SS United States

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A559, SS United States, Pier 82, Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, 2017.jpg
United States docked at Pier 82 in Philadelphia, 2017
United States
Name: United States
Owner: SS United States Conservancy
Operator: United States Lines
Port of registry: New York City
Route: Transatlantic
Ordered: 1949[1]
Builder: Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company[1]
Cost: $79.4 million[1]($636 million in 2019[2])
Yard number: Hull 488[3]
Laid down: February 8, 1950
Launched: June 23, 1951[4]
Christened: June 23, 1951[4]
Maiden voyage: July 3, 1952
Out of service: November 14, 1969[5]
Nickname(s): "The Big U"[6]
Fate: Laid up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
Status: Sold in 1978
Owner: Various
Acquired: 1978
Fate: Laid up in Philadelphia in 1996.[7]
Notes: United States changed ownership multiple times from 1978 to 1996[8]
Owner: SS United States Conservancy
Acquired: February 1, 2011
Status: Laid up in Philadelphia[9]
Notes: Continual fundraising towards conservation efforts since 2011.[9]
General characteristics
Class and type: Ocean liner
Tonnage: 53,330 GRT
  • 45,400 tons (designed)
  • 47,264 tons (maximum)
  • 990 ft (302 m) (overall)
  • 940 ft (287 m) (waterline)
Beam: 101.5 ft (30.9 m) maximum
  • 31 ft 3 in (9.53 m) (design)
  • 32 ft 4 in (9.86 m) (maximum)
Depth: 75 ft (23 m)
Decks: 12
Installed power:
  • 240,000 shp (180,000 kW) (rated)
  • 241,785 shp (180,299 kW) (trials)
  • 35 knots (65 km/h; 40 mph) (service)
  • 38.32 knots (70.97 km/h; 44.10 mph) (trials)
  • 43 knots (80 km/h; 49 mph) (claimed)
Capacity: 1,928 passengers
Crew: 900
SS United States (Steamship)
SS United States is located in Philadelphia
SS United States
SS United States is located in Pennsylvania
SS United States
SS United States is located in the United States
SS United States
LocationPier 82, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Coordinates39°55′4.6″N 75°8′12.8″W / 39.917944°N 75.136889°W / 39.917944; -75.136889Coordinates: 39°55′4.6″N 75°8′12.8″W / 39.917944°N 75.136889°W / 39.917944; -75.136889
ArchitectWilliam Francis Gibbs
NRHP reference No.99000609[10]
Added to NRHPJune 3, 1999

SS United States is a retired ocean liner built in 1950–51 for the United States Lines at a cost of $79.4 million.[1] The ship is the largest ocean liner constructed entirely in the United States and the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic in either direction, retaining the Blue Riband for the highest average speed since her maiden voyage in 1952. She was designed by American naval architect William Francis Gibbs and could be converted into a troopship if required by the Navy in time of war. The United States maintained an uninterrupted schedule of transatlantic passenger service until 1969 and was never used as a troopship.

The ship has been sold several times since the 1970s, with each new owner trying unsuccessfully to make the liner profitable. Eventually, the ship's fittings were sold at auction, and hazardous wastes, including asbestos panels throughout the ship, were removed, leaving her almost completely stripped by 1994. Two years later, she was towed to Pier 82 on the Delaware River, in Philadelphia, where she remains today.

Since 2009, a preservation group called the SS United States Conservancy has been raising funds to save the ship. The group purchased her in 2011 and has drawn up several unrealized plans to restore the ship, one of which included turning the ship into a multi-purpose waterfront complex. In 2015, as its funds dwindled, the group began accepting bids to scrap the ship; however, sufficient donations came in via extended fundraising. Large donations have kept the ship berthed at its Philadelphia dock while the group continues to further investigate restoration plans.[11]

Design and construction[edit]

Inspired by the service of the British liners RMS Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, which transported hundreds of thousands of US troops to Europe during World War II, the US government sponsored the construction of a large and fast merchant vessel that would be capable of transporting large numbers of soldiers. Designed by American naval architect and marine engineer William Francis Gibbs (1886–1967), the liner's construction was a joint effort by the United States Navy and United States Lines. The US government underwrote $50 million of the $78 million construction cost, with the ship's prospective operators, United States Lines, contributing the remaining $28 million. In exchange, the ship was designed to be easily converted in times of war to a troopship. The ship has a capacity of 15,000 troops, and could also be converted to a hospital ship.[12]

In 1942, during World War II, the French liner SS Normandie, which had been seized by US authorities in New York and renamed the USS Lafayette, caught fire while being converted to a troopship by the US Navy. After millions of gallons of water had been pumped into her in an attempt to extinguish the flames, she capsized onto her port side and came to rest on the mud of the Hudson River at Pier 88, the current site of the New York Passenger Ship Terminal. As a result of this disaster, the design of the United States incorporated the most rigid US Navy standards.[13] To minimize the risk of fire, the designers of United States prescribed using no wood in the ship's framing, accessories, decorations, or interior surfaces, although the galley did feature a wooden butcher's block. Fittings, including all furniture and fabrics, were custom made in glass, metal, and spun-glass fiber, to ensure compliance with fireproofing guidelines set by the US Navy. Asbestos-laden paneling was used extensively in interior structures.[14] The clothes hangers in the luxury cabins were aluminum. The ballroom's grand piano was made from mahogany — although originally specified in aluminum — and accepted only after a demonstration in which gasoline was poured upon the wood and ignited, without the wood itself ever catching fire.[15] Specially commissioned artwork included pieces by fourteen artists, including Nathaniel Choate, muralist Austin M. Purves, Jr., and sculptor Gwen Lux.[16]

The vessel was constructed from 1950 to 1952 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Newport News, Virginia. The hull was constructed in a dry dock. United States was built to exacting Navy specifications, which required that the ship be heavily compartmentalized, and have separate engine rooms to optimize wartime survival.[17] A large part of the construction was prefabricated. The ship's hull comprised 183,000 pieces.[18]

The construction of the ship's superstructure involved the most extensive use of aluminum in any construction project up to that time, which posed a galvanic corrosion challenge to the builders in joining the aluminum superstructure to the steel decks below. However, the extensive use of aluminum meant significant weight savings, as well.[19] United States had the most powerful steam turbines of any merchant marine vessel at the time, with a total power of 240,000 shaft horsepower (180 MW) delivered to four 18-foot (5.5 m)-diameter manganese-bronze propellers. The ship was capable of steaming astern at over 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph), and could carry enough fuel and stores to steam non-stop for over 10,000 nautical miles (19,000 km; 12,000 mi) at a cruising speed of 35 knots (65 km/h; 40 mph).[20]



Liner United States photographed from Portsmouth on return maiden voyage to New York, summer 1952.

On her maiden voyage—July 3–7, 1952—United States broke the eastbound transatlantic speed record (held by the RMS Queen Mary for the previous 14 years) by more than 10 hours, making the maiden crossing from the Ambrose lightship at New York Harbor to Bishop Rock off Cornwall, UK in 3 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes at an average speed of 35.59 knots (65.91 km/h; 40.96 mph).[21] and winning the coveted Blue Riband.[22] On her return voyage United States also broke the westbound transatlantic speed record, also held by RMS Queen Mary, by returning to America in 3 days 12 hours and 12 minutes at an average speed of 34.51 knots (63.91 km/h; 39.71 mph). In New York her owners were awarded the Hales Trophy, the tangible expression of the Blue Riband competition.[23] The maximum speed attained for United States is disputed as it was once held as a military secret.[24] The issue stems from an alleged value of 43 knots (80 km/h; 49 mph) that was leaked to reporters by engineers after the first speed trial. In a 1991 issue of Popular Mechanics, author Mark G. Carbonaro wrote that while she could do 43 knots (80 km/h; 49 mph) it was never attained.[25] Other sources, including a paper by John J. McMullen & Associates, places the ship's highest possible sustained top speed at 35 knots (65 km/h; 40 mph).[26]

By the mid-to-late 1960s, owing to the advent of jet-powered airliners, the market for transatlantic travel by ship had dwindled—America was sold in 1964, Queen Mary was retired in 1967, and Queen Elizabeth in 1968—and United States was no longer profitable. While United States was at Newport News for an annual overhaul in 1969, United States Lines decided to withdraw her from service, leaving the ship docked at the port. After a few years, the ship was relocated to Norfolk, Virginia. Subsequently, ownership passed between several companies.[27]

In 1977, a group headed by Harry Katz sought to purchase the ship and dock it in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where it would be used as a hotel and casino. However, nothing came of the plan.[28] The vessel was sold in the following year for $5 million to a group headed by Seattle developer Richard H. Hadley, who hoped to revitalize the liner in a time share cruise ship format.[29] In 1979, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) was reportedly interested in purchasing the ship and converting her into a cruise ship for cruises in the Caribbean, but decided on purchasing the former SS France instead. During the 1980s, United States was considered by the US Navy to be converted into a troopship or a hospital ship, to be called USS United States. This plan never materialized, being dropped in favor of converting two San Clemente class supertankers.[30]

In 1984, to pay creditors, the ship's remaining fittings and furniture were sold at auction in Norfolk. Some of the furniture was installed in Windmill Point, a restaurant in Nags Head, North Carolina. Richard Hadley's plan of a time-share style cruise ship eventually failed financially, and the ship, which had been seized by US marshals, was put up for auction by MARAD in 1992. At auction, Marmara Marine Inc.—which was headed by Edward Cantor and Fred Mayer, but with Juliedi Sadikoglu, of the Turkish shipping family, as majority owner—purchased the ship for $2.6 million.[31][32] The ship was towed to Turkey and then Ukraine, where, in Sevastopol Shipyard, she underwent asbestos removal which lasted from 1993 to 1994.[33] The interior of the ship was almost completely stripped during this time. In the US, no plans could be finalized for repurposing the vessel, and in 1996, the United States was towed to South Philadelphia.[34]


In November 1997, Edward Cantor purchased the ship for $6 million.[35] Two years later, the SS United States Foundation and the SS United States Conservancy (then known as the SS United States Preservation Society, Inc.) succeeded in having the ship placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2003, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) purchased the ship at auction from Cantor's estate after his death. NCL's intent was to fully restore the ship to a service role in their newly announced American-flagged Hawaiian passenger service called NCL America. The United States is one of the few ships eligible to enter such service because of the Passenger Service Act, which requires that any vessel engaged in domestic commerce be built and flagged in the US and operated by a predominantly American crew.[36] NCL began an extensive technical review in late 2003, after which they stated that the ship was in sound condition. The cruise line cataloged over 100 boxes of the ship's blueprints.[37] In August 2004, NCL commenced feasibility studies regarding a new build-out of the vessel; and in May 2006, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, chairman of Malaysia-based Star Cruises (the owner of NCL), stated that SS United States would be coming back as the fourth ship for NCL after refurbishment.[38] Meanwhile, the Windmill Point restaurant, which had contained some of the original furniture from the United States, closed in 2007. The ship's furniture was donated to the Mariners' Museum and Christopher Newport University, both in Newport News, Virginia.[39]

When NCL America first began operation in Hawaii, it used the ships Pride of America, Pride of Aloha, and Pride of Hawaii, rather than United States. NCL America later withdrew Pride of Aloha and Pride of Hawaii from its Hawaiian service. In February 2009, it was reported that SS United States would "soon be listed for sale".[40][41]

The SS United States Conservancy was then created that year as a group trying to save United States by raising funds to purchase her.[42] On July 30, 2009, H. F. Lenfest, a Philadelphia media entrepreneur and philanthropist, pledged a matching grant of $300,000 to help the United States Conservancy purchase the vessel from Star Cruises.[43] A noteworthy supporter, former US president Bill Clinton, has also endorsed rescue efforts to save the ship, having sailed on her himself in 1968.[17][44]

An artist's rendering of the planned "multi-purpose waterfront complex".

In March 2010, it was reported that bids for the ship, to be sold for scrap, were being accepted. Norwegian Cruise Lines, in a press release, noted that there were large costs associated with keeping United States afloat in her current state—around $800,000 a year—and that, as the SS United States Conservancy was not able to tender an offer for the ship, the company was actively seeking a "suitable buyer".[45] By May 7, 2010, over $50,000 was raised by The SS United States Conservancy.[46] The Conservancy eventually bought SS United States from NCL in February 2011 for a reported $3 million with the help of money donated by philanthropist H.F. Lenfest.[47] The group had funds to last 20 months (from July 1, 2010) that were to go to supporting a development plan to clean the ship of toxins and make the ship financially self-supporting, possibly as a hotel or other development project.[48][49] SS United States Conservancy executive director Dan McSweeney stated that he planned on placing the ship at possible locations that include Philadelphia, New York City, and Miami.[48][50]

In November 2010, the Conservancy announced a plan to develop a "multi-purpose waterfront complex" with hotels, restaurants, and a casino along the Delaware River in South Philadelphia at the proposed location of the stalled Foxwoods Casino project. The results of a detailed study of the site were revealed in late November 2010, in advance of Pennsylvania's December 10, 2010, deadline for a deal aimed at Harrah's Entertainment taking over the casino project. However, the Conservancy's deal soon collapsed, when on December 16, 2010, the Gaming Control Board voted to revoke the casino's license.[51]


SS United States in 2012.

The SS United States Conservancy assumed ownership of United States on February 1, 2011.[7][52] Talks about possibly locating the ship in Philadelphia, New York City, or Miami continued into March. In New York City, negotiations with a developer were underway for the ship to become part of Vision 2020, a waterfront redevelopment plan costing $3.3 billion. In Miami, Ocean Group, in Coral Gables, was interested in putting the ship in a slip on the north side of American Airlines Arena.[53] With an additional $5.8 million donation from H. F. Lenfest, the conservancy had about 18 months from March 2011 to make the ship a public attraction.[53] On August 5, 2011, the SS United States Conservancy announced that after conducting two studies focused on placing the ship in Philadelphia, it was "not likely to work there for a variety of reasons". However, discussions to locate the ship at her original home port of New York, as a stationary attraction, were reported to be ongoing.[54] The Conservancy's grant specifies that the refit and restoration must be done in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for the benefit of the Philadelphia economy, regardless of her eventual mooring site.

On February 7, 2012, preliminary work began on the restoration project to prepare the ship for her eventual rebuild, although a contract had not yet been signed.[55] In April 2012, a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) was released as the start of an aggressive search for a developer for the ship. A Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued in May.[56] In July 2012, the SS United States Conservancy launched a new online campaign called "Save the United States", a blend of social networking and micro-fundraising that allowed donors to sponsor square inches of a virtual ship for redevelopment, while allowing them to upload photos and stories about their experience with the ship. The Conservancy announced that donors to the virtual ship would be featured in an interactive "Wall of Honor" aboard the future SS United States museum.[57][58]

By the end of 2012, a developer was to be chosen, who would put the ship in a selected city by summer 2013.[59] In November 2013, it was reported that the ship was undergoing a "below-the-deck" makeover, which lasted into 2014, in order to make the ship more appealing to developers as a dockside attraction. The SS United States Conservancy was warned that if its plans were not realized quickly, there might be no choice but to sell the ship for scrap.[60] In January 2014, obsolete pieces of the ship were sold to keep up with the $80,000-a-month maintenance costs. Enough money was raised to keep the ship going for another six months, with the hope of finding someone committed to the project, New York City still being the likeliest location.[61]

In August 2014, the ship was still moored in Philadelphia and costs for the ship's rent amounted to $60,000 a month. It was estimated that it would take $1 billion to return United States to service on the high seas, although a 2016 estimate for restoration as a luxury cruise ship was said to be, "as much as $700 million".[62][63] On September 4, 2014, a final push was made to have the ship bound for New York City. A developer interested in re-purposing the ship as a major waterfront destination made an announcement regarding the move. The Conservancy had only weeks to decide if the ship needed to be sold for scrap.[64] On December 15, 2014, preliminary agreements in support of the redevelopment of SS United States were announced. The agreements included providing for three months of carrying costs, with a timeline and more details to be released sometime in 2015.[65][66] In February 2015, another $250,000 was received by the Conservancy from an anonymous donor which went towards planning an onboard museum.[67]

As of October 2015, the SS United States Conservancy had begun exploring potential bids for scrapping the ship. The group was running out of money to cover the $60,000-per-month cost to dock and maintain the ship. Attempts to re-purpose the ship continued. Ideas included using the ship for hotels, restaurants, or office space. One idea was to install computer servers in the lower decks and link them to software development businesses in office space on the upper decks. However, no firm plans were announced. The conservancy said that if no progress was made by October 31, 2015, they would have no choice but to sell the ship to a "responsible recycler".[68] As the deadline passed it was announced that $100,000 had been raised in October 2015, sparing the ship from immediate danger. By November 23, 2015, it was reported that over $600,000 in donations had been received for care and upkeep, buying time well into the coming year for the SS United States Conservancy to press ahead with a plan to redevelop the vessel.[69]


Preliminary redesign for the United States by Crystal Cruises from a 2016 promotional video.

On February 4, 2016, Crystal Cruises announced that it had signed a purchase option for the SS United States. Crystal would cover docking costs, in Philadelphia, for nine months while conducting a feasibility study on returning the ship to service as a cruise ship based in New York City.[70][71] On April 9, 2016, it was announced that 600 artifacts from the SS United States would be returned to the ship from the Mariners' Museum and other donors.[72]

On August 5, 2016, the plan was formally dropped, Crystal Cruises citing the presence of too many technical and commercial challenges. The cruise line then made a donation of $350,000 to help with preservation through the end of the year.[73][74][75] The SS United States Conservancy continued to receive donations, which included one for $150,000 by cruise industry executive Jim Pollin.[9] In January 2018, the conservancy made an appeal to US president Donald Trump to take action regarding "America's Flagship".[76] If the group runs out of money, alternative plans for the ship include sinking it as an artificial reef rather than scrapping her.[9]

On September 20, 2018, the conservancy consulted with Damen Ship Repair & Conversion about redevelopment of the United States. Damen had converted the former ocean liner and cruise ship SS Rotterdam into a hotel and mixed-use development.[77]

On December 10, 2018, the conservancy announced an agreement with the commercial real estate firm RXR Realty, of New York City, to explore options for restoring and redeveloping the ocean liner.[78] In 2015, RXR had expressed interest in developing an out-of-commission ocean liner as a hotel and event venue at Pier 57 in New York.[79] The conservancy requires that any redevelopment plan preserve the ship's profile and exterior design, and include approximately 25,000 sq ft (2,323 m2) for an onboard museum.[77] RXR's press release about the United States stated that multiple locations would be considered, depending on the viability of restoration plans.[78][79]

In March 2020, RXR Realty announced its plans to repurpose the ocean liner as a permanently-moored 600,000 sq ft (55,740 m2) hospitality and cultural space, requesting expressions of interest from a number of major US waterfront cities including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.[80]


Interior décor included a children's playroom designed by Edward Meshekoff.[81] Other artwork was designed by Charles Gilbert of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. His work included glass panels that divided the ballroom into sections. The panels were etched with sea creatures and plants which were highlighted with gold and silver leafing.[82]

The ship used four 60,000 lb (27,000 kg) manganese bronze propellers, two four-bladed screws outboard, and two inboard five-bladed. One of the four-bladed propellers is mounted at the entrance to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, while the other is mounted outside the American Merchant Marine Museum on the grounds of the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. The starboard-side five-bladed propeller is mounted near the waterfront at SUNY Maritime College in Fort Schuyler, New York, while the other is at the entrance of the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia, mounted on an original 63 ft (19 m) long drive shaft.[83]

The ship's bell is kept in the clock tower on the campus of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virgina. It is used to celebrate special events, including being rung by incoming freshman and by outgoing graduates.[84]

Speed records[edit]

With both the eastbound and westbound speed records, the United States obtained the Blue Riband which marked the first time a US-flagged ship had held the record since the SS Baltic claimed the prize 100 years earlier. United States maintained a 30 knots (56 km/h; 35 mph) crossing speed on the North Atlantic in a service career that lasted 17 years. United States remained unchallenged for the Blue Riband throughout her career. During this period the fast trans-Atlantic passenger trade moved to air travel, and many regard the story of the Blue Riband as having ended with the United States.[85] Her east-bound record has since been broken several times (first, in 1986, by Virgin Atlantic Challenger II), and her west-bound record was broken in 1990 by Destriero, but these vessels were not passenger-carrying ocean liners. The Hales Trophy itself was lost in 1990 to Hoverspeed Great Britain, setting a new eastbound speed record for a commercial vessel.


See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

External image
image icon The Liner "United States" Passing 42nd Street, New York (c. 1952) by Andreas Feininger, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Preceded by
Queen Mary
Holder of the Blue Riband (eastbound record)
Succeeded by
Blue Riband (westbound record)
Preceded by
Holder of the Hales Trophy
1952 – 1990
Succeeded by
Hoverspeed Great Britain
  1. ^ The story of the Blue Riband is regarded by many as having ended with the United States (see Kludas p136). The east-bound record has been broken several times (first time in 1980), and west-bound record in 1990, but these vessels were not passenger-carrying ocean liners