Come take a transatlantic aboard the majestic SS United States with this unidentified family circa 1965 who recorded everything with their trusty 8mm camera. Fascinating color shots of cars being loaded by cargo crane, relaxing on deck, kids playing… set to the music of the Meyer Davis Orchestra, it’s almost like being there! Our thanks to ShipGeek.com for this wonderful video.
Attuned to the attention they constantly received from the press, the Duke and Duchess appear relaxed and smiling as they chat with newsmen aboard the SS United States as it sailed from New York to Europe July 12, 1968 a year before the trans-Atlantic liner was pulled out of service by the United States Line never to sail again.
Will the SS United States survive or end up in the scrap yards like all the other famous transatlantic liners except for the RMS Queen Marry?
You wouldn’t know it to look at her, raddled and rusty and parked in Philadelphia, but the SS United States was young and sexy once. When she was new, in 1952, she was the largest passenger ship ever built in America, and she’s still the fastest ever. The papers were always running photos of celebrities embarking at Pier 86: Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, the duke and duchess of Windsor, Cary Grant. And then, in the Big U’s early middle age, the jet era began: the United States was retired in 1969.
The Duchess of Windsor adjusts the hair of the Duke as they met photographers on arrive in New York on January 31, 1958 aboard the liner SS United States. Planning on spending time in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida, the couple had just learned their very good friend Robert R. Young, CEO of the New York Central, had just died. The Windsors said they were in shock and suffering from a personal loss.
The ship now belongs to the nonprofit SS United States Conservancy, which wants to refit her as a multi-use complex: hotel, shopping, offices, maybe a school. Amazingly, the group has proposals in hand and developers in talks. The first phase calls for the public rooms and exterior to be refurbished, incorporating a new American Museum of Design and Discovery. The full build-out would be next, with a ribbon-cutting roughly four years off. (Conveniently, a previous owner stripped the interior, providing a blank, asbestos-free canvas.) This moment, says managing director Dan McSweeney, is “probably the best situation the ship has been in since 1969.” And, he adds, “the last chance.” Other cities are interested, but there are reasons to bring the United States to New York. Putting it in a global city makes sense, doubly so alongside Hudson River Park. We could use hotel rooms by the Javits Center. We have the Intrepid, so there’s precedent for a big ship turned stationary object. Besides: The ship belongs here. It was from West 46th Street that she began her maiden voyage and tied up on her last. It even says so on the stern, where the registry is spelled out: UNITED STATES, NEW YORK. (Thanks to New York Magazine)
The Duchess of Windsor and the Duke are ready to sail for Europe. The royal couple is aboard the SS United States in New York on May 22, 1953. Again, the Duchess is fixing the Duke’s hair again.
THE SS UNITED STATES… the last chance to save the only surviving great American passenger ship.
Everyone loves passenger liners. There is something about their form, their immense size, their power and grace that captivates us. Yet, very few love them enough to put their hands in their pockets when they are old and done.
(Left: The Duchess of Windsor adjusts the Duke’s hair on another SS United States crossing.) Especially since new safety rules came in a few years ago (SOLAS) the fate of many a beloved ship has been sealed. The list since even a decade ago has grown…CANBERRA, NORWAY (ex FRANCE), the Cunard pocket liners, KUNGSHOLM (still extant a floating hotel), SS INDEPENDENCE and CONSTITUTION…the list goes on. Every one of those ships had a following, whether it be national pride from ownership or origin or build, or simply, as is the case with some cars, folks just loved them.
These old ships were never going to sail again, not unless they were stripped down to their bare hulls and rebuilt, but then what is the point? You may as well commission a new vessel in the style of an old one.
(Left: The Duke and Duchess of Windsor are shown in Paris with her dogs as they arrived on the boat train from Le Harve. They crossed the Atlantic from New York aboard the SS United States in the mid-1950s.) And then there was the COSTA CONCORDIA disaster almost one year ago. We all know such incidents are rare, but they make headlines, and they put the public off going to sea, no matter the size or age of a ship. But they especially wont want to put a trembling foot on a floating machine older than they are!
And when we factor in such things as austerity, a credit crunch, market crashes, the last thing anyone wants to invest in is a floating liability. Harsh words, but sadly, all enthusiasts have to realize that the real world doesnt work on sentiment alone.
There have been precious few instances of successful ship preservation, especially when it comes to giants. The most famous is RMS QUEEN MARY, at Long Beach, California, a ship that for decades epitomized everything grand and glamorous about Transatlantic crossings. Her heritage helped preserve her, but even she has had her critics (some extremely vocal) over the years since she first was concreted in and her engines ripped out.
All eyes, especially UK ones, are on her younger sister, QUEEN ELIZABETH 2, who is currently moored at Port Rashid in Dubai. Whatever anyone thinks of her current situation, she has more chance of preservation there than anywhere else in the world. The sad fact is, in the West, where these ships were born, plied their trade and gained their following, very few have money to chuck down their dormant funnels.
And so it is in the US as well. There, in the land of the free and billionaires unlimited, a ship lies forlorn, rusting and ever more helpless, yet she was once everything that embodies the US of A…the SS UNITED STATES.
She was not perhaps the biggest, nor the most elegant or statuesque, but she had flair, speed and a rakish handsomeness that many people took to. France had FRANCE, Great Britain had her QUEENS and the USA had SS UNITED STATES. SS FRANCE was the longest, the old QUEEN ELIZABETH was the biggest, and UNITED STATES the fastest. And all three were fiercely loved by their adoring home crowds. They each made a statement that resonated.
So what happened to SS FRANCE? She became SS NORWAY, then was scrapped. The old ELIZABETH went on fire in Hong Kong and her sister MARY went to Long Beach. and SS UNITED STATES? Been either forgotten or deemed scrapped already.
The trouble here is that because so many people believe she has been scrapped or is only fit for that destiny, a blind spot comes into play. For years a Conservancy project has ran to save the ship for posterity, yet they struggle. Mainly because everyone assumes she is either scrapped, going to scrap or is only worth scrap value. Once these ideas are in people’s heads, it doesnt go away, and this is where the lack of cash comes in. Those with cash are not going to part with it for a lost cause. Human nature.
The situation with SS UNITES STATES is dire. Unlike QE2 which is still in good order and in relatively good nick, the American star has faded to look like a sad old wreck. This is what happens when money dries up, the rust gets in, the paint peels; the prospects grow dimmer, for no-one loves a faded star, absolutely no-one.
Despite philanthropist Gerry Lenfest gifting the ships current owners, the ss United States Conservancy, close to $6 million dollars two years ago, in order that they could purchase the ship from NCL for $3.5 million, the remaining treasure chest is running dry, with the ship taking hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to simply keep afloat in the Delaware. It will take many, many more millions of dollars to restore her to any useful condition and time is simply running out along with the cash.
There is a lesson here for anyone wishing to preserve old (and especially gigantic) ships. If they are not to sail again, (and SS UNITED STATES never will), then they need a plan to save them quickly – preferably a plan that has backing long before you take the plunge and buy one. The longer you leave thousands of tons of steel to rust the longer you’ll wait for someone to fall in love with her again and the quicker she ramps up refurbishment costs. People dont like decay, they want their memories to remain in glorious sentimental technicolor. Show them a sad relic of a bygone era and they wish you’d not bothered. (Which is why we’ve not bothered either, hence the old photo!)
The owners of SS UNITED STATES have an uphill struggle. So do all who wish to preserve what are in effect outdated machines. That’s why QE2 is better where she is just now, getting maintained and kept fresh. The minute she really is threatened, or the minute a fully backed plan comes into being, folks will still be loving her and the money wont be wasted on remedial work alone…sadly, UNITED STATES has become unloveable and currently unviable. She looks all in, washed up, ready for a welcome departure from an unloving, forgetful world. That’s her present-day statement.
So our advice? Whatever cash you’ve got…Get the paint out first, boys and tout her as a film set…