There’s no doubt the romance and mystique of the great ocean liners lives on long after their demise, whether it be by natural retirement or calamity. But the SS United States holds a special place in US history and her future is in doubt.
Naturally those who have experience on these flamboyant vessels are the first to advocate for their preservation. Quite often that experience harks back to a life-changing event such as emigration, wartime transport, matrimony or a significant voyage like a speedy transatlantic crossing. Clearly then there is much sadness when these great vessels are earmarked for demolition, usually at the insensitive hands of Indian or Bangladeshi scrappers.
There was some relief when the most famous of the Cunarders, the 1967-launched QE2, was spared the ignominy of dismemberment, purchased by Dubai investors and berthed permanently at Port Mina Rashid. The 1934-built RMS Queen Mary, as we know, was berthed at Long Beach in 1971, while her famous wartime running mate, Queen Elizabeth, was destroyed by suspicious fire in Hong Kong the following year.
The glorious 1961 liner, SS France, was not so fortunate. She languished for over a year on the mud in Malaysia before being cut up in 2008, while the heroic 1940-era SS America, gradually disintegrated in the surf after foundering in the Canary Islands in 1994. Now the attention of maritime romanticists turns toward the mighty SS United States, tied up at Pier 84 in South Philadelphia since 1996.
Launched in 1952, she was a technical feat and built to exacting military standards. To reduce the risk of fire, the only wood in use was the butcher’s block in the galley. Furniture, fittings and even the piano were made of fire resistant material like fibreglass and aluminium. She was fitted with the most powerful steam turbine in a merchant ship and could steam faster in reverse (20 knots) than most ships could go forward. Her service speed was an impressive 32 knots while under full steam she could manage a cracking 38 knots, ensuring she snatched the coveted Blue Riband on her maiden voyage on 4 July 1952. She still holds that record to this day.
For the last decade, the ship’s future has been under a cloud and despite an offer of $6 million from a scrapper, it was acquired by the SS United States Conservancy from owners NCL for a reported $3 million. While the sun might be breaking through the gloom, the ship is not out of stormy waters. The specially formed body still has to renovate the neglected, naked hull and satisfy the US Environmental Protection Agency that all hazardous materials have been dealt with.
“We are one big step closer to ensuring that this great symbol of American innovation is permanently preserved,” Susan Gibbs, the Conservancy’s board president told New Jersey Lifestyle Magazine reporter, Bill Leconey.
At the moment, the most compelling plan is to have the vessel refurbished as a static waterfront display and boutique hotel as part of an urban redevelopment project along the Delaware River, her upkeep being provided by the proceeds of a casino built on board. Purists might wince, but the pragmatic among them would sooner have roulette wheels than acetylene torches.