Last month, CBS Sunday Morning did a piece on the history and dire current state of the SS United States, “the most famous ship that didn’t sink”. Even with that motto, the SS United States is relatively unknown by today largely because the popularity of jet travel made ocean liners unnecessary shortly after it first set sail. It remains obscure despite the fact that the S.S. United States still holds the record for the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic. Obsolete almost from the minute the champagne bottle broke across her bow, the once great ship is now in danger of disappearing altogether.
First launched in 1952 after only two years of construction, the SS United States’s fanatical architect William Francis Gibbs had it built secretly, out of public view, on a dry dock in Newport News to strict U.S. Naval standards and his own obsessive guidelines. The glamorous ship had the capacity to hold 3,016 passengers, though it could be converted to carry 15,000 troops during wartime if the need arose. It was longer than the Titanic by 100 feet and faster by fifteen miles per hour, and completely fireproof on the interior (aside from a special fireproof mahogany used on the SS United States’s specially made Steinway pianos, no wood was used on the ship at all). Her famous passengers included John Wayne, Grace Kelly, Salvador Dalí, and John F. Kennedy. Seemingly every detail of the ship was meticulously planned and executed during construction to ensure that the SS United States would secure its place in history as the greatest passenger vessel of all time.
Even with the SS United States’s record crossing the Atlantic in three days, ten hours, and forty-two minutes, airplanes cut the travel time between New York City and London down to only about six hours. So in 1969, during its annual inspection in Newport News, the SS United States was unexpectedly retired from service under the assumption that it would be on reserve for the US Navy. It remained in limbo until 1978, when the Navy concluded that the ship was no longer needed. From there, it changed hands until 2009, when it was purchased by Norwegian Cruise Lines, who ultimately could not afford to renovate the ship and decided to sell it for scrap metal.
Today, the ship sits in a Philadelphia harbor, a giant rusted skeleton. The SS United States Conservancy received a grant for it’s purchase and twenty months of upkeep, but they need a lot more to fully restore it as a museum and cultural attraction. It would be a shame to lose such a significant piece of American history.