Category Archives: Maritime Industry

Saying Goodbye to the S.S. United States by Gregory Hilton

The slow death of America’s flagship, the S.S. United States, appears to be at hand. This passenger liner was the fastest ship in the world from 1952 to 1969, and it was the queen of America’s merchant marine. It is also the largest passenger vessel ever constructed in the USA.
Both the S.S. United States and its sister ship, S.S. America, sailed at over 90% capacity throughout the 1950’s, but they became victims of the jet age and labor unrest in the maritime industry. Few people wanted to remain on board for four days when an aircraft could arrive in Europe in seven hours at a considerable cost savings.
After sitting dockside for 40 years, the ship is expected to be sold for scrap in the next few weeks. The bids have already been received. All efforts to convert the ship to other uses have failed. The proposals included a nautical museum, a riverside hotel and convention center, and a humanitarian-relief vessel similar to the S.S. Hope.
The late CBS-TV anchor Walter Cronkite was a 1953 passenger and said looking at the “perfect design” of the ship in her heyday “could thrill you with pride and wonder.” Rumors of the ship’s scrapping were heard in Cronkite’s final years and he called them “a crime against history.”
On its maiden voyage, the S.S. United States smashed the North Atlantic speed record by over 10 hours. “Sorry, old girl,” the then new liner radioed to its defeated rival. The previous record was set in 1938 by the HMS Queen Mary which is now a hotel permanently docked in Long Beach, California.
To this day, the crossing records of the S.S. United States remain unbroken and her top speed was 41 mph, or 35.6 knots. Unlike today’s top-heavy cruise ships, which retreat to the nearest port at the slightest hint of foul weather, the S.S. United States was constructed to press onward at full speed while being lashed by North Atlantic gales.
She carried four U.S. presidents and her passenger logs are filled with the names of mid-century celebrities. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were on board in 1957 along with Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco. They were photographed together around the ship’s first-class kidney-shaped bar, which is now part of a restaurant in Nags Head, N.C. The Duke, a Navy veteran, later wrote a letter marveling at the ability of this 990 foot vessel to be docked without the use of tugboats. This was necessary because tugs in the NYC harbor were out on strike.
The 1952 construction cost was $78 million and the ship benefited from a massive U.S. government subsidy, with the understanding the liner could be requisitioned as a troop transport at a time of war. That happened to the S.S. America during World War II. Along with the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, they were the biggest troopships the world has ever known. The United States could have been refitted to hold as many as 50,000 troops.
The S.S. United States was built to military standards and the ship’s hull design and engines were classified military secrets due to her status as a stand-by troopship. Because it was designed for both navy and commercial use, the United States was a radical departure from every other liner. Her low superstructure and finned smokestacks were designed to minimize wind resistance as she sliced through fierce Atlantic gales.
The ship is bigger than HMS Titanic, but they both had the same class structure. The 2,000 passengers were divided into first, cabin and tourist classes. Each class had its own public rooms and deck spaces. This practice was particularly rigid on British liners but it is no longer used on today’s cruise ships.
This Victorian era holdover was based on the belief that various social classes should not interact with each other. The S.S United States was one of the last three class liners to be constructed. By the 1950s this elitist arrangement was outdated, and was later seen as being socially repugnant.
The elegant ocean liners are almost extinct on the transatlantic routes, but until 1960s they were the primary way Americans went overseas. They were an integral part of high society, and for many years this type of travel was the exclusive province of the elite. Their arrival or departures in Liverpool, Southampton or New York was considered a significant event.
The advantages of jet aircraft are obvious but there is also something to be said for a slower pace which allowed people to make new friendships at a time when cell phones and text messages were not known. No one would turn the clock back on technology, but there were benefits to this bygone era. The Queen Mary 2 is likely to be the last of the great ocean liners, and it is thought the trans-Atlantic market can support no more than one vessel — if that.
A special screening of the award-winning PBS-TV documentary, “SS United States: Lady in Waiting”, will be held at the National Academy Museum (1083 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street in Manhattan) on Thursday, March 11th, 7 p.m., which will followed by a reception and brief remarks by Walter Cronkite IV.