Can This Ship be Saved?

 

The SS United States, via Wikimedia Commons

The SS United States, considered the ultimate transatlantic liner, is surely one of the most beautiful powered ships ever built. Despite her important position in American maritime history and her aesthetic appeal, the ship is threatened once again to be scrapped–and this time the threat is imminent.

Launched in 1952, the United States was intended primarily for passenger service but also to be quickly convertible into a high-speed troop transport–the construction was substantially government-subsidized for that reason.  Overall design responsibility was with Willard Francis Gibbs, who had been thinking about ocean liners since he was in college: among the many other projects of the firm that he co-founded was the design of the WWII Liberty ships.

The engineer in charge of the propeller design for the United States was Elaine Kaplan, one of the very few women working in the field at that time–the prop design was considered innovative enough that it was classified for several years, along with details of the ship’s underwater shape.  Four geared steam turbines drove the ship with a total of 240,000 horsepower.  On her maiden voyage, the United States broke the eastbound speed record (previously held by the Queen Mary) with an average speed of 35 knots, thereby winning the coveted Blue Riband, and did the same on the westbound trip. Normal service speed was 30 knots, with a maximum demonstrated speed of 38 knots. (35 mph and 45 mph, respectively.)

Operated by United States Lines, and carrying 1928 passengers and 900 crew, the ship quickly became a favorite on the North Atlantic run.  Considerable attention had been given to the interior decoration, subject to the constraint that fireproofing was considered a critical design priority.  There was an emphasis on ‘restrained elegance over glitz and glitter.’  As was standard in ocean travel at the time, the ship had a three-class structure:  first class, cabin class, and tourist class.

By 1957, air travel was biting significantly into the travel market previously dominated by ocean liners.  Labor problems in the early 1960s, resulting in some canceled voyages, did not help.  The ship began operating in the Caribbean as a cruise liner, but her operating costs were high compared to other ships working in the area. Upon the completion of her 400th voyage in 1968, the ship was withdrawn from service.

Since then, there have been various owners and prospective plans:  In 1976, the Norwegian Cruise Line planned to purchase the ship and convert her into a Caribbean cruise ship, but the U.S. Maritime Administration refused the sale due to the classified naval design elements of the ship. NCL purchased the former SS France instead. (These features were finally declassified one year later.)

The ship is now owned by the SS United States Conservancy, an organization run by Susan Gibbs, the granddaughter of the ship’s designer Willard Francis Gibbs.  They have been attempting to locate a seaport city that would be interested in developing the ship as a hotel and tourist attraction, similar to the Queen Mary in Long Beach—so far without success.  There was also a recent and supposedly very serious project undertaken by one cruise line to look at converting the United States into a modern cruise liner, but this was eventually judged infeasible.  The owner of the space where the United States is docked (in Philadelphia) attempted to double the dockage charge. A court did not allow that but ordered that the ship vacate the space by September.  If $500,000 is not raised by that time–for towing and initial dockage fees at a new location–the ship will be scrapped or turned into an artificial reef.

Redevelopment of the ship would be expensive–especially given that the furniture and fixtures were removed and sold at auction many years ago. However, I believe that with good marketing, promotion, and political connection development, a successful fundraising effort to save the United States is possible.

There are several US memorial warships, and very appropriately so.  It would be good to also have a ship memorializing the great age of transoceanic sea transportation.  If you feel inclined to contribute, funds are urgently needed. Donations can be made at the link.

And if you know of a city that could benefit from the presence of this ship, and local agencies and/or officeholders that might be helpful, I’m sure the SSUSC would love to hear from you.

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There are 23 comments.

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  1. EJHill Staff
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Unless you’re going to turn it into another Queen Mary it’s probably doomed to the scrap heap. The question is, how cost effective is that going to be and where would you dock her?

    • #1
  2. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O
    @ChrisO

    It’s a tough one. Who has the capital? Plus, the sheer size of these ships affects waterfront views. Old seaside areas would be dominated by its presence, and it isn’t difficult to see why that’s not an attractive prospect. The Queen Mary, for example, is right next to the port and separate from downtown Long Beach. The United States would need a similar setup. Seems like they need an individual or group with deep pockets to make it a pet project. 

    • #2
  3. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    David Foster: the furniture and fixtures were removed and sold at auction many years ago

    Seems to me it was doomed already at this point.

    • #3
  4. MoFarmer Coolidge
    MoFarmer
    @mofarmer

    kedavis (View Comment):

    David Foster: the furniture and fixtures were removed and sold at auction many years ago

    Seems to me it was doomed already at this point.

    Just as the United States is if the democommies retain power in Nov.

    • #4
  5. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Why did the image change from color to B&W when the post was promoted to Main Feed?

    • #5
  6. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    As this video shows, the years of neglect have been quite hard on the ship … It may not be feasible to restore the ship:

     

    • #6
  7. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Why did the image change from color to B&W when the post was promoted to Main Feed?

    Probably because the Wiki Commons B&W image isn’t copyrighted?

    • #7
  8. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    As this video shows, the years of neglect have been quite hard on the ship … It may not be feasible to restore the ship:

     

    If someone really wanted to restore it, they should have started before it was stripped of furnishings etc.

    • #8
  9. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    Oh…when I opened this post, I was expecting an allegorical story.  Okay…there is an actual ship called SS United States. Gotcha…

     

    • #9
  10. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    One of my professors at the Naval Architecture Dept at the University of Michigan helped draft the hull lines for United States. His story was he and several others wanted to add a bulbous bow to the ship.  Would have reduced fuel consumption by one-third, but also would have knocked about 10% off the top speed. Gibbs wouldn’t have it.  He wanted the Blue Ribband too badly. So it set speed records and was a fuel hog.  Enough of a hog that it was uneconomical to run her as a cruise ship in the 1970s and ’80s when cruising became big. Being in service through the 1990s might have made it easier to restore her today.

    Sic transit.

    • #10
  11. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    kedavis (View Comment):
    If someone really wanted to restore it, they should have started before it was stripped of furnishings etc.

    Different ‘they’…the ship did not then belong to the Conservancy, but rather to a group that had hoped to revitalize it as a timeshare-forma cruise line–the furnishings, etc were sold to pay creditors.

     

    • #11
  12. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Cow Girl (View Comment):

    Oh…when I opened this post, I was expecting an allegorical story.  Okay…there is an actual ship called SS United States. Gotcha…

     

    The B&W imagery really does work well with that metaphorical meaning.

    • #12
  13. Cosmik Phred Member
    Cosmik Phred
    @CosmikPhred

    Here’s one of a number of videos from the Battleship New Jersey curator, Ryan Szimanski:

     

    • #13
  14. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Cosmik Phred (View Comment):

    Here’s one of a number of videos from the Battleship New Jersey curator, Ryan Szimanski:

     

    I enjoy his YT channel.

    • #14
  15. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    I’ve visited the New Jersey twice, one trip for the engine room tour and the other for the armament and fire-control system tour.

    • #15
  16. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    David Foster (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):
    If someone really wanted to restore it, they should have started before it was stripped of furnishings etc.

    Different ‘they’…the ship did not then belong to the Conservancy, but rather to a group that had hoped to revitalize it as a timeshare-forma cruise line–the furnishings, etc were sold to pay creditors.

     

    Doesn’t really matter who did it, the result is the same.  And if that group was hoping to make it a “timeshare” then selling off a lot of what made it unique/desirable was still very stupid.

    • #16
  17. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    kedavis (View Comment):

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    As this video shows, the years of neglect have been quite hard on the ship … It may not be feasible to restore the ship:

     

    If someone really wanted to restore it, they should have started before it was stripped of furnishings etc.

    The reason the ship was stripped was to remove asbestos.

    So in a sense the stripping of the ship was the first step in the restoration, but because so much of the ship’s infrastructure has been left unprotected for so long, a rot may have set in making the ship too expensive to restore.

    • #17
  18. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    As this video shows, the years of neglect have been quite hard on the ship … It may not be feasible to restore the ship:

     

    If someone really wanted to restore it, they should have started before it was stripped of furnishings etc.

    The reason the ship was stripped was to remove asbestos.

    So in a sense the stripping of the ship was the first step in the restoration, but because so much of the ship’s infrastructure has been left unprotected for so long, a rot may have set in making the ship too expensive to restore.

    I was referring more to the furniture etc.  How much of the furniture had asbestos?  And how could it have been sold if it was?  But I suspect most people who would be interested in having it be some kind of retro floating hotel etc, would expect the original (but “restored”) furnishings, which was impossible after they were sold off.

    • #18
  19. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    kedavis (View Comment):

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    As this video shows, the years of neglect have been quite hard on the ship … It may not be feasible to restore the ship:

     

    If someone really wanted to restore it, they should have started before it was stripped of furnishings etc.

    The reason the ship was stripped was to remove asbestos.

    So in a sense the stripping of the ship was the first step in the restoration, but because so much of the ship’s infrastructure has been left unprotected for so long, a rot may have set in making the ship too expensive to restore.

    I was referring more to the furniture etc. How much of the furniture had asbestos? And how could it have been sold if it was? But I suspect most people who would be interested in having it be some kind of retro floating hotel etc, would expect the original (but “restored”) furnishings, which was impossible after they were sold off.

    Yes, I imagine on a ship, a lot of the furniture is bolted to the walls, to prevent passengers from being injured by furniture moving in rough seas. (just my imagination, may not actually be true) Plus the furniture would be an obstacle coarse slowing progress on the asbestos project.

    But I agree, selling the furniture was short sighted, using the proceeds to pay off bankers today, in order to stay afloat today. Also increasing costs down the road, and given inflation those costs have increasing astronomically… I guess this was long before “Go Fund Me” could have helped. 

    • #19
  20. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    As this video shows, the years of neglect have been quite hard on the ship … It may not be feasible to restore the ship:

     

    If someone really wanted to restore it, they should have started before it was stripped of furnishings etc.

    The reason the ship was stripped was to remove asbestos.

    So in a sense the stripping of the ship was the first step in the restoration, but because so much of the ship’s infrastructure has been left unprotected for so long, a rot may have set in making the ship too expensive to restore.

    I was referring more to the furniture etc. How much of the furniture had asbestos? And how could it have been sold if it was? But I suspect most people who would be interested in having it be some kind of retro floating hotel etc, would expect the original (but “restored”) furnishings, which was impossible after they were sold off.

    Yes, I imagine on a ship, a lot of the furniture is bolted to the walls, to prevent passengers from being injured by furniture moving in rough seas. (just my imagination, may not actually be true) Plus the furniture would be an obstacle coarse slowing progress on the asbestos project.

    But I agree, selling the furniture was short sighted, using the proceeds to pay off bankers today, in order to stay afloat today. Also increasing costs down the road, and given inflation those costs have increasing astronomically… I guess this was long before “Go Fund Me” could have helped.

    Well sure, some portion of the furniture would have to be unbolted to access other things.  But once unbolted, selling it was a huge mistake.

    • #20
  21. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Gibbs was a nut about fire prevention.  There was no wood aboard United States, and all fabrics 0n it were fireproof or fire resistant.  As I recall some of the upholstery and a lot of the drapes and wall coverings used asbestos.

    There were few concerns about asbestos melanoma back in the 1940s and 1950s. Even in the 1960s.

    • #21
  22. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Gibbs was a nut about fire prevention. There was no wood aboard United States, and all fabrics 0n it were fireproof or fire resistant. As I recall some of the upholstery and a lot of the drapes and wall coverings used asbestos.

    There were few concerns about asbestos melanoma back in the 1940s and 1950s. Even in the 1960s.

    Seems like in that case, the furnishings would have to be destroyed, not sold.

    • #22
  23. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Gibbs was a nut about fire prevention. There was no wood aboard United States, and all fabrics 0n it were fireproof or fire resistant. As I recall some of the upholstery and a lot of the drapes and wall coverings used asbestos.

    There were few concerns about asbestos melanoma back in the 1940s and 1950s. Even in the 1960s.

    Seems like in that case, the furnishings would have to be destroyed, not sold.

    Not my problem.

    • #23
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