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Ship of State
April 15, 1999
image: Mariners’ Museum

To her admirers, she remains a wonder beyond any hyperbole. At 990 feet long, 101 feet wide, and capable of record-shattering speed, the S.S. United States is the fastest ocean liner ever built. Now, the once-proud United States sits neglected in the Port of Philadelphia, her interior picked clean, her carcass slowly giving way to rust and flaking paint.

Is the ship once renowned for state-of-the-art technological innovation doomed? Not if Robert Hudson Westover has his way. Westover heads the S.S. United States Foundation, which , with a sister group, the S.S. United States Preservation Society , has convinced the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to nominate the S.S. United States to the National Register of Historic Places.

Westover’s ultimate goal-- to raise the estimated $150 to $500 million needed to restore the world’s largest passenger liner to her former glory. "Too many Americans don’t even know the ship exists," Westover laments. "So now we have to recreate her legend and let people know , hey, this is an incredible wonder of the world and we need to save this ship. And when people realize that, whether they’re into ships or not, they want to save it."

Built For Speed

The S.S. United States was the culmination of maritime technology. She was constructed during the cold war, under such secrecy that her top speed was a zealously guarded military secret. With a streamlined hull made of armored steel and an aircraft carrier’s steam turbines driving her four massive propellors, the United States was built for speed. Designed by the era’s foremost naval architect, William Francis Gibbs , she won the coveted Blue Riband on her maiden voyage in 1952, besting the Queen Mary’s record by more than ten hours. Maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham says she wasn’t even trying. "In three and a half days she took twelve hours off the best record. That’s never going to be equalled by an ocean liner," Maxtone-Graham enthuses. As for her top speed, he agrees that it was over 40 knots (50 miles per hour!), but he adds, "Gibbs loved to be secretive. . . so we never really know how fast she could have gone."

The United States was also built for speedy conversion between civilian passenger liner and troop transport. Such a conversion would take the Queen Mary some three months, but could be accomplished "literally overnight" by the S.S. US. She was designed to withstand multiple torpedo attacks. With her numerous waterproof compartments , it’s said that unlike the Titanic, the United States really could have survived a collision with an iceberg.

Some of the ship of state’s innovations were to enter Americans’ daily lives, as Laura Bachko, daughter of the United States’ lead engineer, points out on a tour: "Here’s an example of one of the technological advances that she had long before you saw anywhere else, this is safety glass, shatterproof glass that you now see on windshields of cars, this was on the ship in 1952," Bochko marvels. "Another example is radar ranges. . . we know them now as microwaves but this ship was sailing with them in 1952."

The S.S. United States never saw military service. And then the advent of commercial jetliners made her phenomenal speed irrelevant. The ship was taken out of service in 1969 and placed in mothballs. Due to the technological innovations the ship incorporated, the U.S. government forbade her sale to foreign companies or countries. Finally in the 80’s the United States was sold into private ownership, and has passed from owner to owner since.

Monumental Journey?

Proponents of saving the S.S. United States hope recognition by the Registry of Historic Places embarks her on a journey to monument status. Indeed, Paul Lusignan, a National Park Service historian, notes that making the National Register does not protect her from destruction or dismantling. How do historic properties get protected and preserved? Here’s a summary of National Park Service (NPS) designations and their increasing levels of protection, according to Lusignan.

Designation Owner Degree of Protection
Historic Place May be privately owned Review required for Federal actions only; owner may dispose of as they wish
National Landmark May be privately owned NPS may provide technical assistance (not funding); owner may dispose of as they wish
National Historic Site Property acquired by NPS Protected by Congressional legislation; eligible for funding for acquisition, restoration
National Monument Property and site owned by NPS Protected by Congressional legislation and by Presidential decree; funds available for restoration and maintenance

Boat Dreams:

Historian John Maxtone-Graham wishes to see her sail again. "Nothing would please me more. . . but I can’t honestly think it’s going to happen," he says. "I think she is finished."

She may not sail, but might she be sold? A spokesman for her owner says he’s received serious offers for the ship (asking price: $33 million), and that one interested party wants to tie her up in New York Harbor as a luxury convention center.

Many of her devoted and growing group of fans have other dreams for the former queen of the sea. One visionary, Mike Alexander, notes that her power plant generates enough electricity to power the needs of a city of 10,000. He envisions selling electricity back to the utility companies, or perhaps constructing a golf resort on its main deck, which is longer than three football fields laid end-to-end.

Other roles suggested for the grand lady of the North Atlantic:
Traveling museum
National monument
Luxury cruise ship
Floating casino
Humanitarian mission vessel

What do you think? Send us your one-sentence suggestion, and we’ll post your top answers next week! What do you propose for the Ship of State? E-Mail us!

Elsewhere on the Web

S.S. United States Homepage

The S.S. United States Ocean Liner. . . Welcome Aboard

The Mariners Museum
Download "electronic postcard" from the S.S. US
View a Quicktime 360 of a museum exhibit on her

National Maritime Initiative

To write for more information, or to make a donation:

P.O. BOX 90482
RALEIGH NC 27675-0482

P.O. BOX 853
(703) 625-3037

by Joyce Gramza

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