SS United States

The SS United States, also designed by Gibbs & Cox, entered service in 1952. She was heavily subsidized by the American government, who in turn required that she be designed to be useful as a troopship if necessary.


As a result, she was probably the most safety-conscious liner ever constructed. The only wood aboard her was the pianos, and these were only allowed, legend has it, after Mr. Steinway himself demonstrated to Mr. Gibbs that they would not burn!

The United States was also the fastest ocean liner ever constructed. She set a record in 1952 with a speed of 35.59 knots (about 42 mph) and a crossing time of three days, ten hours and forty minutes eastbound. In the same year she managed a speed of 34.51 knots (about 40.5mph) and a time of three days, twelve hours and twelve minutes westbound. In her day, her propulsion systems were a closely-guarded government secret!  In practice she made the same five-day run that was normal at the time, in part because her older consort, the America could not keep pace with her.

The United States closed out the Atlantic express service for United States Lines in 1969 after a variety of labor problems and competition from the airlines made her unprofitable. She was laid up near her birthplace in Hampton Roads, Virginia, for over 12 years.

Then, she was purchased for use as a cruise ship and changed hands several times. She went to Turkey for a time, at which point all of her fittings and non-structural interior walls were removed. This was necessary, because in order to make her more fireproof, her builders had filled the ship with asbestos!

In 1996, the ship was towed back to the United States and tied up at Philadelphia, where she remains. A great deal of speculation surrounds her future. In 2003, she was purchased by Norwegian Cruise Lines, for possible use with their new American-flagged subsidiary. Although she is small by current standards and refitting her into a modern cruise ship would probably cost more than building a new vessel, she has an advantage a newbuild cannot obtain: she was built in the US, which means she can carry passengers between American ports without calling abroad. Line officials warned purists that they might have to modify the ship beyond recognition to make her profitable.

In the end, this was determined not to be feasible, and the possibility loomed that she would be scrapped. Luckily, through the work of Gibb’s granddaughter and others, the United States Conservancy was able to purchase the ship and buy her some time while various plans as a static attraction are considered.  I encourage you to explore this unique opportunity to preserve a piece of our nation’s heritage and get involved if you are able!

The crime thriller Dead Man Down (2013), starring Colin Farrell, includes scenes that were shot on board the SS United States. The film features an unnamed abandoned ship in a New York dockyard where the hero’s brother is being held by kidnappers, but the scenes were actually filmed in Philadelphia where the SS United States was berthed.