A Nation’s Flagship

An irreplaceable piece of American history could be saved from the scrapyard.

SS United States, holder of the Blue Riband

The rusting hulk of a great passenger ship has been a permanent fixture of the docks in Philadelphia since 1996.  Truck drivers use “the big ship” as a landmark on their way into the container terminal, but not many know exactly what she is and why she is there.  She is the SS United States, launched in 1951, one of the most significant ships ever constructed, and an irreplaceable historic artifact.  She is not a cruise ship, she is an ocean liner.

The great liners of the early twentieth century were very different from modern vessels.  They were bigger than modern car ferries, designed for long hauls across oceans.  Today the ocean is part of the destination for most people traveling at sea for recreational purposes, but in days gone by it was a highway that had to be traversed as quickly as possible by vessels that were unmatched by any other machine in size, power and range.  Unlike modern diesel-engined cruise ships which are floating party hotels dawdling along at a leisurely pace, these coal-powered leviathans were like a combination of the Boeing 747s, Airbus A380s, Concorde, and space shuttle of their time.  Ever bigger, faster, and more opulent ocean liners were pinnacles of human achievement, representing national prestige, technological sophistication, and industrial might.  In the pre-jet age, the great liners of shipping lines like Cunard and White Star were the workhorses of transoceanic transport.  Their job was to get people from A to B as quickly as possible in opulence for those who could afford it and in the bare minimum of comfort for anyone else.

Four times longer than today’s jumbo jets, they were the largest man-made moving objects up to that point.  They were designed without the aid of computers, built without space age materials, and powered without today’s efficient diesel engines, yet were still faster than modern cruise ships.  They had sharp razor-like bows for slicing through the largest of waves, reinforced hulls to take the pounding of the North Atlantic, and massive and complex but reliable engines to punch through the water continuously for days on end.

Southampton and New York were the terminals of the world’s busiest and most competitive ocean route.  New York’s setting was particularly spectacular, the great ships steaming up the river in the shadow of the skyscrapers of Manhattan and seeming to jostle for position among the giant piers, packed with enormous crowds of cheering well-wishers seeing loved ones off or welcoming them home.  “Queen Mary arrives today” would be a typical weekly headline in newspapers, listing which celebrities were coming to town so that press photographers could go down to the docks and get pictures of prominent actors, politicians and businessmen.  The race to break records for crossing the ocean was such a prominent competition that it was a matter of huge public interest who won the Blue Riband of the Atlantic.  The competition reached its zenith in the 1930s with the famous high speed crossings of Britain’s opulent and classic Queen Mary and the French art deco masterpiece, the Normandie, in which the prize changed hands numerous times.  Every time a ship came in on its maiden voyage it would be welcomed by a flotilla of boats swarming beside it, even more so if it were a Blue Riband-winning crossing.

However it was the SS United States that would clinch the prize once and for all for America.  Liners like Queen Mary were constructed with wartime use in mind, and Queen Mary and her ill-fated sister Queen Elizabeth were said to have lopped a year off the length of the Second World War because of their troop carrying capacity when they were requisitioned by Britain’s Royal Navy.  They shipped hundreds of thousands of GIs across the Atlantic as part of the allied build-up to D-Day and took them home again after the war.  The US government saw the importance of ocean liners as being necessary not only for commercial passenger service, but also to have ready to use in time of war for mobilizing troops.  The government underwrote over half the construction cost with the United States Line putting in the rest.

The SS United States, and her almost identical sister the SS America, had design features that were kept closely guarded secrets for reasons of military security.  She was designed to be easily converted to a troop carrier capable of hauling 15,000 soldiers at a time.  The hull was heavily compartmentalized, engine rooms were separated, wood and other flammable materials were all but absent, and the steam turbines were the most powerful of any merchant vessel.  This, combined with extensive use of aluminum in the superstructure, gave her the greatest power-to-weight ratio of any passenger ship ever constructed to this day.

On her maiden eastbound voyage she knocked ten hours off Queen Mary’s record, and made the westbound crossing in 3 days 12 hours and 12 minutes at an average speed of 34.51 knots (63.91 km/h or 39.71 mph), securing the Blue Riband for the USA for the first time in a century.  The crossings were so fast that when she arrived in New York, it was found that paint had been scrapped off the lower hull.

The sight of a passenger ship bigger than Titanic slicing through ocean waves like a small powerboat at nearly 40mph is a sight that we will never see again.  By the 1960s, jet air travel had made the ocean liner obsolete.  The time taken to cross the Atlantic was now measured in hours rather than days, and as passenger numbers on the liners dwindled to the point where they were sailing into New York with more crew than passengers, the shipping lines found themselves operating at a loss.  Only by changing their business model to cruising could they stay in business, and that meant building ships that were specifically designed for that specialist task.

The SS United States has changed hands numerous times since it went out of passenger service in 1969.  Unlike the Queen Mary which now enjoys her retirement as a floating hotel and museum in Long Beach, California, various proposals to repurpose the SS United States have failed to come to fruition, and there have been bids from parties interested in the ship for its value as scrap. The SS United States Conservancy, a volunteer group dedicated to the ship’s preservation, has announced that there is a very real chance that the vessel can be towed to New York where it can be redeveloped and saved from the scrapyard.  It costs $80,000 per month to stay in Philadelphia, and much of the money needed to preserve the ship has come from auctioning off many of the vessel’s interior fittings and even selling the propellers.  This pays the rent, but it makes future redevelopment more expensive.

Dan McSweeney, managing director of the SS United States Redevelopment Project, has indicated that there are plans afoot for a waterfront redevelopment project in New York of which the ship could become a part.  Specific details are expected to be announced soon.

Historic ships are to be found in many American coastal cities, but a lot of them are military vessels. It would be good if ships that are notable for their passenger service in peacetime and for their engineering significance were treated with the same reverence.