not be fast enough.

Comments

Submit a Comment

  • TheHoleStory profile image

    TheHoleStory 

    6 years ago from Parsons, West Virginia

    This is the very first time that I've heard about this truly remarkable story. I really hope that they don't scrap this wonderful vessel. It's literally a floating museum, and should be maintained for future generations to see. The photographs in this hub were spectacular, especially the old grand stair case. voting it up!

  • Hugh Williamson profile imageAUTHOR

    Hugh Williamson 

    6 years ago from Northeast USA

    Pamela and Angela - Thanks a million for reading and commenting.

    I wish I could take a tour of her.

  • Angela Brummer profile image

    Angela Brummer 

    6 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

    Beautiful hub! I love it and will definitely share this for all to relish!

  • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

    Pamela Kinnaird W 

    6 years ago from Maui and Arizona

    It's surprising that her maiden voyage was 1952 and yet she was retiring in 1969. But $800,000.00 just to keep her sitting at dock -- I guess that partly explains it and as you said, jets were the new mode of travel.

    This is a really interesting hub. I had never heard of this ship and I love history.

    Voting up, interesting and Sharing.

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