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Desperate Times. Desperate Measures.
For the great SS United States, the clock is ticking.
The SS United States 2012 by Matthew Christoper
It was a gloomy, steel gray day, the kind of November late afternoon you’d expect on the Philadelphia waterfront. I parked my car and walked slowly toward the high chain link fence, topped with a foreboding section of barbed wire. I stood there for a long time, gazing, pondering, reminiscing, lost in my own thoughts, when I noticed that I wasn’t alone.

To my left was an older woman who was standing motionless, staring ahead, just as I had been. I had no idea how long she’d been there.

It was hard to determine much about her with a peripheral glance. All I noticed was a grey overcoat buttoned high and patterned scarf around her head. Curiosity got the better of me, and as I looked closer, I could see that she was crying. She seemed unaware of the tears streaming down her face as she looked at the sad sight before us. I turned and quietly asked, “Excuse me, are you okay?”

She was quiet for a moment, took out a handkerchief to blot her eyes, and without interrupting her gaze ahead, said: “I sailed on her when I was 15. It was her maiden voyage. That will always be the highlight of my life."

She paused, choking on her words, and continued: “I can’t believe that they’ve let this happen to her.”

We were standing outside Pier 82 on the Delaware River, looking at the rusting form of the SS United States, America’s greatest maritime achievement and to many the greatest ship ever built.

From my perch on a beach on the Jersey Shore in 1952, I saw her sail out into the Atlantic Ocean on that maiden voyage. I was blown away by the thought that this woman standing to my left was actually on the ship then.

Okay, I know, please forgive me, but I tend to perseverate about the SS United States, having written two columns about her in this space previously (Lady in Waiting, America's Lady is Still Waiting). But this ship has meant the world to me for many years, from way back in 1952, and it is an important vestige in modern American history.

In case you don’t remember, the ship has been moored in Philadelphia for the past 15 years awaiting a decision on her future. She’s had a number of owners in that time, was designated for the scrap heap once, and was ultimately saved, for now anyway, by the SS United States Conservancy  who now owns her and a significantly generous donation from Philadelphia philanthropist Gerry Lenfest last year.

While there are plans afoot to restore The SS United States and make her into a permanent, stationary attraction, there is currently no development entity identified to take on that work. As Steven Ujifusa, author of the compelling new book “A Man and His Ship” about the building of the great liner and her designer, William Francis Gibbs, said in August:

“But if there is no real estate deal on the horizon for the ship to be converted into a waterfront attraction by November of this year, she will be pulled from her Philadelphia berth, towed to a beach in Texas, and torn apart for scrap.”

Ladies and gentlemen, that simply cannot happen.

Why should people go to so much trouble to save a huge, rusting collection of metal, you might ask? Consider:

  • The SS United States is the largest ocean liner ever made in the United States and is one of the last examples of American manufacturing creativity, ingenuity and might.
  • It is the fastest ocean liner ever built, and still holds the trans-Atlantic speed record it set on its maiden voyage in 1952.
  • It is the safest ocean liner ever built. There wasn’t one ounce of wood on board; the entire ship was made of steel and aluminum, including the grand piano.
  • It arguably is the most beautiful ocean liner ever built. Its lines are majestic, its structure sleek and the red, white and blue funnels, well, they are the most recognized symbols of any ship in the world.
  • Since I first set foot on the great ship when I was ten, I’ve felt drawn to her, While you would certainly doubt that such a massive thing could have a heart and a soul, you’d change your mind when you saw her, when you stood before her.
SS United States Conservancy photo
The good news is that much publicity has been generated about the plight of the SS United States. In addition to Mr. Ujifusa’s phenomenal book, there have been articles, TV reports, DVDs and other books. There are a number of links below in case you’d like more information.

The aforementioned William Francis Gibbs’ granddaughter Susan is the president of the SS United States Conservancy, whose sole goal is “preserving this American flagship for future generations."

The SS United States Conservancy has embarked on a program to save the ship piece by piece. You can actually donate by designating a section of the ship to save and call your own. From the massive, unmistakable red, white and blue funnels to her gorgeous bow to her stately bridge to her sleek stern, there is room for you.

Here is a link where you can do that, savetheunitedstates.org. This is a wonderful interactive site that invites you to become part of this important movement. I hope you’ll consider it, I know I’d be thrilled, as would the woman I was talking with at the foot of the great ship.

On that cold November afternoon back in 2009, the old woman stood with me for a while, both of us silently acknowledging the bond that we shared. We reminisced about the great ship, and a bit about her trip across the Atlantic back in 1952. After a while, she turned and said, “I have to go now. It’s been nice talking with you.”

As she walked away, she paused, turned towards me and said: “Would you be kind enough to do me a favor?” “Sure,” I said. “Please make sure she is refurbished and made whole again. I want to tour her one more time before I die.”

I stood, dumbfounded, for what felt like a long time, before the great ship. And I realized I never asked the old woman her name. Maybe I’ll just see her on board one day.


Recent coverage of the SS United States:
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Cruise Industry News
New York Times
Hidden City article and incredible photos by Matthew Christopher

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