Floating Shipwreck: Whatever Happened to the SS United States?

Updated on December 29, 2019
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Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.


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.

Early Years

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.

The SS United States on her maiden voyage in 1952.
The SS United States on her maiden voyage in 1952. | Source
The Foundation
The Foundation | Source

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
Active Service
US Navy
Laid up in Norfolk, Virginia
Richard Hadley
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
Edward Cantor
Purchased for $6 million. Ship is passed onto his son Michael in 2002 after Edward's death.
Michael Cantor
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.

Ongoing Effort

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.

Revitalization Plan

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.

SS United States Documentary


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      I had the honor of being a passenger on this magnificent ship when I was five years old ......in 1958. It was a magical voyage.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I was not very clear about the remark above about the Queen Mary not being the same era as the United States. There is also not an unified definition what were the era´s of passenger liners. One could argue that that the s.s. United States is one of the last surviving trans-atlantic steam driven passengerliners, like the Queen Mary, and thus a part of a certain era. Mostly however the period between the end of the 19th century and the second world war is regarded as a special era (the "golden age") of passenger liners. This was an era of bigger and bigger transatlantic liners where there was great competition between shipping lines to excel in quality of service, luxury and comfort. The skies were the limits, and that era I was referring to. Great example of that period is the ss Normandie, with its outstanding art-deco interior.

      By the way: I find it very sad that the interior of the s.s. United States was sold and auctioned off, I think the chances of survival would have increased if the interior would have been preserved. I´ve seen referrals that the interior contained much asbestos and that it had to be stripped anyway, but i don´t know if this is true.

      In my country , Holland, one ´50s transatlantic passenger liner is preserved, the s.s. Rotterdam. The interior needed restoring but most of it was still there. It serves as a hotel, a casino, and has lots of conference rooms. You can also do excursions to restored (to original) parts to the ship. http://ssrotterdam.com/

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Mmmm, I love passengerliners and have a great passion about their design through the ages, but... I don´t think the s.s. United States is worth the immense amount of money (100´s of millions of dollars required to get it restored in original condition). It is not an historical, famous or unique ship; the exterior and the interior is nothing exclusive or special (except the funnels and the aluminium superstructure). Much more (and more remarkable) passenger liners have been scrapped since, like the Canberra, France (later Norway) and Oriana, of the 60´s, and the beautiful Pacific Princess ("Love Boat"), of the seventies. This ships designed role as a passengerliner and troop transporter made it almost impossible to let it excel in beauty or grandeur or in any other way that would have made this ship very special. It was not designed to exite passengers, but for its combined role and speed.

      Though I even have a model of the united states (with flat bottom because anything below the waterline was a secret), why save this ship? By the way a few remarks: the Queen Mary is not of the same era as the United States, her first voyage was in 1936, the United States was launched in early 1950´s. The S.S. America was not so much a sistership of S.S. United states. A sister ship is "a ship of the same class as, or of virtually identical design to, another ship. Such vessels share a near-identical hull and superstructure layout, similar displacement, and roughly comparable features and equipment." The s.s. America was very much smaller than the s.s. United states (displacement), was not designed as a convertible troop transporter (features), was not built for speed (engines and equipment) and had a very different interior. Also, the s.s. America was built 12 years earlier, in 1940. The S.S. united states was very much more modern (futuristic even).

      I love passengerliners, but I think the 700-800 thousand dollars it costs every year to lay at a peer is better served to restore and celebrate other American historical (nautical) items. Perhaps the money could go to a maritime museum to purchase American objects to be enjoyed by so many people.

    • jasonponic profile imageAUTHOR

      Jason Ponic 

      7 years ago from Albuquerque

      I think the donations demonstrate the love for the ship. With the exception of the Queen Mary, the SS United States is the last vessel of that era. Former President Clinton has donated to the Conservancy along with several other notable donors. The $5.8 million pledge came from philanthropist H.F. Lenfest

    • Man from Modesto profile image

      Man from Modesto 

      7 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)

      A little hard to believe a private group raised 5.8 million to buy a stripped vessel.

      It will be nice to see her making a profit. Hope it works out.

    • jasonponic profile imageAUTHOR

      Jason Ponic 

      7 years ago from Albuquerque

      lj gonya, that is very exciting!! You should write a hub showcasing your memorabilia! You would have an instant reader here! I am an avid advocate for its revitalization.

    • lj gonya profile image

      lj gonya 

      7 years ago

      My husband's aunt was stewardess on the S.S. United States from her maiden voyage until the ship was retired. We have a houseful of memorabilia that I have collected everything from menus to pictures. We visited her in Philadelphia years ago. Good hub!

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 

      7 years ago from Southern Nevada

      Very interesting indeed.


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