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SS UNITED STATES – The last American liner still afloat.  But for how long?

SS UNITED STATES – The last American liner still afloat. But for how long?

Best-selling author and illustrator David Macaulay made a case last Thursday for saving the SS United States, a once-majestic ocean liner that has been deteriorating for years at a pier along the Delaware River. It’s “a unique object, a symbol of time in American history that we’ve sort of long since passed,” Macaulay said in a telephone interview. “It’s important to keep it intact visually.”Macaulay, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the SS United States with his family as British immigrants in 1957, said he is “trying to draw attention to it in any way I can.”


Actress Jane Wyman (first wife of President Reagan) aboard the SS United States. 

The nearly 1,000-foot, steam-powered vessel, with its giant twin chimneys painted red, white and blue, was launched in 1952. It still holds the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic voyage by a passenger ship and it is the largest ocean liner ever built in the United States.


Marlon Brando and Salvidor Dali enjoying after dinner coffee in the First Class Lounge of the SS United States.

Ten feet longer than the Titanic and nearly 10,000 tons heavier, it carried 1 million passengers across the ocean, including four U.S. presidents and a long list of other celebrities, before it was retired in 1969 partly because of the increasing popularity of air travel.

Macaulay, whose books include “The Way Things Work” and “Cathedral,” delivered a lecture about the ship at the Free Library of Philadelphia and planned to attend the opening of a related exhibition at the city’s Independence Seaport Museum.


Salvidor Dali and his wife on another voyage of the SS United States. 

Macaulay is working on a new book that he said will trace the evolution of passenger ships through the building of the SS United States and describe his experiences as a boy sailing on the ship to a new home on another continent.

The nonprofit SS United States Conservancy purchased the ship in 2010 with $5.8 million from Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest that also covered some maintenance and preservation costs.

The group hopes to raise enough money to restore the exterior of the ship and convert the interior, which covers roughly 500,000 square feet, into a multiuse space for restaurants, retail stores and a museum and educational center.


It’s Captain’s Dinner aboard the SS United States in 1956 in the First Class Dining Room.  And this is the one night Judy Garland left her stateroom. Pictured: Producer Sid Luff and his wife Judy Garland with friend John Carlyle (and number one fan) at right.

Susan Gibbs, the granddaughter of the ship’s designer and director of the conservancy, said the conservancy also is looking for a permanent berth for the ship on the east coast. New York is a leading candidate, she said.

The exterior refurbishment alone, which would involve moving the huge vessel to a drydock, would cost an estimated $40 million to $60 million, Gibbs said.

Said Macaulay: “It’s battered. It’s beaten, but it’s all paint so it’s superficial.”


The S.S. United States arriving at Bremerhaven Columbus Bahnhof – Germany. This dreamlike photo of the S.S. United States is a wonderful composition and gives the viewer a sense of the close relationship the people of Bremerhaven had with the shipping industry and its sea going passengers.

The fastest way to cross!

In 1952, on her maiden voyage as the new flagship of the United States Lines, the United States captured the Blue Riband with the fastest eastbound and westbound transatlantic crossings on record. The entry of the United States marked the first time a U.S.-flagged ship held the Blue Riband, surpassing European speed records which had stood for decades.The United States lost the eastbound record in 1990, but still holds the westbound record. The United States plied the transatlantic with passenger service until 1969, and she outlasted the demise of her original owners.


SS United States “waiting” at Philadelphia – December 2007.