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Lady in Waiting
America's flagship patiently awaits restoration

This is a crime against shipbuilding, a crime against history…[to} let such a ship die such a miserable death. – Walter Cronkite, 2007.

The 10-year old boy was trembling; his heart was racing. He’d dreamed of this most of his young life, and now that the moment had arrived, he was frozen with anticipation. He stood in awe, gazing at the massive ship looming before him. His Dad had surprised him with a road trip to Manhattan, to Pier 86 along the Hudson River, specifically to visit this modern wonder.

He looked up. The ship was stunning. Her lines were sleek, almost seductive, despite her size. But she was indeed huge, more than 100 feet longer than the Titanic. And there she was, right in front of him, beckoning.

He first saw her five years earlier while gazing from the beach out into the Atlantic. She was heading out to sea then, as it turned out on her maiden voyage. And now, as he climbed on board, he knew exactly what the phrase “a dream come true” really meant.

The boy, as you might have expected, is me. And the ship is the SS United States, America’s greatest maritime achievement.

SS United States, Bremerhaven Germany, 1956.
Photo courtesy cruiselinehistory.com.

The SS United States is the largest ship ever constructed in the U.S. and was for years the envy of the maritime world. On her first voyage in 1952, she crossed the Atlantic faster than any ship before or since, and was dubbed “the fastest ship in the world." She performed perfectly for 17 glorious years, hosting royalty, presidents and Hollywood stars on her passenger list.

Then it all changed. The company that owned her went out of business, and so did she, a victim of the increase and convenience of air travel across the Atlantic. She last sailed in October 1969 and was laid up. I lost track of her, as did virtually all America, and the memories faded.

I next saw her in 1997, on a drive from Philadelphia International Airport across the Walt Whitman Bridge toward N.J. Her signature massive red, white and blue funnels were unmistakable, dominating the South Philadelphia waterfront. What could she be doing in Philadelphia?

SS United States, Philadelphia, 2009. Photo by Jim Palmer.
On my way back to the airport, I allowed enough time to go down to Columbus Avenue and see for myself. And just like in 1957, my heart was pounding and my hands were trembling. Sadly, she looked awful, fading paint, rusting metalwork; clearly she had not been cared for in those nearly 30 years.

A local businessman who hoped to save her brought her to Philadelphia in 1996. I came to find out that she had been in Newport News, then Turkey, her interior completely dismantled and auctioned off, and she came close numerous times to being sold for scrap.

Attempting to save her has been a long, uphill battle for a lot of people over the years. With her legacy and her position in the National Registry of Historic Places, the SS United States should be preserved at all costs.

There is a neat irony is this story. Greg Shutters from Fox Point manages a number of promo items for the Conservancy and is also responsible for their spectacular new website. I met him exchanging a SS United States T-shirt my daughter got me for Christmas for a different size. So now there are two SS United States supporters in Milwaukee. Who knew? 

Greg’s flicker page has some phenomenal photos of the ship taken last summer, reflecting her disrepair but also her heart and soul:

The story as it evolves comes closer every day to having a happy ending. In 2010, the SS United States Conservancy, the organization that has worked tirelessly to save the ship, received a $5.8 million gift from Philadelphia philanthropist Gerry Lenfest that enabled them to purchase the ship and maintain her at her current berth while restoration plans are put in place.

"This is the first time in the history of the SS United States that a group concerned primarily with the vessel's historic significance and preservation has owned her," said Dan McSweeney, executive director of the Conservancy.

"We can't truly say she's saved yet — that will happen when we establish a successful partnership to redevelop the ship — but we can say that we're generating the right momentum to be able to achieve that goal," he said.

You can find more information and details about the plans at the Conservancy’s newly designed website.

The Conservancy has enough money to maintain the SS Unites States for about 20 months. There is a lot more needed to get her restored and ready for the next phase of her life. You can help. Please. Go to the website and find out how. For this wonderful Lady in Waiting, her future depends on it.

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dougs Posted: 2/12/2011 12:50:36 AM
 1   0    

Jim, thanks for the nice article! I journeyed from France to the US on the United States, also back in 1957! I wrote a short piece about it.... if you would like, I can email it to you....... regards, doug
Jim Palmer Posted: 2/13/2011 1:13:13 PM
 0   0    

Doug, that's really neat. Thanks for sharing. I'd love to see your piece on the ship. My email is jimp@nonbox.com. Best, Jim
mjor Posted: 2/9/2011 7:57:31 AM
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How excited that someone stepped up to the plate and donated funds to save this piece of history. Hopefully they'll have the ship up and running and offer special travel packages to develop funds to keep the ship sailing.
Jim Palmer Posted: 2/9/2011 9:27:02 AM
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Indeed it is. There are a number of steps in the process of restoring her, but this was the huge first one that was desperately needed. I'll post an update in a few months. Appreciate the comment.
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