United States Laid Up in Philadelphia
This review is written by Amy Blume.

On May 13th, 2010, my family was on the east coast driving from Anapolis, Maryland, to New York City, which provided an unprecedented opportunity for me to stop by one of our nation's landmarks.  Or rather, a seemingly abandoned piece of history that should be considered one of our nation's valuable landmarks, but instead is a ship caught in a kind of purgatory, halfway between salvation and the scrapyard.

United States is a tribute to the cold war.  A ship made of all fireproof materials, her top speed a closely guarded secret for dozens of years.  She represents a world that those of us born in later times cannot imagine, when World War
II was not so far in the past and communist USSR seemed to threaten the very existence of mankind.  The ship was designed by the Gibbs brothers and began her life at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company on February 8, 1950 for United States Lines as their flagship, with help from the US Navy, who were inspired by the number of troops Queen Mary had carried during the war.  At 53, 329gt, she was the largest in the fleet and delivered on June 21, 1952.  Extraordinary in every way, she was light for her size, made almost exclusively of aluminum instead of all heavier steel of her foreign rivals as well as United States Lines' sister ships, and her design included conversion to armored cruiser or hospital ship should another major war break our.  Being fire-resistent, the only wood onboard being a fireproof Grand Piano.  On July 3rd, 1952, she made her maiden crossing from New York to Southampton and captured the much-coveted Blue Riband from Queen Mary, who had held it the longest.  From Ambrose Rock lightship to Bishop Rock it took three days, ten hours and forty minutes at an average speed of 35.39 knots.  On her return journey, she broke her own record, making the trip in three days, twelve hours and twleve minutes.  With the advent of flights, the Blue Riband lost its charm and ships took a more leisurely stroll across, although the eastbound record was broken in 1990 by a catamaran of all things.  During winter months, her crossings included Bremerhaven, West Germany.  In 1961 her gross tonnage was reduced to 51,988gt.  The following year, US measurement had her as 44,893 which was again reduced five years later to 38,216gt.  Things looked bleak like for all transatlantic liners and she was unwittingly to become another victim of the jet age.  Her final crossing was in 1969 and from November 8th that year, was laid up at Newport News after going for routine drydocking, during which time the line made the decision to withdraw her from service.  She was bought by the US Maritime Administration in 1973 and laid up at Norfolk, Va.  Despite being for sale many years, retention of the US flag for future cruising was a stipulation and most likely why she is now a rusting, empty hulk.  Hope first arrived of her salvation in 1978 when United States Cruises Inc. of Seattle bought her, with the second instalment due three years later.  In 1983 tenders were submitted by shipyards in the US and Europe to carry out her refitting as a cruise liner but despite a contract being signed between the owner and Howaladtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG in 1984, nothing happened except an auction of her remaining fixtures and fittings.  On March 4, 1989, she was moved to Newport News and remained laid up, continuing to rust.  Every plan considered came to nothing, even though she was yet again bought in 1992 and towed to Turkey then the Ukraine for asbestos removal.  With no firm agreement reached in the US for her to return to work as a viable vessel, she was laid up in her present home at Pier 94 in Philadelphia from 1996.  She was successfully placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 by the US United States Preservation Society, Inc. before new hope arrived in 2003 when Star Cruises, the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, bought her in 2003, stating they would have her sail once more as part of their NCL America project. They also bought the then Oceanic (Independence) with the same idea in mind.  Sadly it was another false dawn.  Independence is currently languishing off Alang and taking on water, while the United States has been rumored for sale since 2009.  A survey deemed the flagship to be in good condition but rather than get on with rebuilding her, they instead transferred one of their own then added Pride of America (a hull they'd bought when a plan by a new company foundered when they went bankrupt) and Pride of Hawai'i to the runs.  Since they publicly stated Norway didn't fit their image, it is a mystery how either United States or Independence would without massive exterior restructuring since they weren't cruise ships.  The United States Conservancy have worked hard to save the ship and buy her but it's a long, hard process.  There will be a link at the end to their site so you can read how to get involved with the project and donate to the very worthy cause.

As we drove north on I-95 I was excited to see a "new" ship to me.  I knew what she looked like of course, but was still taken a little aback when I caught sight of her doube stacks from the roadway.  For a moment it wasn't the peeling paint I saw, but her red, white and blue stacks standing proudly in spite of all the time that has passed, as if she was ready to leave port in an instant.  As we got closer you could sense the power there still - though her engines have been silent for decades now - it seems to exist in the very lines of her profile, the upright mast on her foremost deck.
 I made my usual rounds, trying to find interesting angles to photograph her from, angles that don't show you the Wendy's fast food restaurant, the IKEA, the shipping containters and trucks that move around her linear bulk as if ants before a stallion that waits patiently to be given its reins.  Slowly a change came over me.  Before I saw her, I wanted the SSUS, as she's affectionately called, to be saved because as a perennial student I can understand that we are doomed to repeat history if we don't remember it.  I understood what she represented as an engineering achievement.  I love ocean liners in general, so that every ship saved is part of the story that I love and that is protected.  But now, having seen her there, and wanting to touch the cold hull, imagining what it must have been like to stand there aboard her at her incredible top speed flying across the Atlantic, it was so sad to drive away and leave her behind.

United States is one of my ships now and I urge all of you to go see her if you can, donate something, anything to try to help in the preservation of this great ship.  Because no ship lasts forever, but while we have her, our self respect as a nation, or if you are not from the United States as ship enthusiasts alone, should lead us to do better by this wonderful Lady.

Amazing, on the 1st July, 2010, pre-empting an event to celebrate 58 years since her maiden crossing, it was annoucned NCL had agreed to sell the ship to the Conservancy at a loss.  To see some pictures of the Independence before she left San Franciso, click here.  Or to read more about this grand Lady and how you can help save her, go to the S.S. United States Conservancy.


© Amy Blume 13th & 22nd May 2010
Not to be reproduced without permission