The SS United States, nicknamed “The Big U”, isn’t just any passenger liner. At a length of 990 feet, with 12 decks and 101-feet wide, she is larger than the Titanic, and is in fact the largest liner ever built in an American shipyard. She is also the fastest, though for many years her top speed was classified; even now there is some dispute but it seems generally agreed that it is approximately 38 knots, the equivalent of 44 miles per hour (although I’ve seen it listed as over 44 knots, or 50 mph, elsewhere). Built at a cost of $79.4 million in 1952 for the United States Lines, the United States government subsidized $50 million of the construction costs, but for a price – the SS United States was to be used as a troop ship with a capacity for carrying 15,000 soldiers if another war occurred. For this reason, her top speed was a closely guarded secret. In the meantime, however, she was to serve as the pinnacle of American engineering and sophistication, an erudite retort to the very best that competing companies could offer. By all accounts, the SS United States was modern and impressive without being ostentatious. The interior motifs were a mixture of Native American and aquatic designs, paying homage to the elements with modernist flourishes and a prevailing use of greens and blues. By the time I saw it, though, the inside of the ship was almost entirely gone.
When I was finally able to gain access, it was disheartening to see that nearly every recognizable feature inside had been entirely stripped. William Francis Gibbs, the ship’s designer, was terrified that a horrific fire like the one that had destroyed the Morro Castle would devastate his masterpiece as well. As a safety measure, the ship was designed to be as fireproof as possible. While wood was used in the butcher’s blocks and the grand piano, the rest of the fittings were custom designs that excluded it. The grand piano was originally specified to be made out of aluminum as well, but it wound up being a fire retardant mahogany. Gibbs only consented to the change after gasoline was poured on it and set alight and the wood itself did not burn.
The fear of fire led to the liberal use of asbestos on every deck and bulkhead; its fire retardant properties appealed to Gibbs, who was unaware at the time of its carcinogenic properties. After the ship was retired in 1969, she sat docked at Norfolk for over two decades until purchased for $2.6 million by Marmara Marine, Inc., a company that hoped to reuse her as a cruise liner. The project proved to be much more complicated than they had anticipated. The once proud ship was turned away again and again at ports that wanted nothing to do with removing the 15,000 square meters of asbestos,. Greenpeace referred to her as “a floating coffin” and boarded the liner to hang a banner on the side that read “Toxic Waste Return To Sender.” Eventually the Ukrainian shipyards in Sevastopol took the job in 1993. The SS United States was finally towed to Philadelphia in 1996. She ultimately wound up at Pier 82, and is under the stewardship of the SS United States Conservancy, who hopes to preserve her.
For some, it’s hard to imagine why saving this last American fragment of the vanished era of luxury ocean liners is so important to so many people. Every time an article or photograph pops up online, there are those who trip over themselves in their rush to leave comments to the effect of, “Who cares about that rust bucket! Sink it and turn it into a coral reef!” I have never really understood the mentality that relishes the thought of destroying the accomplishments of previous generations, particularly when nearly every other liner of that era (save for the aforementioned RMS Queen Mary, which is now a floating restaurant/museum/hotel in Long Beach, California) has been scrapped or lies in the lightless murk at the bottom of the ocean – either way lost forever, save for the breathless legends of their unfathomable beauty and opulence in books and in grainy black and white photographs. Is there an inherent value to such a unique historic specimen that goes beyond its financial worth? Perhaps the real failure is in our own inability to save something like the SS United States, not in its inability to integrate itself into our world.
Matthew Christopher PA Philadelphia Feb 17, 2022 History