Last weekend, I had the great good fortune to go aboard the SS United States. It is a ship that I have read about for years as she is indisputably one of the great ships of history. Indeed, I have a painting of her over my desk along with the great French ocean liner Normandie. Inasmuch as the ship is rarely open to the public, it was a privilege to go aboard.
The SS United States is the fastest ocean liner ever built, a title she has held since 1952. No ocean liner or cruise ship before or since has come close to her top speed of nearly 40 knots. She is widely considered the height of American shipbuilding.
During her 17 years in service, the SS United States was a popular ship, carrying royalty, statesmen and celebrities across the Atlantic along with thousands of tourists. Bill Clinton, on his way to study at Oxford University, was one of them. She was a more down-to-earth and informal ship than the Cunard Queens or the French Line ships that were her main competitors.
The SS United States was a very American ship. As her confident, flowing lines and technological prowess suggest, she personified the spirit of America in the post war era.
She was built, not just for commercial reasons, but also for national defense. In fact, the United States government contributed the bulk of the $79 million needed to construct her in the early 1950s. The idea was that the ship could be quickly converted into a troopship capable of carrying 15,000 soldiers across the Atlantic in four days. The fact that the United States could quickly reinforce the NATO troops stationed in Western Europe with large numbers of soldiers acted as a deterrent to any notion that the Soviet Union may have had to invade Western Europe with conventional forces.
The SS United States was prematurely retired in late 1969. Commercial jet travel had arrived and demand for Atlantic crossings by ship was declining. At the same time, labor costs and fuel costs were increasing. Essentially, her owners, the United States Lines, took the ship down to Virginia and gave her to the government.
Once it was decided that the SS United States was no longer of military value, the government sold her to private interests. Then began came a succession of owners who had various grand schemes to put the ship back in service. Fortunes were spent on these dreams but none ever came to fruition.
During one of these episodes the ship was moved from Virginia to Turkey, then the Ukraine, and then back to the United States. She has been in Philadelphia since 1996.
Despite all the money that has been spent on her, the ship looks quite pathetic. She has not been painted in years, her deck machinery is rusting and there is even grass growing where some of the lifeboats once stood. Her interior is empty, stripped down to the metal. Her first owners sold off all of the moveable contents. Then when she was in the Ukraine, her interior walls were removed in order to remove the asbestos that was used to fireproof everything in the 1950s.
Her blemishes, however, are only cosmetic. Surveys have shown that the ship is still structurally sound. In addition, her vast expanse of interior space appears to be full of potential for development.
Finding someone that will realize that potential is the goal of the SS United States Conservancy. It has been talking with real estate developers and government agencies in an effort to preserve the ship. While there is hope for a new future, time is fleeting. It costs some $60,000 a month just to maintain the ship where she is and the Conservancy does not have unlimited resources. Once its money runs out, the SS United States will probably go to the scrapyard.
What a shame that would be! The SS United States is not only an important part of maritime history but is a symbol of the United States. Future generations will condemn us for our stupidity if we let her go. This is especially so considering her potential for future use. The Tate Modern in London, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the High Line in New York City are examples of how new uses can be found for old historic structures once they are no longer needed for their original purpose.
I have added an SS United States section to Beyondships with information and photos about the ship. http://beyondships.com/SSUS-home.html It includes a feature article outlining the story of the SS United States. http://www.beyondships2.com/ss-united-states-story.html There is also a photo feature showing the interior of the ship from my visit to the SS United States. http://www.beyondships2.com/ss-united-states-visit.html Also, we have a video showing the fine proud lines of the exterior of the SS United States. http://www.beyondships2.com/ss-united-states-video.html
Also on Beyondships this week is Part Two of our update on Adventure of the Seas. It includes an interview in which the captain, the hotel director and the guest services manager discuss what the cruise experience on Adventure is like. http://www.beyondships2.com/adventure-of-the-seas-101.html In another interview, Hotel Director Gary Davies talks about the recent changes made to Adventure of the Seas and those planned for 2016. http://www.beyondships2.com/adventure-of-the-seas-evolves.html Finally, Captain Olle-Johan Gronhaug explains what is happening when you see a cruise ship’s lifeboats being launched while the ship is in port. http://www.beyondships2.com/adventure-of-the-seas-boat-drill.html