The Most Famous Ship that Didn’t Sink.


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.

Check out the whole story from CBS Sunday Morning and donate to the SS United States Conservancy. –KATE DULIN

Comments on “The Most Famous Ship that Didn’t Sink.

    Mateo on March 29, 2013 2:21 PM:

    Wow. I walk past the bell from this ship everyday in the CNU Library.

    Pappas on March 29, 2013 4:00 PM:

    So weird to see this thing sitting there every time I come out of Lowes. Its like this crazy ghost ship thats been sitting there for years.

    Ctp on March 29, 2013 9:46 PM:

    It’s a little surprising US-departure based transatlantic crossings aren’t enjoying the same kind of revival the British are. My father came to visit a couple of years ago on the queen Mary. I think it cost like three grand for a week crossing in some very nice digs on board… Not bad really for a weeks vacation in itself.

    NCJack on March 29, 2013 11:11 PM:

    A man in Wilmington NC has made a pleasure craft from one of the original lifeboats, very nice. He kindly had me aboard when I recognized what it was.

    Josanne on March 30, 2013 2:49 AM:

    WOW..wonderful to see an article on this wonderful ship. I sailed on her in May, 1967 from England to New York as an eleven year old with my mum. We were emigrating to the States and my Dad and sister had come a couple of months before by plane. I remember what a great adventure the voyage was. I will never forget getting up early to sail into the New York Harbour past the Statue of Liberty and seeing all the skyscrapers.

    Aaron on March 30, 2013 6:29 AM:

    Some Australian lunatic is building the Titanic II and this beauty is gathering rust. Shame.

    Ted H on March 30, 2013 8:06 AM:


    Mitch on March 30, 2013 3:20 PM:

    Thank you for this post! I was just looking at the SS United States yesterday from the Ikea parking lot that she sits across from. Even in her current stat of decay she is an absolut beauty every time im fortunate to be in her vicinity I sit and stare captivated by this great ship and what it must have been like to be a passenger. A new transplant form NYC to Philly I had no clue to the back story thanks for clewing me in.

    mat on March 31, 2013 7:27 AM:

    really great post, i wasn’t actually aware of its existence to be honest. a lost like this would be such a shame, it needs to be celebrated but if there’s no money it can only be doomed

    Ray Van Dune on March 31, 2013 10:27 AM:

    Great article about a great ship.

    One little glitch: a “knot” is a unit of speed, representing nautical miles per hour. Thus “knots per hour” is incorrect, sort of like saying “mph per hour”.

    Since a nautical mile is 6000 feet instead of 5280, the “44 miles per hour” quoted in the video is “only” about 39 nautical miles per hour, or 39 “knots”, which is hauling ass in any unit of measure!

    Joe Appalucci on April 4, 2013 11:32 PM:

    If I may correct you Ray, I have been attending SSUS Conservancy meetings for the past six months and my understanding is that the “Big U” did 44 knots on her maiden voyage and that comes to over 50 MPH. And that was at 3/4 power! What she was really capable of was kept secret.

    Rob on April 5, 2013 12:46 AM:

    Sadly this once beautiful ship will never sail again, nor will it ever be turned into a museum because there is really nothing left to see except the hull itself because the interior of the ship has been completely gutted. All of the bridge controls once used to drive the ship are gone. All of the luxury accommodations once enjoyed by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, John Wayne, Grace Kelly, Salvador Dalí, and US Presidents Kennedy and Clinton are long gone. They were ripped out back in the 1980s. Even if they were still on-board they would not be considered luxurious today’s passengers. The cabins on ocean liners were cramped and spartan compared to those on modern cruise ships.

    Even the Duck Suite, the first class cabin that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor reserved for themselves, was spartan by today’s standards, didn’t have a balcony, and only had a few small portholes. The furnishings on the SS United States looked like the stuff my great grandmother bought back in 1950 that we gave to Goodwill when she moved to a retirement home in the 1980s.

    The propulsion system is still there but it is obsolete, and the steel hull is more than a half century old and has been sitting in salt water for decades without being dry docked and properly maintained. Basically all the ship is, is a floating pile scrap steel and aluminum worth several million dollars.

    Robert on April 6, 2013 8:53 PM:

    @Rob, not sure why you have such negativity regarding this ship but, unless you are a naval mechanical engineer that has inspected the ship, you likely are not in the position to make such declarations. An opinion is an opinion and has little to add to the discussion.

    We all understand the ship will never sail again but experts have stated the hull though needing maintenance is in a useable state and is ideal for use as a hotel or museum, the ship is already gutted and clear of any hazardous materials. In essence, a mostly blank canvas on the inside.

    I support saving the SS United States in any way we can and encourage others to spread the word as time is imminently at hand.

    Jane on April 8, 2013 10:55 PM:

    Great Article, Kate.

    chris on April 13, 2013 10:04 PM:

    Ran across some old issues of The Pilot from the early 60s when i was working on a ship.Seems the union would call out a strike on the “Big U” for the most penny-ante grievances.
    Now the NMU itself is history.
    What goes around comes around

    Joe Maleno on April 21, 2013 10:31 PM:

    This ship, a symbol of American style and power, needs to be saved in the same way the Queen Mary has. I was there when she docked at the foot of Snyder Avenue in 1996. I am working on the 1/400 scale model by Glencoe. Having always been a Titanic buff, I was fascinated to learn about America’s maritime contribution, the United Stses,, when I was a young boy. Currently living in Northern New Jersey, I visit the ship every time I’m back in Philly. Any passenger in my car hears all about the ship as we pass by it on I-95, or on Delaware Avenue. I agree with the writer above who describes how majestic she looks even now in her dilapidated state. I hope the Conservancy is successful in getting the funding needed to restore her and give her the second lease on life she most assuredly deserves. It would be a real cultural tragedy to have this American marvel go to the scrap heap.
    Save the United States!!!

Comments are closed.