By: Peter Paul
Photo courtesy Nick Landiak.
Thus, the “Big U” plied the waters of the Atlantic, ferrying the wealthy and gaining fame thus, but paying her way with the more modest fares drawn from the rest of us. Below decks, small and cramped, cabins were a sort of commercial “steerage”, yet by my “standards” then, more than adequate. These crossings signaled what was thought to be the start of a long history for her, but the times, as they say, were a-changing. They changed more quickly than anyone ever imagined.
People’s ever-faster lifestyles spelled the doom of the SS United States (and others of her kind) and her removal from active service. Impatience “to get there”, (as opposed to appreciating the journey), coupled with the price of travel, the advent of the commercial jet liner and the expense of keeping her massive machinery running, eventually became too much for the shipping line. Her last voyage, taken just seventeen years later, in 1969, ended with her decommissioning at a berth at the Newport News Shipyards, Virginia, which had built her. There she stayed, tied up, a former greyhound of the seas, leashed to the dock, for all the years until 1996, when she was moved to Philadelphia, which is where she still lies in wait.
This ignominious ending was only the beginning of another phase of her “life”, a time of slow decay, a ransacking of her interior and utter neglect due to zero maintenance. Anyone who has ever seen a fine ship turned derelict knows whereof I speak: there is a sadness to the sight that sinks to the heart of those of us who love ships. It sometimes seems as if some small piece of ourselves, our soul if you will, has died too. It may be overstated, but the sight makes you want to cry.
Slowly though, over time, the public, perhaps not quite willing to say goodbye just quite yet, showed an interested in saving her. The SS United States Conservancy was organized to save her, with the express mission of returning the ship to her former glory. Small at first, the Conservancy eventually commanded thousands of members and attracted the attention of the media. This attention came in the form of newscasts, feature articles and TV specials and a full length documentary narrated by no less an icon than Walter Cronkite, a newscaster who once held the unquestioned title of “the most trusted man in America” – an honorarium bestowed on very few people in my lifetime.
The internet, now of age, publicized her fate. Along the way, the ship had been purchased by several private investors for salvage value. They had high hopes, big dreams and in the end, less money. It was obvious to anyone with a knowledge of ships, especially one this size, that restoration to modern standards would come at a steep price. Estimates vary, but $500 million could not be ruled out. Efforts were made to interest the same Defense establishment that helped build the ship, to help secure her future by granting her status as an Historical Landmark and perhaps share in her rebuilding, but the love of ships and history proved unpersuasive.
Funds are always short, even in this time of stimulus money and memory is even shorter. Her benefactors inside the Congress were largely gone; her official “fanbase” among our politicians could not hold sway, or better said, showed no interest at all. She wound up becoming a Registered Historical Landmark, but sans the funds to do anything with her. A halfway measure, if there ever was one. The spirit, this time, could not be roused.
She had gone to one final auction and had caught the attention of a major cruise line, which won the bid and intended to refit the ship to its former glory if at all possible.
Check back for the next installment of “SS United States: Soul of a Nation.”