SS United States
A Brief History of the SS United States
A SHIPIS BORN 1946-1952
March 1946. United States Lines president John Franklin and naval architect William Francis Gibbs meet at United States Lines company headquarters in New York and agree to build nothing less than the “Greatest ship in the world’. The new liner would posses unsurpassed speed and capable of winning the coveted prize for speed crossing the Atlantic ocean, the Blue Riband.
In selecting Gibbs Franklin hired a Harvard dropout one time lawyer, and self-taught naval architect who, despite his lack of formal training, made the cover of Time magazine as America’s premier maritime architect.
For the United States, Gibbs used a time-tested formula for maximum speed. Combine all-out driving power with light displacement and a long slim hull. For lightness, he used aluminum in the superstructure. For speed, Gibbs installed high-pressure steam machinery developing 240,000 shaft horsepower propelling a ship of 53,300 gross weight tons at destroyer like speed.
Gibb’s design produced the formula 1 of ocean liners. On here first day of the maiden voyage the United States covereds 606 miles at a speed of 34.11 knots (39.8 mph). No ship had ever sailed that fast. Over the next two days the captain kept up the record pace.
On July 7 1952 the United States cut 10 hours off the Atlantic speed record set 14 years earlier by the Cunard Liner Queen Mary. The crossing time from New York to the finish line at Bishop’s Rock UK, a little over 3 days and then hours at an average speed of 35.59 knots (1). The ship and her crew were celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. 150,000 New Yorkers turned out to give the captain and chief engineer a Broadway ticker-tape parade.
SMOOTH SAILING 1952-1958
With her good looks, celebrity status, and luxury, the ship had the right mix of 1950s glamour to attract passengers including the rich and famous. The ship’s passenger list included Hollywood stars such as Bob Hope, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne. Royalty included the King and Queen of Greece, Prince Rainier of Monaco, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
TROUBLED WATERS. 1958-1969.
By 1958 the ship started to lose passengers to the airlines. The loss of revenue accelerated with the introduction of jet airliners. by 1969 the losses became unsustainable. On the morning of September 7, 1969, the United States docked at her New York City pier and discharged her passengers for the last time. Later that evening, she departed for Newport News, Virginia, and permanent layup.
THE SLOW DECLINE 1969-PRESENT
The United States Maritime Administration took ownership and put it up for sale. When the cruise market took off in the 1970’s, so did the hope that the S.S. United States could be converted into a cruise ship. Retired transatlantic passenger liners were a good buy and attracted cruise passengers who had never sailed on the transatlantic legends. In the late 1970s, the Norwegian-flag shipping company Kloster Group sent a team of engineers to inspect the United States as well as the France. They found they found the French liner more suitable for cruising.
Over the years attempts by various owners to convert the United States for cruising have not materialized. See Cruise ship United States in tab above.
Today the United States is docked in Philadelphia. See the United States lives on tab above. With a bit of Luck and Divine providence, the United States has survived fifty-three years of various owners and close calls with the scrappers. she was stripped of furnishings by previous owners. Currently under the ownership of the SS United States Conservancy. They are a dedicated group of volunteers led by William Francis Gibbs granddaughter, Susan Gibbs. They are seeking to convert the ship into a mixed-used development in an urban waterfront setting
For more information on the current status of the United States, Visit the SS United States Conservancy.
The United States is currently docked in Philadelphia. For an update on her status visit the SS United States Conservancy
S.S. United States at a Glance
- The United States was the last of the Titanic style three class compartmentalized ships. 904 first class, 524 Cabin, 554 Tourist = 1,982 – crew
- From breakfast to late night buffet the galleys turned out 9,000 meals per day
- Provisions for a round trip included 216 pounds of caviar,11,00 pounds of prime ribs of beef 15,000 lb. of poultry, 5,820 dozen eggs, a ton of cheese, 12,468 quarts of milk.
- Lenght 990 feet, 110 feet longer than the Titanic.
- Verified speed 38.32 knots (44mph). Unverified maximum speed 44 knots (51 mph) To this day she keeps her record as the fastest passenger liner.
- Horsepower 241,000 – Height keel to the top of her smokestacks, 175 feet, the height of a twelve-story building – 53,300 gross weight tons
- Service life 1952 to 1969 sailing for United States Lines.
- Current owner The SS United States Conservancy – Current location, Delaware River Philadelphia PA.
The Passenger Experience
Step aboard for a first-class sailing experience.
In 1954, the minimum first-class fare on the SS United States from New York to Southampton was $365 ($3,783 in 2022). For that price, passengers sailed on a floating luxury resort offering the refinement, service, and conveniences of the finest American hotels. They enjoyed expansive deck space and elegant public rooms. First-class had the best location, amidship, away from the vibration of churning propellers and the impact of waves slamming into the bow. It was a wonderful way to travel, civilized, luxurious, entertaining, relaxing, and friendly.
Photo: SS United States Merchant Marine Academy Museum.
Setting the tone
Pursers on the SS United States were versatile, being able to greet royalty and run bingo games with equal ease. Chief purser Clarence “Bob” Gehrig had an incredible memory. A passenger might board the ship after a number of years. He would welcome them by name, recalling some special item that anyone else would have forgotten long ago. The friendly greeting made passengers feel as though they were his personal guests.  Pursers were also adept at fixing complaints, accommodating VIP parties, or having trouble in the dog kennels. “If anything goes wrong – it’s our necks,” according to executive purser Henry Moreno.
The SS United States defined America on the high seas in terms of decor, atmosphere, food, and service. Passengers traveled on a happy ship, with an informal seagoing elegance that made them feel at home. “She was not as stuffy as the big British liners,” according to assistant purser David Fitzgerald. “Many passengers took her out of a patriotic spirit. Many felt they would be better understood on an American ship.”
After a long sojourn in Europe passengers walking up the gangplank of the SS United States were back in the USA. The ship offered a slice of American life at sea with first-run undubbed movies, the latest hit tunes, pizza, and milkshakes. The menu contained familiar dishes such as Long Island duckling, New York strip steak, Maine lobster and sugar-cured ham, and apple pie. Where else could you order a Depression-inspired dish of vegetables with a poached egg named ‘vegetables a la Hoover’, or a healthy “Clara Barton Salad.”
 S.S. United States William H Miller p108
Running a 5 Star Hotel At Sea
Chief Steward Herman Mueller had one of the toughest jobs, making certain the SS United States lived up to its designation as a luxury liner. The affable veteran started his seagoing career as a mess boy. Thirty years later he was in charge of a crew that included 760 men and women out of the total crew of 1,050. His share of supervisory responsibilities included all food service, hotel services, and keeping the ship spic and span. He did the latter so well that the ship always smelled and looked as new as the day it left the shipyard for the delivery voyage to New York.
Mueller also set the tone for passenger services, based on courtesy, a desire to be of service, combined with a dignified manner, and pride in a job well done. Good manners were also important and the following lapses were to be avoided; chewing gum, cleaning nails or combing hair, picking of teeth, and arguing with passengers.
For the most part, his staff followed through with personal touches that made the voyage memorable. For example, the bounty of food would occasionally overwhelm immigrant families who had endured the hunger and deprivations of post-war Europe. Not taking any chance of going hungry between meals a young family returned from the dining room with rolls and fruit stuffed in their pockets. The attentive cabin steward made sure that each day they had a fresh basket of fruit and pastries. A four-month-old baby woke up hungry in the middle of the night. Responding to the call for assistance, a nurse in a white uniform showed up at the cabin with a baby bottle, wrapped in a white damask cloth, set in a champagne bucket. These were the touches that made the SS United States so special.
A golf lesson on the SS United States
SS United States vs Queen Mary 2
It’s interesting to compare the express Liner SS United States and the liner/cruise ship R.M.S Queen Mary 2. They are both ocean liners, built to maintain the schedule and handle the rigors of sailing year round on the North Atlantic Ocean. That’s where the similarities end and their profiles show the difference..
Built to survive financially Queen Mary 2 is no speed queen. Speed cost money and balcony cabins produce revenue, thus she is a combination cruise ship and ocean liner.
Built to serve as a troop ship and ship of state, the United States is a sleek racing machine. Balconies and speed don’t mix when a ship is heading into a cold wind at 32 knots (36.8 mph) At that speed it wasn’t even safe to open a porthole.
Having sailed on both I offer the following comparison in the style of ‘Comparo’ from Car and Driver magazine
Comparing the SS United States and the Queen Mary 2
R.M.S. QUEEN MARY 2
+ The British persona, stabilized ride, getting there is still half the fun. A floating maritime museum. The last alternative to the indignities of air travel.
– Its no ocean greyhound but who cares. Strong family resemblance to a Carnival cruise ship. Miss those ‘Bon Voyage parties.’
= Transportation for those who still believe that staggering round a transatlantic liner in a dinner jacket with a martini is the normal, rational, reasonable way to cross the Atlantic. A grand ocean liner that preserves In style and spirit the classic the rituals of the traditional transatlantic crossing.
• Gross tonnage: 151,400
• Horsepower: 157,168
• Top speed 29.6 knots
• Service speed: 26 knots
• Passengers: 2,620
SS UNITED STATES
+ American in style and spirit. Speed and good looks, the ‘Concorde’ of the North Atlantic liners. Friendly personal service. Living in an unplugged world, no cells, TV, internet. A thrilling ride.
– The roller coaster ride in heavy weather (it was still a thrill), Titanic style class division isolated passengers and cut the ship up. Required a generous taxpayer subsidy to operate. Antiseptic luxury. Two Star accommodations in Tourist
= An American original. To sail on her was to experience a superb sailing machine with dashing good looks and comfort of an ocean going yacht. A technological marvel loaded with ‘Wow’ factor.
• Gross tonnage: 53,300
• Horsepower: 240,000
• Top speed: 42 knots
• Service speed: 32 knots
• Passengers: 2,008
Views From the Past, Hope for the Future
The SS United States interiors then and now
The SS United States interiors were stripped to remove asbestos. The art, furniture, silverware, navigation equipment went under the auction hammer to pay for docking fees. Yet despite her peeling paint and bare interiors, she maintains her dignity ready for a comeback as a hotel/museum, and event center. The United States is looking forward to the sounds of footsteps on her deck, dancing in the ballroom, and a chance to tell her story to future generations.
Views from the past and hope for the future show what once was and her current state in Philadelphia.
Her future lies with a dedicated group of fans fighting to save the ship. Follow their progress go to the SS United States Conservancy.