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The ship that went nowhere fast: the sad story of the S.S. United States.

ss united states

This rather forlorn hulk, glimpsed from South Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is what remains of the S.S. United States, the fastest passenger liner ever built and the current holder of the Blue Ribband, the Atlantic speed trophy, for westbound voyages. She is currently permanently moored in the Delaware River. The story of the United States is both fascinating and sad, and there may possibly be another chapter yet to be written–one which could be happy or tragic.

The story begins during World War II, when the U.S. government was impressed with how quickly and effectively the British turned their luxury liners, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, into troopships for the war effort. The U.S. was always a day late and a dollar short in the race to build fast, luxurious passenger liners, which reached its peak in the 1930s; no American ship could match the Queens, or the French beauty Normandie, still regarded as the most beautiful liner ever created. After the war, the U.S. government decided to change that. It agreed to bankroll the lion’s share of the construction costs to build an American superliner, to be operated by the United States Lines, but with a catch: the ship had to be easily convertible to military use as a troop transport.

A reasonable idea, right? Well, the United States was always more impressive on paper than in real life. Her builders erred too far on the side of military necessity and too little on the side of luxury passenger liner. Built almost entirely out of lightweight aluminum, the interior spaces of the United States were very harsh, Spartan and military-looking. There were no paneled drawing rooms or luxurious promenades like on the Queen Mary. Even a first-class cabin on the United States got you a plain steel wall with rivets, modular furniture and cheap synthetic carpet. Transatlantic travelers wanting to go to (or from) Europe in style much preferred the British ships, which experienced a great revival in the late 1940s and 1950s.

One thing the United States did do better than any other liner, however, was speed. On her maiden voyage in July 1952, the United States ripped across the Atlantic at 36 knots, which is the equivalent of warp speed for a ship weighing 53,000 tons (larger than the Titanic). This speed record reduced the Queen Mary, the previous record-holder, to a bathtub toy. United States Lines thought this impressive record would make the ship popular.

ss united states old

The United States flying her flags in her heyday, sometime in the 1950s.

The problem was, though, that the ship’s designers and owners were still stuck in the 1930s. Only five years after her maiden voyage, the Boeing 707 airliner entered service, thus making transatlantic plane travel an economically realistic option for many people. Travelers just weren’t flocking to ships the way they had before World War II. By the 1960s the United States was losing money. She carried her last paid passenger in 1969, then docked more or less permanently at Norfolk, Virginia, where her Spartan interiors collected dust. She had been on the Atlantic passenger trade for only 17 years.

Since 1969 a dizzying number of schemes have come and gone for exactly what to do with this grand old ship. You can’t even count the number of potential buyers who have expressed interest in purchasing the ship–whether to return her to service, restore her or whatever–only to back away from the table when the costs become known. It’s not even clear what the United States is worth. She costs a minimum of $800,000 just to keep afloat at dockside. The original Queen Mary, which became a museum in the 1970s, has only barely survived the epic economic struggles to remain intact. The United States has barely begun that struggle. After yet another failed deal, the ship was towed to this dock in Philadelphia in 1996. She’s been there ever since.

From what I understand, unfortunately the latest round of schemes and deals regarding the ship have to do with cutting her up for scrap metal–which is usually the fate of an unprofitable ocean liner. I hope that does not come to pass. Several foundations have expressed interest in preserving the ship; it is on the National Register of Historic Places. The problem is, of course, money.

What’s going to become of this fascinating ship, one of the last survivors of the great 20th century ocean liners? Time will tell. I hope the ship can be preserved as part of our American heritage.

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