S-O-S: Save Our Ship!

One of the world’s grandest ocean liners, built to move thousands of soldiers to distant battlefields, may face her final voyage.

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Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

The SS United States, docked at Pier 82 in South Philadelphia. The ocean liner and troop transport was the largest passenger ship built in the United States. There is currently a campaign to restore it and turn it into a floating museum.

Just off of Interstate 95 in South Philadelphia, the giant red, white and blue stacks of the SS United States can be seen above an unmarked pier, just across the road from an Ikea superstore. On first glance, she appears shorter and sleeker than modern cruise ships, and where the paint has chipped away, oxidized metal gives off a splotchy, rust color that can be seen from well beyond the roadway.

The only way onto the ship at the moment is up a steep gangplank into one of the middle decks, a dark passageway that looks well suited for the set of a horror film. On the upper decks, the walls have been stripped to the yellow primer; the long walkways where the biggest stars of the day once strolled are a dull granite-grey, flanked by cracked windows and doors permanently ajar.

SS United States

Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

The SS United States, docked at Pier 82 in South Philadelphia.

This current state is a blunt contrast to the two decades when the United States was the most luxurious ocean liner and fastest troop transport in the world. She once smashed speed records; ferried presidents, kings and movie stars; and graced the pages of magazines and newspapers all over the country. A decade before space flight captivated imaginations, the “Big U” as she was called, was the height of technological innovation, a large-P Public/private partnership meant to make money in times of peace and serve the country in times of war. Then long before the end of her tenure, she was taken out of service and largely forgotten. A dedicated group trying to save the United States has raised more than $1 million, but it’s now putting out what may be the ship’s final distress call, asking donors with deep pockets to help buy some time before the ship is lost for good.

If there was ever a monument to America’s nautical glory, it would surely be the USS Constitution. Named by George Washington after the founding document of the Republic, she earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” after defeating four English warships during the War of 1812. Yet despite her heroics, when the Constitution reached her 31st year of service, the estimated costs to keep her afloat were estimated at more than $150,000 (about $3.2 million today).

An article in a Boston newspaper claimed that the Constitution was destined for the scrap yard and prompted physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes to pen the poem “Old Ironsides”:

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar;–
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Though reports of the Constitution’s demise had been exaggerated, those words incited a public uproar, and the Navy agreed to foot the bill for the ship’s repair.

Since the country’s earliest days, Americans have been building big things–from ships to secure our waterways to skyscrapers to house our businesses to planes and shuttles to explore the heavens. And going all the way back to the early 19th century, there has been controversy over what to do with those articles when they were no longer needed. Some, like the Constitution became floating museums, while many, like her sister ship, the USS Congress, were broken up and sold  piece-by-piece. That fate seemed like a certainty for the United States in the late 20th century, as changing times and creditors conspired to scuttle one of the final monuments of an era when people were connected, not by digital devices or jets in the sky, but by ships steaming on the sea.

Like many grand endeavors, the United States was willed into existence by the nearly fanatical efforts of a brilliant man who could have been called the Steve Jobs of shipbuilding; if popular memory weren’t so short, perhaps Jobs might have been called the William Francis Gibbs of consumer electronics. A lawyer by training who flunked out of Harvard because he spent more time poring over British nautical blueprints than on his engineering studies, Gibbs had harbored the dream of creating ocean liners after watching ships launch as a young boy. At the behest of his parents he earned a law degree from Columbia, then after unhappily practicing law for two years, he quit with the goal of designing the fastest ocean liner in the world.

William F. Gibbs TIME Magazine Cover

ERNEST HAMLIN BAKER

William Francis Gibbs on the Sept. 28, 1942 cover of TIME.

Gibbs became one of America’s foremost ship designers and rose to national fame during World War II. His firm, Gibbs & Cox, designed 70% of the Naval ships built for the war effort, everything from destroyers to landing craft to Liberty ships. He oversaw an operation that turned out nearly 10,000 blueprints each day, landing him on the cover of TIME in 1942, when the magazine crowned him “the top U.S. Naval architect and marine engineer.”

After the war, as shipbuilders once again turned to peacetime travel, Gibbs finally built his dream ship: the 990-ft long S.S. United States. The government kicked in two-thirds of the $78 million price tag, and the military sprinkled the ship with classified designs. In return, the Defense Department had the right to use her as a troop transport in the event of another major war. In 1952, the United States was capable of moving an entire Army division–14,000 men–halfway around the world without stopping. “Because of its long, slim prow, the United States is racier-looking than most ocean liners,” TIME wrote of her sleek design in a June 1952 cover story on the ship’s launch.

The Big U had two different engine rooms so the ship could steam even if one was taken out by a torpedo, and her four propellers generated enough power for a city the size of San Antonio. To prevent fire, the only wood on board was the butcher’s blocks and pianos; nearly everything else was made of fire-retardant material. About the only decorative piece on the ship’s exterior were two huge red, white and blue stacks–at the time, the largest in the world–which weren’t necessary for the engines but were designed to be in proportion with the giant hull.

Until the summer of 1952, the fastest ship in the world was the Queen Mary, which had held the trans-Atlantic record for 14 years. On July 3, the United States steamed out of New York; 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes later, she passed Bishops Rock, England, besting the Queen Mary’s transatlantic speed record by nearly half a day. On the way back, the ship also blasted the westbound  record to win the Blue Ribband, the accolade given to the fastest passenger liner in the Atlantic. “The war was over, and it was a tremendous event in prestige for the United States,” says Albert Herberger, who served as a cadet-midshipman aboard the United States and later became a Navy admiral and head of the U.S. Maritime Administration. “This was a way for Uncle Sam to get some recognition for a peaceful event that caught everybody’s imagination.”

For the next 17 years, the United States carried more than 1 million people across the Atlantic on bi-weekly runs to England, France and Germany. The Department of Defense sent military families stationed in Europe on board the Big U. Then in the late 60s, the jet became the fashionable way to the Continent, and the Army scrapped plans to transport troops by ship. Space travel launched a new era where people turned aspirations to the skies instead of the sea. Government subsidies, which accounted for more than half of the operating budget, ran out, and the Big U was finished.

After she was removed from service in November 1969, the United States changed hands several times, and by 2010, unable to pay the docking fees, the ship was bound for the scrapyard. Then at a dramatically late hour, Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest pledged $5.8 million, allowing a group called the SS United States Conservancy to try and save the ship from the scrapyards.

The woman at the helm of the conservancy has a familiar name and a deep connection to the United States: Susan Gibbs, the granddaughter of the ship’s designer. “This was in the post-war period when the nation was feeling very confident, the sky was the limit,” Gibbs says of the Big U’s era. “The ship really was technologically innovative and rewrote the rules of what a ship could do and could be.”

The conservancy’s ideas for the ship include creating a floating hotel like the Queen Mary, and perhaps include offices or an incubator space, although a closer model is the USS Intrepid. A preserved aircraft carrier, the Intrepid is also a floating air and space museum, telling a story larger than the vessel itself. The conservancy wants a similar focus for the United States. “We want to preserve the ship and share a really important story…but we want to use the ship as a way to advance and promote innovation in the 21st century,” Gibbs says. “We want to help inspire new discoveries, new technologies, new creativity. We’re connecting the past, the present obviously, but more importantly the future.”

Through a social-media campaign, the conservancy raised more than $1 million and has been in talks with developers about turning the ship into a destination like the Intrepid. But the cost of keeping the United States afloat runs about $80,000 a month, and the group needs other generous donors like Lenfest to help buy more time. So they’re putting out a call for donations before they run out of time and the ship is lost to the scrapyards forever.

Given the right location and project, the conservancy hopes the United States could become a popular attraction, serving as a monument to the age when ocean liners connected the far ends of the world. The only certainty when it comes to aging treasures, as Oliver Wendell Holmes knew, is that once their ensigns are tattered down, they are gone forever.

It is a fact we should keep in mind when we choose which parts of our history to save, and which ones we must let go.

36 comments
notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

If nothing else it would make for a great works program.  Stimulus.  Then set her up as a museum.  That would be stimulus too.  But as long as the MIC has its hooks in us for Absurdistan and soon to be war Syria we won't do anything that actually benefits the "Homeland"  (I always feel like I sound like a Nazi when I say "Homeland"....anyone else feel that way?).

a.i.ahafnar
a.i.ahafnar

I was fortunate enough to have sailed on her three times as my father was reassigned from Europe to the US and back. She was (and should be again) a beautiful ship. There were many memories made on board (from mild to wild!). I would hope that enough people have an interest in her to make her a more lasting memory than the scrap yard and a few photos in peoples scrap books!

RichardBishopSr.
RichardBishopSr.

I want to see this ship saved. It is just as deserving of funding as was Lady Liberty in 1986, yet it falls on deaf ears. We need to educate the masses via television, etc. This is a ship that means so much to America. Its bad enough she was stripped to bare walls in 1984. America is known as a country of second chances. Please give the UNITED STATES a second chance. Her time is running out.

bjoncas
bjoncas

We have gone to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to find pieces of the Titanic and  we dream what it would be like to see it floating again, a ship that never finished its first voyage. Here, in Philadelphia, we have a ship larger than Titanic and was the fastest and still holds the fastest crossing time. It was the pride of this country and is its namesake. Yes, the SS United States has been stripped of its fittings. However, I see this as a way to re-imagine the big U. It could be completely reinvented and redesigned for a new century while creating some spaces to salute its glorious past.  In some ways, I feel it is almost a sin to allow such a sleek greyhound sit static, dockside. Wouldn't it be glorious to allow it to sail again from port to port at least part of the year to visit American cities? We cannot allow another piece of our past get thrown away. We have so many examples of  history saved because people felt it was important to save a building, a battlefield, a ship, this is one more worth saving. 

GaryOrr
GaryOrr

Only as a last resort would I prefer to see government money used to save the Big U.  I believe the SS United States Conservancy can save her with a bit more time.  We shouldn't forget that their attempt started at the end of the biggest financial downturn since the Great Depression.  I think the Conservancy is doing the best job they can.  But I don't know how the Conservency can overcome public apathy toward saving important historical icons.  It is going to take a supporter with deep pockets to buy them the time to complete the plan for redevelopment.

EricPlaney
EricPlaney

I still think the Federal Government should look at the SS United States as a ship to be used in locations like New Orleans after Katrina or New York after Sandy. She can provide emergency shelter and supplies. There is a justification to spend Federal dollars for this. 

BCLovesME
BCLovesME

Why is everyone so quick to destroy instead of restore and preserve? I have books filled with buildings, ships, aircraft etc.. that are not longer here because those who came before me deemed them unworthy and destroyed them for scrap or to make room for the next thing. It makes me ill thinking about it. I would have loved to walk through Pennsylvania Station or toured the old mansion on Long Island that inspired The Great Gatsby. The fact is that they just don't build things like they used to and we can't keep destroying these pieces of history. What if someone wanted to tear down The Alamo in favor or a shopping mall or sink the Statue of Liberty the next time she needs repairs?  In a time in our current history when most everything comes from overseas, we should be embracing saving the few things we have left from the time when we actually built great things. To the negative Nelly's who are suggesting we sink this ship and give up, post it somewhere else. To those of you who care about preserving the great things that were built here in America, please leave your comments so future generations can enjoy this marvel of engineering and be taken back to the time when voyages across the ocean were more than all you can eat buffets, endless shopping and nightclubs. It would be refreshing to cross the Atlantic in a ship like the SSUS today. I'll take that over a cruise ship any day. We may or may not be able to get the SSUS back up and running the way she was, but we definitely can't do it if we don't make the effort.

GlennLappin
GlennLappin

SS United States would thrive if brought back to her homeport in New York City, yes she needs an infusion of capital but her potential is unlimited. When Zachary Fisher brought the USS Intrepid to NYC, she was in the same predicament, rusting and in need of a conversion to save her life and now she's a fine museum with state of the art exhibits. When the Statue of  Liberty was in need, we kicked in and got it done, the glass is half full- Let's go America!

eagle11772
eagle11772

Sink it for a reef.  In death, it will provide a wonderful home for new life.

JamesVarela
JamesVarela

U.S. Navy engineers and Fed money is the only thing that can save the SSU now.  No private foundation could raise enough money.

BeverleyF.Clement
BeverleyF.Clement

The United States of America has a long standing poor tradition of leaving its historic structures until a time when the costs to restore them are double or more than they would have been had they been done along the way.  Europe has historic structures, including Maritime floating structures, that are hundreds, if not thousands of years old.  They put a high value on maintaining their history for study in the present and future.  You cannot learn from an historic structure that is no longer around.  Books do not do the same thing!!!!  There are so many millionaires and billionaires in the United States who could easily contribute to saving and repurposing this giant among American built historic structures.  This ship still holds the Blue Ribband for transatlantic speed crossing.  This ship was built in such a way that, if needed, it could be turned into a 14,000 person troop transport in 48 HOURS!!!  So, to the JimWilliams1, and others like him, open your mind, if not your wallet, to the extremely high worth of saving The SS United States for current and future generations.  Do you know when the next William Francis Gibbs will build the next ship with such capabilities of speed and function?????  I've donated, so I am not speaking out of one side of my face. 

JimWilliams1
JimWilliams1

This is fine as long as it's not my money that saves it. The problem is, the ship has been stripped to the bare bulkheads- "restoring it" will cost FAR more than the Queen Mary project, which had all it's furnishings intact. There are artifacts from the United States all over eBay- buy one and shed a tear, but for this project, the ship has literally left the dock- a long time ago.

BillLichtenstein
BillLichtenstein

Sink this ship.....use it for target practice. I would rather spend the money to resurrecting the Titantic. Gerry Lenfest and all his millions could go to better use. Look at the battleship New Jersey just right across the river from this ship and it cant show a profit. Let history be your guide

kirklennon
kirklennon

To the editors: Can you fix the ordinals in this article? The superscripts in "31st," "19th" and "20th" are both jarring and unprofessional. There are no professionally typeset books that use superscript ordinals; it's just a bad default in Word, and one which should be fixed before being published. The effect is made even worse by the fact that this article is set in Georgia, whose Old Style numbers are specifically designed to blend in with the natural variations of normal text. The result is that the -st and -th is almost completely above the associated numbers. Please fix it. This article deserves better.

civility
civility

I had the priviledge of sailing on her from New York to Southampton, England in the very early sixties, and she was so fast....I still have a black & white photo I snapped of her forward mast under sail and I remember taking it as it was a rough and windy Atlantic day.   A beautiful ship worth saving.    Then of course, they built the S.S. France, just a tad faster.......oh well.

malkr84
malkr84

She's a beautiful ship and grand example of our nation's technological leadership. I hope the SSUS Conservancy can find a way to preserve and repurpose her for future generations. Save the United States!

MichaelJWalsh
MichaelJWalsh

@bjoncasSince the SS United States went out of service, the total number of passengers crossing the Atlantic has increased tenfold, and yet there is a significant but marginalised minority of people who refuse to fly, or cannot fly for medical reasons. Cunard Line occasionally cross the Atlantic, but it takes a week and costs a fortune. I think there is an unmet demand for a fast transatlantic liner and, if the SS United States could be refitted at reasonable cost, it could in theory sail between Liverpool and New York in less than four days.

As to whether this could be profitable depends on the running cost. A ship going at that speed must use an awful lot of fuel, even with modern engines. A feasibility study would be needed.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@BCLovesME  I agree with your post 100%, but would argue that in fact the Alamo was not protected and its surrounding areas were all developed.  I don't know about today but at some point there was a Ripleys Believe it or Not across the street!  It is almost sheer luck that any of it still exists; it was used for various things and a hotel was planned for that site.  The protection is a far more recent event than you would imagine, with the real effort to preserve beginning around 1904.   You might also find that it really didn't look like it does today at the battle,  the famous front being added to well after the battle.   Excellent article about Alamo's history:   http://www.knowsouthernhistory.net/Articles/Places/celebrate_the_alamo.html

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@BeverleyF.Clement Unfortunately, most of us cannot give enough to really help, but then you read about people like the Kochs, Gates, Buffetts, the new Powerball winner....they can use the tax deductions and can easily afford big checks.   But most of us would be visitors, willing to pay a reasonable fee to visit an attraction like this.   We have difficulty in the US preserving things, we are truly a throw away society and it is sad.  There is a similar neglected project in Baltimore, a ship that is the first atomic powered cargo ship languishing away, rusting away.  I don't really understand why the titans of finance, the most overpaid people in the US for what they do (ok, athletes and movie stars are in the same category) don't unite behind these projects.  It is a small check to them but for me to even send $100 means some other bill doesn't get paid.   There are a ton of historical places that are popular now but were near destruction, like Fenway Park and Faneuil Hall in Boston, Grand Central Station in NYcity, etc.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@JimWilliams1    

You are very correct that they have made it far more expensive and difficult, something that we Americans do all the time.  It is deliberate sabotage in many cases.  Perhaps it is not even necessary to replicate all that was there?  Saving and restoring an important ship is a good government project as far as I'm concerned. 

BCLovesME
BCLovesME

@BillLichtenstein It's people with this attitude that destroyed Pennsylvania Station in NYC and would have destroyed Grand Central too, if not for Jackie Kennedy Onassis stepping in.  Why resurrect a sunken ship that wasn't American made over restoring one that is? This though process makes absolutely no sense to me.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@BillLichtenstein   The US has already sunk hundreds of ships for target practice, nuke bomb tests, and reef building, as well as scraping them.  It is a shame, we have tons of museum pieces (some of them truly war relics from WW2, Vietnam, etc.) that we just throw away.  Your dollar at work.  Presently they are tearing up the Enterprise. 

CharlesA.Rich
CharlesA.Rich

@civility Yes yes yes.  It should be completely refurbished and fitted out as a cruising ship.  Boomers will love it.   It should be docked near the High Line at Chelsea Piers.

MarkWarrington
MarkWarrington

I also sailed on this ship.  I emmigrated to the US from England in October of 1968 on her.   I was a small boy of almost 7 but remember it like yesterday.  The movie theater, library, cabins and steaming into NY harbor on a cold grey morning and seeing the Statue of Liberty for th 1st time.  Please save her, she is one of a kind and symbolized another time where anything was possible!

kirklennon
kirklennon

@boguem Of course not. The article itself is great, but there's not really much for me to add as commentary. There is, however, a major formatting error that shows up FOUR times in an article that has otherwise clearly been given loving attention. It's been very carefully punctuated and formatted ... except for the messed-up ordinals. Surely Time Magazine would never physically print superscript ordinals (I certainly hope, at least). Why should they treat their website any differently?

JasonWestervelt
JasonWestervelt

@kirklennon @boguem@kirklennon You are incorrect in this regard.  The practice of following a full stop with double spacing predates the typewriter, considerably so.  There is zero correlation between the typewriter and the onset of double width inter-sentence spacing.


In handwriting, single and double spacing is negligible and unmeasurable.  Most people's first foray into quantized type, aside from those at the printing presses, was the typewriter, and this is where they learned the standard practice of following a full stop with a period.  The practice has been employed so as to distinguish a period used to terminate a sentence from a period used to abbreviate.  To this extent, double-spacing still has merit and improves readability.

Many argue that digital media has deprecated the usage of double spacing after a sentence, but this is only because the software has the capability of rendering the inter-sentence spacing as 1.5 or 2.0 spaces.  The manual insertion of a double space could cause software to render 3.0 or 4.0 spaces if it is poorly written.  Regardless, the spacing should still be adjusted to the user's desire; if double spacing is a pet peeve of yours, you should adjust your software instead of trying to leaving it up to others to make up for your software's deficiencies.

kirklennon
kirklennon

@boguem "Traditionally, two spaces follow a period or closing puncuation in a sentence." I wouldn't say "traditionally." It's a byproduct of the brief reign of typewriters and, like superscript ordinals, is never found in professional typeset text. It is, at best, "allowed" as a personal preference in non-published works. But let's be honest: It's exists now only because of a few decades of people using typewriters, and it will die out with them. Like fully-justified text, it leads to "rivers of white space" that don't belong.

boguem
boguem

@kirklennon@DeweySayenoffSorry, but I have to jump back in on the "one space, two space" issue.  It's a question of style.  For every reference you find that prescribes one space, I'll provide one that allows two.  Traditionally, two spaces follow a period or closing puncuation in a sentence.  However, with the advent of computer based writing, one space has become acceptable.  Bottom line, both are acceptable, unless you have a boss / professor who insists on one or the other.  In that case, as in all of life, you go with what the present authority dictates.

kirklennon
kirklennon

@DeweySayenoff I think you may have misunderstood me. The correct way for ordinals is the absolute simplest version. They used a bunch of code to made it wrong. An ordinal should just be written on the baseline: 19th century. It shouldn't be smaller or superscript. That's the correct, most readable, most professional, and most consistent way. 

(And since I'm on a rant anyway, I'll point out that sentences have only one space after the period.)

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@kirklennon@boguem "Why should they treat their website any differently?"

Because the Internet is virtual, coded and doesn't require typesetting to produce a readable product.  Depending on the code used and the website host support, rendering issues can cause odd artifacts.  These people are writers, not HTML code monkeys.  And as long as they don't see any mistakes that make their prose unreadable (which there are none), they'll post what they wrote as is because it's not cost effective to waste a lot of time making it as pretty as it has to be in print.

My guess is that this is a fixed font code issue. The font size was set to one size (for whatever reason).  It takes four parts of code to change the position (:superscript:superscripted text:/superscript:) and the text size (:font=smaller:Smaller font:font=normal:) For a full resized superscript, it takes (:superscript::font=smaller: superscripted, smaller font:font=normal::/superscript:)  (This is just modified so it will actually display the idea behind how the code is written).

If either one of those codes are left out - for whatever reason, the rendering of the superscript will be different. In some cases, the rendering in the writing program or webhost reads the superscript command as both font size and position.  In others it's strictly position.  That's what appears to have happened here.

And writers don't need to know how to do that.  That's why they have typesetters, editors and others who go over how pretty it is when its printed on paper.  Given that the Internet is virtual, that it's very likely you don't see the same page the same way I do (because of screen size, resolution, browser and gamma setting variations), making it readable is most important rather than making it pretty.

In that, at least, it's achieved its job.

Oh, and in case you didn't know, way back when, on things we used to use called "typewriters", this was EXACTLY how things were superscripted - half a line above the text (though usually they were put inline and super or sub scripting was reserved for chemistry and math since position matters in those).  So in a lot of ways, given that the article is about a ship that hasn't sailed since 1969, before the advent of the PC, it seems rather appropriate to ME that it's written in a style and font that replicates the way writers used to write on their typewriters.


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