SS United States is a luxury passenger liner built in 1952 for United States Lines designed to capture the trans-Atlantic speed record.
Built at a cost of $78 million, the ship is the largest ocean liner constructed entirely in the US, the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic in either direction, and even in her retirement retains the Blue Riband given to the passenger liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean in regular service with the record highest speed.
Her construction was subsidized by the US government, since she was designed to allow conversion to a troop carrier should the need arise. United States operated uninterrupted in transatlantic passenger service until 1969. Since 1996 she has been docked at Pier 82 on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.
Inspired by the exemplary service of the British liners RMS Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, which transported hundreds of thousands of US troops to Europe during the Second World War, 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 renowned American naval architect and marine engineer William Francis Gibbs, the liner's construction was a joint effort between the United States Navy and United States Lines. The US government underwrote $50 million of the $78 million construction cost, with the ship's 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 with a capacity of 15,000 troops, or to a hospital ship. The vessel was constructed from 1950–1952 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Newport News, Virginia. Her keel was laid and the hull constructed in a graving dock. United States was built to exacting Navy specifications, which required that the ship be heavily compartmentalized and have separate engine rooms to optimize war-time survival. A large part of the construction of United States was with pre-fabricated sections. The ship's hull comprised 183,000 separately fabricated sections.
To minimize the risk of fire, the designers of United States used no wood in the ship's framing, accessories, decorations, or interior surfaces. 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. Specially commissioned artwork included pieces by fourteen artists, including Nathaniel Choate and Gwen Lux. Although the galley did feature a butcher block, the clothes hangers in the luxury cabins were aluminum. The ballroom's grand piano was of a rare, fire-resistant wood species—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 igniting.
The construction of the ship's superstructure involved the greatest use of aluminum in any construction project to that time, and posed a Galvanic corrosion challenge to the builders in joining the aluminum structure to the steel decks below. The extensive use of aluminum provided significant weight savings.
United States had the most powerful steam turbines of any merchant marine vessel, with a total power of 240,000 SHP (shaft horsepower) delivered to four 18-foot (5.5 m) diameter manganese-bronze propellers. This gave her the greatest power-to-weight ratio ever achieved in a commercial passenger liner, before or since. 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).
On her maiden voyage on July 3, 1952, United States broke the transatlantic speed record held by Queen Mary for the previous 14 years by over 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) The liner also broke the westbound crossing record 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), thereby obtaining both the eastbound and westbound speed records and the Blue Riband, the first time a US-flagged ship had held the speed record since 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 lost the eastbound speed record in 1990 to Hoverspeed Great Britain; however, she continues to hold the Blue Riband as all subsequent record breakers were neither in passenger service nor were their voyages westbound.
United States ' maximum speed was deliberately exaggerated, and kept obscure for many years. An unlikely value of 43 knots (80 km/h; 49 mph) was leaked to reporters by engineers after the first speed trial. A Philadelphia Inquirer article reported the top speed achieved as 36 knots (67 km/h; 41 mph), while another source reports that the highest possible sustained top speed was 35 knots (65 km/h; 40 mph).
By the late 1960s, the market for Transatlantic travel by ship had dwindled. America had been sold in 1964, Queen Mary had been retired in 1967, and Queen Elizabeth in 1968. United States was no longer profitable. While United States was at Newport News for annual overhaul in 1969, the shipping line 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. 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 became of the plan. In 1978, the vessel was sold for $5 million to a group headed by Richard Hadley who hoped to revitalize the liner in a time share cruise ship format. Financing failed and the ship was put up for auction by MARAD in 1992. In 1979, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) was reportedly interested in purchasing the ship and converting her into a cruise ship for the Caribbean, but decided on purchasing the former SS France instead. During the 1980s, United States was considered by the US Navy as a troop ship or a hospital ship, to be called the USS United States, but this plan never materialized.
In 1984, 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. Following the closure of the restaurant in 2007, the items were donated to the Mariners' Museum and to Christopher Newport University, both in Newport News, Virginia. One of the ship's 60,000-pound propellers is mounted at the entrance to the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City. Another one stands on a platform near the waterfront at SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler, New York. Across the Long Island Sound from SUNY Maritime College, a third propeller is mounted at the United States Merchant Marine Academy and is used as a teaching aid for merchant mariners. In 2008 a fourth propeller was put on display at the entrance of the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
In 1992, Marmara Marine Inc., headed by Edward Cantor and Fred Mayer, purchased the vessel for $2.6 million. The company was majority-owned by Juliedi Sadikoglu of the Turkish shipping family. The ship was towed to Turkey and then Ukraine, where she underwent asbestos removal in 1994. The interior of the ship was almost completely stripped during this time. No viable agreements were reached in the US for a reworking of the vessel, and in 1996 United States was towed to her current location at Pier 84 in South Philadelphia.
In 1999, 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 from the estate of Edward Cantor when the ship was put up for auction after his death, with the stated intent of fully restoring her to a service role in their newly announced American-flagged Hawaiian passenger service called NCL America. United States is one of only a handful of 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. 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 (which owns NCL), stated that the company's next project is "the restoration of the ... United States." By May 2007, an extensive technical review had been completed, with NCL stating that the ship was in sound condition. The cruise line has over 100 boxes of the ship's blueprints cataloged. While this documentation is not complete, NCL believed it would provide useful information for the planned refit. However, when NCL America began operation, it used Pride of America, Pride of Aloha, and Pride of Hawaii, rather than United States, and later withdrew Pride of Aloha and Pride of Hawaii from Hawaiian service.
In February 2009, it was reported that Star Cruises, to whom United States 's ownership was transferred, and NCL were looking for buyers for the liner.
A group of the ship's fans keeps in touch via the Internet and meets annually in Philadelphia. The ship receives occasional press coverage, such as a 2007 feature article in USA Today and there have been various projects through the years to celebrate the ship, such as lighting it on special occasions. A television documentary about the ship, titled SS United States: Lady in Waiting, was completed in early February, 2008 and was distributed through Chicago's WTTW TV and American Public Television with the first airings in May 2008 on PBS stations throughout the US. The Big U: The Story of the SS United States, another documentary about the ship, is currently[when?] in development by Rock Creek Productions.
In March 2010 it was reported that scrapping bids for the ship were being collected. Norwegian Cruise Lines, in a press release, noted that there are 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 has not been able to tender an offer for the ship, the company was actively seeking a "suitable buyer."
Since 2009, when Norwegian Cruise Line offered the ship for sale, there have been numerous plans to rescue the liner from the scrap yard. The SS United States Conservancy, a group trying to save United States, has been trying to come up with funding to purchase the ship. On 30 July 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. A notable supporter, former US president Bill Clinton, has also endorsed rescue efforts to save the ship, having sailed on her himself in 1968.
An artist's rendering of the planned "multi-purpose waterfront complex".
By 7 May 2010, over $50,000 had been raised by The SS United States Conservancy and on 1 July 2010, the Conservancy struck a deal with Norwegian Cruise Line to buy SS United States for a reported $3 million, despite a scrapper's bid for $5.9 million. The Conservancy was given until February 2011 to buy the ship and satisfy Environmental Protection Agency concerns related to toxins on the ship. They now have 20 months of financial support to develop a plan to clean the ship of toxins and make the ship financially self-supporting, possibly as a hotel or development.
SS United States Conservancy executive director Dan McSweeney has stated that likely locations for the ship include Philadelphia, New York City and Miami. 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 for the stalled Foxwoods Casino project. A detailed study for the site was revealed in late November 2010, in advance of Pennsylvania's 10 December 2010 deadline for a deal aimed at Harrah's Entertainment taking over the casino project. On 16 December 2010, the Gaming Control Board voted to revoke the casino's license.
The SS United States Conservancy assumed ownership of United States on 1 February 2011.
In March, talks about possible locations in Philadelphia, New York City and Miami continued. In New York City, negotiations with a developer are underway for the ship to become part of the Vision 2020, a waterfront redevelopment plan totaling US$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. With an additional US$5.8 million donation from H. F. Lenfest, the conservancy had about 18 months from March 2011 to make the ship a public attraction. On 5 August 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 place the ship in her original home port of New York as a stationary attraction are ongoing.
The Conservancy's grant specifies that the refit and restoration must be done in the Philadelphia Navy Yard for the benefit of the Philadelphia economy, regardless of her eventual mooring site; the Conservancy continues to negotiate with possible stakeholders in the New York area.
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. 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. 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 story content 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. 6 Million (USD) had been raised by September, 2012 to turn the ship into a permanent waterfront attraction.
A developer was to be chosen by the end of 2012 with the intent of putting the ship in a selected city by summer 2013. The ship, however, remained in Philadelphia. 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 for developers as a dockside attraction. The SS United States Conservancy was warned that, if its plans did not come together quickly, there might be no choice but to sell the ship for scrap. In January 2014, obsolete pieces of the ship were sold to keep up with the $80,000 (USD) 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, with New York City still being the frontrunner target location.
On July 3, 2014, The SS United States Conservancy held a Flag Raising ceremony commemorating the Ship's Maiden Voyage. An American flag was raised first to honor Independence Day and the house flag of the ships former operating company, United States Lines (donated by the trademark owner Hector L. Aponte III) was raised. Making it the first time the ship flew its company flag since the ship was decommissioned in 1969.
By August 2014, the ship was still moored in Philadelphia and costs for the ship's rent amounted to $60,000 (USD) a month. It was estimated that it would take one billion (USD) to put the United States back on the high seas. On September 4, 2014 a final push was made to have the ship be bound for New York City. A developer interested in re-purposing the ship into 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.
On December 15, 2014, preliminary agreements in support of the redevelopment of the SS United States were announced. The agreements included three months of carrying costs, with a timeline and more details to be released sometime in 2015. In February, 2015, another $250,000 was received by the conservancy from an anonymous donor which will go towards planning an onboard museum.
As of October 2015, however, the SS United States Conservancy began exploring potential bids for scrapping the ship. The group is running out of money to cover the $60,000 per month cost to dock and maintain the ship. Though attempts to repurpose the ship continue. Potential ideas include using the ship for hotels, restaurants, office space, etc. However, no plans have been announced. The conservancy says if no progress is made by October 31, they will have no choice but to sell the ship to a "responsible recycler.