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 fifty years since retirement. 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.
1968 - 1978 ~ Cold Lay Up in Norfolk, Virginia
1978 - 1992 ~ Richard Hadley
The first of several failed revitalization efforts began with the ship's $5 million sale to real estate mogul Richard Hadley in 1978. His grand vision for the ship; a return to active service as a cruising society time share. 15% of the ship's cabins would be sold to a cruising society, United States Cruises, during the summer months for quick two week cruises. The interior of the ship would be completely rebuilt with enlarged cabins, multiple ballrooms, swimming pools and tennis courts. In preparation for renovation, the ship was towed from Norfolk to Newport News, Virginia.
This dream would never materialize. As the scope of the dream grew, so did the anticipated cost from $152 million to over $200 million ($785 million today). Despite his best efforts, Hadley was unable to secure financing for the project with his final attempts failing in 1984. As the ship's maintenance costs and wharfage fees were keeping the venture in the red, Hadley resorted to auctioning off every single piece of interior that wasn't bolted down; from furniture, paneling, to light fixtures, and even the ship's bell. It was desperation move that brought the ire of SS United States fans and historians.
Eventually Hadley fell behind in both the pier rent and the ship's mortgage. Defaulting on both in 1992, the ship was formally seized by the US Marshals Service as Hadley's United States Cruises filed for bankruptcy.
1992-1996 ~ Marmara Marine, Inc.
After the vessel was seized due to payment defaults, the US government quickly placed the ship up for auction. The winning bid of $2.6 million was awarded to Fred Mayer, CEO of Marmara Marine, saving the ship from a scrapper's $1.5 million bid. So the ship escaped its first brush with the scrapyard.
Like Hadley, Mayer wished to see the ship sail again. At the time, her structural integrity and design still allowed for an easy conversion back into a seaworthy vessel. 1/2 the cost of building a brand new ship the same size. Fred Mayer even had Cunard, the SS United States rival operator, interested in partnering for restoration and cruising.
There was over 161,000 square feet of asbestos insulation across every deck and room. Certainly made the ship fireproof, one of the ship's selling features when the liner was built. But now this was a crippling problem for Marmara Marine. The sheer volume of asbestos needing removal basically labeled the ship an environmental disaster waiting to happen. No renovation plan could proceed without first removing this toxic material. In fact, it was estimated that the SS United States had more asbestos on board than any other merchant vessel in the world. Nobody in the US wanted the job so the company towed the ship to Turkey. It was the first time the SS United States crossed the Atlantic in nearly 15 years.
Greenpeace, the environmental group, was particularly unrelenting in harassing Marmara Marine over the state of the ship. It staged protests and put so much pressure on them that the endeavor was abandoned and the ship was towed to the former Soviet Union state, the Ukraine. Ironically most of the resistance there wasn't over the removal of the toxic material, rather that it was coming from an American built vessel, named SS United States. Something post Soviet Union Ukraine wouldn't ignore. Greenpeace had also followed the ship to the Ukraine and continued its attempted exorcism of this toxic relic. But Mayer dug in and with the help of some contacts were able to get the ship dry docked and the removal begun. Enough Ukrainians were desperate for work that they willing to risk their health to earn some needed money. What would have cost $120 million in the US, only cost $1 million here. The ship was completely gutted, stripped to the bare frames. All of her once lavish interiors were ripped out and sold for scrap.
By 1994, Mayer was starting to have difficulty securing the financing needed to fully restore the ship. Also by this time, Cunard was in serious financial trouble and after series of PR disasters and lawsuits involving their flagship, Queen Elizabeth 2 the once mighty line was nearly bankrupt. Cruising titan Carnival swooped in and purchased Cunard outright. With the sale, Cunard's interest in the SS United States evaporated. Carnival had no interest in restoring a forty-year-old vessel. Rather they began development on a brand new ship that would become the MV Queen Mary 2.
In 1995, Marmara Marine wasn't fairing any better. Internal fighting and financing problems caused the company to fall behind on asbestos removal payments. Port authorities seized the ship and demanded payment for its release. Marmara Marine responded by stripping the SS United States of all her aluminum lifeboats and davits and used the scrap value towards the debt. This piece-by-piece scrap out of the historic vessel alarmed Marmara Marine's American partners. Lead by Edward Cantor, they stepped in to help settle the debt.
In 1996, Mayer and Cantor arranged to have the SS United States towed back to the USA. This would be the final time the ship would make a westbound crossing. She returned to American waters stripped and empty, a literal shell of her former self. She would be anchored at a Philadelphia pier where she has remained to this day. Her troubles were not over. Shortly after returning to the US, the Marshals Service once again seized the ship due to a series of back debts, some as far back as the Marmara Marine's 1992 purchase of the ship. The ship went back up for auction and this time Edward Cantor placed the winning bid of $6 million, purchasing the ship outright.
1996-2002 ~ Edward Cantor
While Edward Cantor continued to sort out back debts and US customs problems regarding the asbestos removal, two non-profits were founded by the late 1990s with the sole purpose of preserving and repurposing the ship. The SS United States Foundation and the SS United States Preservation Society were founded by fans of the ship, determined to save it from the growing possibility of scrap. Through their efforts, the liner was placed on the National Register for Historic Places. This victory however did little to help the preservation of the ship and did nothing to aid her deteriorating financial situation.
By now, hopes to make the liner seaworthy again were fading. Between Mayer and Cantor, nearly $50 million had be spent to gut the ship and tow her to Europe and back. Cantor was considering any feasible use at this point. The ideas of a casino, hotel, convention center where all floated. But Cantor's death in 2002 ended any of those plans. The ownership of the SS United States passed onto his son.
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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.
SS United States Conservancy
SS United States Documentary
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
June on April 11, 2018:
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.
Boterbloempje on May 01, 2015:
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/
Boterbloempje on April 30, 2015:
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.
Jason Ponic (author) from Albuquerque on June 12, 2012:
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 from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California) on June 12, 2012:
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.
Jason Ponic (author) from Albuquerque on June 12, 2012:
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 on June 12, 2012:
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!
Joyce Haragsim from Southern Nevada on June 12, 2012:
Very interesting indeed.