Floating Shipwreck: Whatever Happened to the SS United States?
The "Big U"
She is the very last of the legendary liners of the early 20th century and the final holder of the Blue Riband Speed Record. Her premature retirement marked the end of an age. With Trans-Atlantic passenger service taking to the skies, the "Big U", became a relic of obsolesce.
Alongside the RMS Queen Mary, she faced an uncertain future. But unlike her British counterpart which was converted into a hotel immediately after retirement, the "Big U" has yet to regain, immortality, fame or notoriety. Instead, she's teetered on the brink of destruction over and over again in the last fifty years. Sitting forgotten at a Philadelphia pier, the "Big U" has been bought and sold half a dozen times. With plans to return her to active service or a floating attraction collapsing time and time again, the risk of loosing the historic liner to the scrap yard grows with each passing year. The older she gets, the harder she is to maintain.
But the ship has a team of dedicated individuals fighting for her very existence. The SS United States Conservancy has been fighting the uphill battle to preserve the ship for future generations. As a fan of the Big U, I have personally donated to their cause, multiple times. It is my hope that the ship will be saved and preserved, a tribute to a bygone era.
This is the story of America's flagship, the SS United States.
Initially, the SS United States was America's answer to European trans-atlantic passenger competition. The original RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth were the most famous liners afloat by the end of the Second World War. Inspired by their exceptional service records, the US government approved a sponsorship to create its own troop transport in the event of a new global war. The SS United States was that transport. Designed to be easily converted from passenger to war service with a capacity of 15,000 troops, the vessel was constructed between 1950 and 1952.
Unlike vessels before it, the SS United States contained no wood interiors. New fire safety codes prohibited extensive use of wood paneling in passenger vessels. Instead the ship's interiors were stainless steel, fiberglass, aluminum and acrylic. Also unique to the vessel, an aluminum super structure. This weight saving feature contributed to the vessel's still unbroken westbound speed record. With a top speed of 32 knots, the ship took the Blue Riband speed record from the RMS Queen Mary, a record she still holds today.
In her seventeen year career, the SS United States enjoyed heavy bookings and notable passengers including a young Bill Clinton.
Decline and Retirement
The rise of air travel was the final death nail for not just the SS United States but the entire trans-atlantic passenger service worldwide. Bookings of 90% capacity or more in the early 1950s quickly eroded as the 1960s rolled around. Ships were barely managing 20% and costs soared. The SS America, the SS United States sister, was retired and sold off. The RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth were forced into retirement as their operator, Cunard, began to expand its operations into cargo transport in an attempt to stay profitable.
The decision to retire the SS United States came in 1969. Because the vessel was built to rigid US Navy regulations during the Cold War, the ship could not be sold to any foreign nations. For a brief time, it was laid up with the Navy's reserve fleet in Norfolk, Virginia. It is here where her uncertain future begins.
Purgatory: Scrapping or Revitalizing
In the decades that followed, the SS United States sat in a holding pattern that one could describe as purgatory. The ship would change owners a number of times without a single successful restoration plan implemented. She would be moved from one dock to another like an unwanted foster child, ultimately landing in Philadelphia Harbor where she became an unremarkable landmark to the locals. "The ship" as she would become, history and even name slowly being forgotten.
Owners of the SS United States
United States Lines
Laid up in Norfolk, Virginia
Intended to restore vessel to cruise service. Financing collapsed and ships interiors were stripped and sold at auction.
US Marshals Office
The ship is seized after non payment of mortgage and docking fees
Marmara Marine, Inc.
Towed to Europe for asbestos removal
Purchased for $6 million. Ship is passed onto his son Michael in 2002 after Edward's death.
Inherits the ship from his father.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Intended to restore the ship as a cruise liner. The 2008 Financial Collapse made this impossible.
SS United States Conservancy
After a feverish, Save our Ship campaign the Conservancy raises $5.8 million to save the ship from a scrapper sale.
Save Our Ship Campaign
In 2009, the Norwegian Cruise Line placed the SS United States up for sale but due to the ongoing financial crisis, there were no buyers. In 2010, the line began accepting bids from scrappers. In response, the SS United States Conservancy launched an aggressive 11th hour fundraising campaign. After a $5.8 million dollar pledge from philanthropist H.F. Lenfest, the Conservancy was successful in purchasing the ship from NCL for roughly $3.3 million despite a higher offer from a scrapping company.
The effort to save the ship is ongoing. Despite the change of ownership to the Conservancy, the SS United States costs $800,000 a year to maintain at the Philadelphia pier it's docked at. While the Conservancy continues to make progress with it's revitalization efforts, the 501(c)3 non-profit organization relies on public donations to fund its efforts.
In April 2012 an aggressive search to secure a contractor for redevelopment began. Negotiations with the cities of New York, Philadelphia and Miami were also underway to secure the Big U's permanent home.
Support for the ship has been remarkable. Crowd funding has responsible for raising over $6 million as of 2013 to restore the ship. Their campaign allows donors to literally choose a number of square inches to save.
In 2015, the Conservancy's fund had largely dried up and the group was forced to consider selling the ship to a scrapper. In October, a last ditch effort was made to save the ship with an intense media coverage event. The results were remarkable with $600,000 raised. All bids from scrappers were rejected.
In 2016, an exciting announcement came where Crystal Cruises had signed a purchasing option with the Conversancy to return the SS United States to active service as a cruise ship. For nine months, Crystal Cruises covered maintenance costs as it conducted a feasibility study. Every inch of the ship was inspected. Unfortunately in August 2016, the plan was officially dropped. Crystal Cruises found that a combination of the ship's current condition, cost needed to bring the ship up to modern safety standards and risk of loosing historical value made it infeasible for the ship to return to active service.
The Conservancy is currently accepting redevelopment proposals for the SS United States. The group is not planning on returning the ship to active service. Instead they are proposing a, East Coast Queen Mary. Read more about it here.
- The Campaign
Launched earlier this year, this campaign website allows you to help fund the SS United States Restoration Project!