Maureen, from United States Cruises, worked directly with prospective interior designers, and it was during this special visit to the SS United States, that a small group of people from the office in Seattle and a few potential designers, as well as my family, spent nearly the entire day aboard the ship exploring every nook & cranny. It was a hot day in August of 1979 that we explored the SS United States. The ship was like a time capsule, as if the crew and passengers just abandoned ship one day in 1969. All of this grand ship’s original fixtures, furniture, décor was in-tact and it seemed like a few days of cleaning and she would be ready to sail. The giant propeller shaft was still greased, the piano in the First-Class lounge was still somewhat in-tune. There were forks, knives, and spoons in the waiter’s stations, the beds just needed some fresh linen, the indoor pool could have been filled with water, and I think if we added some eager passengers we could have a voyage. Her interiors were amazingly preserved from her fifties look and feel, but the exterior of the ship was another story. The proud super liner SS United States needed to have the flaking, peeling paint on her hull removed, and with a bit of sandblasting, some primer and a fresh paint-job, her powerful engines fired-up, the grand liner would be ready to take-on the Atlantic again.
I recall that moment when I had my first glimpse of the liner from the entrance to the shipyard…I could see those massive funnels with faded red paint and the faded blue top. It really is an amazing experience to see first-hand such a historical vessel after having read about the ship and studied many black & white photos…the reality of the ship as it loomed before me was surreal. Her funnels really were massive, and even resting still against the pier she looked super powerful. Still-camera’s loaded with film, and 8mm movie camera in-hand, we were ready to board the ship and see all the wonders the SS United States had to reveal. Since 1969 the Big U had been docked here at this lonely pier with only a few security staff to guard access to the ship. The security guard looked at us as if we were VIPs, because for 10 years very few people were allowed access to the ship, so we felt privileged and honored to walk across the gangway and board the SS United States. Even my family, my mom & dad and younger brother, who are not ocean liner enthusiasts, felt that this was a very special opportunity, and I believe they were fascinated and honored to explore the ship. At the time I was not as learned about the details of the SS United States as I was of the Queen Mary. I knew she held the Blue Ribbon for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing of three days, ten hours and forty minutes, and that she was 990 feet long with a 105 foot beam. I knew some of the statistics about her power-plant and the fact that she was designed by William Francis Gibbs. I remembered that there was no wood aboard the ship except for the butcher’s block, pianos and the bilge keels. I guess I knew more about the ship than the average person on the street, but wasn’t very familiar with her interior layout or the lounges. At 14 years old, I was soaking it all in as we toured every lounge and even explored the crew areas.
One of the most intriguing facts about the SS United States was her secret engines which were the most powerful ever installed on a passenger vessel. While the Big U was in service her engines were a military secret and civilians were never allowed to see the secret engine room much less take pictures of her engineering machinery. There were few photos of her engines and boilers, and photos of her in dry dock were also kept away from the public. Her designer was very secretive about what made the SS United States so fast. It was only recently after the ship had been laid-up in mothballs that her secrets were revealed. Some of her secrets that were finally revealed include the high-pressure her boilers were able to reach, her horse power of 240,000shp was never before and never again seen on a passenger vessel, her top recorded speed on trials was over 42 knots and she sported two five-bladed propellers and two four-bladed propellers. The SS United States basically had the same powerful engines as on military vessels and non-nuclear aircraft carriers. Additionally, she could remain afloat and even powered if one of her engine rooms were breached and flooded. These are a few of the secrets that came out after the ship was retired in 1969. During our visit to the ship, I was very surprised when our guides took us to see the engine room, and even more surprised to learn we were among the first civilians to photograph the powerplant aboard the SS United States.
Since my last visit to the ship in 1986, the SS United States was towed across the Atlantic to the Baltic Sea where all of her interiors were completely gutted. The ship has also changed owners a couple of times and was finally returned again to North America where she is currently tied-up at a lonely pier in Philadelphia. The current owner is Norwegian Cruise Lines, with great aspirations of one day restoring the SS United States as an American-flagged cruise ship. Her future is still uncertain, and many liner enthusiasts are convinced she will end up as scrap, as horrible as that would be. Why would that be horrible? The SS United States is a part of our maritime history. There was a time when she was the pride of all Americans. American ingenuity, talents, and creativity went into constructing a vessel that was the epitome of strength, speed, efficiency and pride. The SS United States carried famous actors, politicians, presidents, and dignitaries from around the world, as well as the common traveler. Scrap the Big U and a piece of history will be lost, but restore the vessel either as a museum or active cruise ship and further generations will be able to appreciate the heritage this vessel carries with her. Unfortunately in business, people don’t care for heritage, only profit. The ss United States doesn’t have nearly the efficiency or capacity of a modern cruise ship, and it would cost an astronomical amount of money to restore her to active service. She would have to be re-engined, because her fuel-oil guzzling engines are massively inefficient compared to today’s modern ships, and today’s cruise passengers demand balconies, which are on every new cruise ship. The fate of the SS United States is a conundrum and her future is looking bleak. Regardless of this magnificent liner’s ultimate fate, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore and photograph every nook & cranny on two occasions. Seeing this great ship first-hand has also deepened my passion and appreciation for ocean liner history.