William Francis Gibbs, the designer of the SS United States, had a passion for ships from a young age. On November 12th, 1894, young William watched the launch of his first ocean liner, the SS St. Louis.
The experience would change his life, leading him towards a prolific career as a naval architect, and sparking a lifelong love affair with ocean liners.
William Francis (left) and Frederic Herbert Gibbs in June, 1923.
At 550 feet long and 11,500 gross tons, the St. Louis was one of the largest ocean liners in the world in 1894. Her christening at Philadelphia’s Cramp Shipyard was attended by U.S. president Grover Cleveland and first lady Frances Cleveland, along with Philadelphia entrepreneur William Warren Gibbs and his two sons, eight-year-old William Francis and six-year-old Frederic Herbert.
William had seen ocean liners from afar, spending long summer days at the family’s summer home on the New Jersey shore spotting them on the horizon, but this was his first time encountering one of the great liners in person.
In Steven Ujifusa’s biography of William Francis Gibbs, A Man and His Ship, Ujifusa describes the moment:
"As the music from the band faded into silence, the little boy and the crowd around him awaited the launching of the great ship. Mounting the platform, Cramp handed the first lady a bottle of champagne. The hydraulic rams then hit the ship a bit too early, and the hull started to creep down the ways. Startled, the first lady called out, “I christen thee St. Louis!” and smacked the bottle across the prow before it slid out of reach. Picking up speed, the ship roared down the tallow-greased slipway towards the Delaware River, kicking up billows of acrid smoke and, upon hitting the water, sending waves smashing against the banks."
“That was my first view of a great ship and from that day forward I dedicated my life to ships,” William Francis Gibbs later recalled. “I have never regretted it.”
The SS United States needs all of us, now more than ever. William Francis Gibbs’ great ship is a symbol of who we are when we’re at our very best — an icon of strength, innovation, and our nation’s ability to join arm-in-arm to advance common goals. We must save America's Flagship.
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