A little less than three years ago, I ran this article, which was a brief profile of the interesting history and career of the passenger liner S.S. United States, the fastest transatlantic liner ever built and long-time holder of the Blue Ribband. The article still get some traffic now and again, and the story of the United States is quite interesting and iconic. Sixty-four years ago tomorrow, on July 3, 1952, this lovely ship departed from New York on her maiden voyage to Southampton, England, making an average of 35.59 knots, which is warp speed for a giant passenger ship. Sadly, though, despite her technical achievement and cultural cachet, the United States sailed for only 17 years. She made her last voyage in 1969 and has been shunted around from pier to pier, slowly decaying while people figure out what the hell to do with her. Since 1996 she has been where she’s pictured above, docked at Pier 84 in Philadelphia, always narrowly escaping a final trip to the scrapyard. The Google Earth street view shot at the top of this article was taken in June 2015.
I decided, on the anniversary of her maiden voyage, to check in on what was happening with the United States, who I had seen mentioned in the news a few times over the past few months. For a very long time the liner’s story has been the same: sold to new owners who want to restore her to her former glory, this or that conservancy, historical society or municipal authority will express some interest in saving the ship, only to blanch when they realize the staggering cost of doing so. Earlier this year it seemed like the old lady’s luck was finally running out. The ship’s current owner, the SS United States Conservancy, was finally out of money; it costs $60,000 to $80,000 a month just to keep the ship in the terrible moldering state you see it above. The conservancy was exploring bids for scrappers. Then, in February 2016, a company called Crystal Cruises signed a purchase option on the ship, possibly intending to refit her and develop her as a luxury cruise vessel. A news story about that development is here. Crystal Cruises is now footing the bill to maintain the ship in its minimum condition while it does a 9-month feasibility study. That clock runs out in November.
The S.S. United States in happier times, as shown on a period (1950s-1960s) postcard.
Although it’s welcome news that the United States has survived yet another close shave with oblivion, personally I believe it’s premature to celebrate. Initial estimates of what it will take to repair the ship and put her back in service are north of $700 million. That’s a hell of a price tag to swallow, even to save a piece of American history. The problem with ships as historical sites and museums is that it’s so much more expensive to maintain them than it is a land-based historical site. That’s the answer to the seemingly obvious question, “Why not just turn her into a museum?” There are a lot of ocean liner enthusiasts in America and the world, but if there aren’t enough willing to pay admission to come tour the ship to pay even its $60,000 a month expenses to keep her in this condition, there’s probably no hope of making a museum work.
The simple answer is that if we Americans want to save this ship, we’re going to have to pay for her with our tax dollars. But, of course, no one wants to hear that answer. Until we own up to the financial responsibility that comes with preserving things we say are important to us, the United States will probably either sit here indefinitely, or make one last heartbreaking voyage to her doom. I’m not optimistic.