The SS United States: A Love Story
The love affair started a long time ago.
1952 to be exact.
There was a five-year old boy who loved boats. His Dad used to take him to the beach on the New Jersey shore every day in the summer where he would watch the boats out in the ocean almost nonstop, that is when he wasn’t making believe that the small plastic boats he played with were in the ocean instead of the shiny white sand.
One glorious Thursday in that summer of ‘52, the boy’s world changed. Forever. He saw out in the distance as majestic a ship as he had ever seen. It was stunning. Sleek, shiny, indescribable in its beauty, it’s red, white and blue funnels standing tall over the black superstructure, smoothly gliding across the water as it sped out of New York harbor into the Atlantic.
The love affair continued from afar, as it were, until five years later when it changed from love to pure devotion. The five-year old had become ten, and on this day in 1957, his dreams came true. He stood in awe, gazing at the massive ship looming above him. That same marvelous ship he had seen steaming out into the ocean five years before. His Dad had surprised him and his cousin Chris with a road trip to Manhattan, to Pier 86 along the Hudson River, specifically to visit this modern wonder. He was about to go on board!
He looked up. The ship was incredible. Her lines were sleek, almost seductive, despite her size. But she was indeed huge, more than 100 feet longer than the Titanic. And there she was, right in front of him, beckoning.
Walking up the ramp was as close to nirvana this boy had ever felt.
The boy, as you might have expected, is me. And the ship is the SS United States, America’s greatest maritime achievement. That first encounter was July 3, 1952, as she was on her maiden voyage from New York to Southampton, England. That voyage turned out to be one for the record books, as the SS United States broke the transatlantic speed record both eastbound and westbound. Records that still stand today.
The SS United States is the largest ship ever constructed in the U.S. and was for years the envy of the maritime world. After that maiden voyage, she was dubbed “the fastest ship in the world.” That moniker still stands. She performed perfectly transporting passengers to and from Europe for 17 glorious years, hosting royalty, presidents and Hollywood stars, among a laundry list of others.
Then it all changed. The company that owned her went out of business, and so did she, a victim of the increase and convenience of air travel across the Atlantic. She last sailed in October 1969 and was laid up. I lost track of her, as did virtually all America, and the memories faded.
I next saw her in 1997, on a drive from Philadelphia International Airport across the Walt Whitman Bridge toward New Jersey to visit my Dad. Her signature massive red, white and blue funnels were unmistakable, dominating the South Philadelphia waterfront. What could she be doing in Philadelphia?
After 65 years, America's Flagship continues to inspire. If you're ready to join our mission to rescue and revitalize the SS United States, visit our GoFundMe page today and support an enduring American icon.
On my way back to the airport, I allowed enough time to go down to Columbus Avenue and see for myself. And just like in 1957, my heart was pounding and my hands were trembling. Sadly, she looked awful, fading paint, rusting metalwork. I discovered that the ship had been towed to Philadelphia the year before, and has been there since then while people have tried to figure out just what to do with her.
A number of people and organizations have been tirelessly working to save her, and for the last seven years she’s been owned by the SS United States Conservancy, the first group 100% dedicated to her preservation to actually own the ship. The Conservancy is run by Susan Gibbs, the granddaughter William Francis Gibbs who designed and built the SS United States, and Susan and her staff work tirelessly to promote awareness of the legacy of this great liner and the importance of saving the ship. The Conservancy has to come up with the cash each month to maintain her at her berth until plans are put in place to restore her.
There have been many near misses over the years, including a short-lived plan to get her back into sea-going service. Now the Conservancy’s objective is to have the SS United States become a multi-use waterfront stationary attraction, with my vote for New York as her location, the port of her maiden voyage. Anywhere would be good, to be honest.
If none of these options work, the ship will be sold for scrap.
Ladies and gentlemen, that simply cannot happen.
Why should people go to so much trouble to save a huge, rusting collection of metal, you might ask? Consider:
The SS United States is the largest ocean liner ever made in the U.S. and is one of the last examples of American manufacturing creativity, ingenuity and might.
It is the fastest ocean liner ever built, and still holds both trans-Atlantic speed records it set on that maiden voyage in 1952.
It is the safest ocean liner ever built. There wasn’t one ounce of wood on board; the entire ship was made of steel and aluminum, including the grand piano.
It arguably is the most beautiful ocean liner ever built. Its lines are majestic, it’s structure sleek and the red, white and blue funnels, well, they are the most recognized symbols of any ship in the world.
The ship was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
While you would certainly doubt that such a massive thing could have a heart and a soul, you’d change your mind when you saw her, when you stood before her. Like I did when I was ten. Like I did a couple of years ago.
The good news is that much publicity has been generated about the plight of the SS United States. There have been articles, TV reports, DVD’s and other books in recent years, and the Conservancy is doing a marvelous job developing campaigns to keep donations coming in while plans to restore the ship are explored.
The bottom line of all this? The SS United States needs help. Something everyone can do to keep America’s best maritime manufacturing achievement from the scrap heap. You can help by making a donation for the SS United States. Go to the Conservancy’s website to learn more at http://www.ssusc.org, or go directly to the Conservancy’s donation campaign page, “We are The United States”, here: https://www.gofundme.com/wearetheunitedstates.
This is a love story that needs to have a happy ending. Please help keep a little boy’s dream alive. Join me in saving the great SS United States.