SS United States, courtesy of the Mark Perry Collection

The SS United States is 990 feet long – about five city blocks! If you stood her on end, she’d rise nearly as high as New York’s Chrysler Building or Philadelphia’s Comcast Center.

You think the Titanic was huge? The SS United States is over 100 feet longer.

The SS United States designer, William Francis Gibbs, wanted his ship to be fireproof, so he insisted that no wood be used in her construction or fittings. One exception: the ship’s grand pianos were made from a rare fire-resistant mahogany.  A Steinway piano was tested in advance by dousing it with gasoline and lighting a match. (It didn’t burn.)

More aluminum was used in the SS United States than for any previous construction project in history. Why? To reduce her weight and make her the fastest ocean liner of all time.

The SS United States was designed to be just wide enough (101 feet) so it could pass through the locks of the Panama Canal with two feet of clearance on either side.

SS United States under construction, 1951

The design of the SS United States was so innovative that the details of her construction were kept top-secret. She was the first passenger liner to be built almost entirely in drydock – safely out of the public eye.

Five days before her maiden voyage in July 1952, the SS United States was opened to the public at her berth in New York. Some 70,000 people turned out to see the dazzling new ship that day – more than a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium! The line to go aboard stretched for fourteen blocks.

How fast was the SS United States? During her speed trials, she sliced through the waves at an astonishing 38.32 knots – 44 miles per hour!

SS United States on her sea trials

Thanks to her reduced weight and powerful engines, the SS United States could go almost as fast in reverse as earlier liners (like the Titanic) could go forward.

On her maiden voyage, the SS United States shattered the trans-Atlantic speed record in both directions. She was the first American ship in 100 years to capture the coveted Blue Riband (awarded to the fastest trans-Atlantic ocean liner). Amazingly, she still holds the record more than 60 years later.

Built to be converted from luxury liner to troop transport in the event of war, the SS United States was able to carry 15,000 troops 10,000 miles without refueling.

The galleys aboard the SS United States could turn out up to 9,000 individual meals a day!

SS United States galley staff

For her maiden voyage, the SS United States stocked 7,935 quarts of ice cream and a whopping 500 pounds of caviar.

Four U.S. presidents sailed aboard the SS United States: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. (The youthful Clinton, fresh out of Georgetown, was on his way to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.)

The SS United States carried an impressive roster of luminaries on nearly every voyage. Famous passengers included Marlon Brando, Coco Chanel, Sean Connery, Gary Cooper, Walter Cronkite, Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Marlon Brando and Salvador Dali on board

A famous passenger of a different sort sailed aboard the SS United States in 1963: the Mona Lisa. Leonardo’s masterpiece was traveling to the U.S. for special exhibitions in Washington and New York. (She made it back to the Louvre in remarkably good shape for a 460-year-old woman.)

The SS United States was retired from active service in 1969. The age of the great ocean liners had come to a close, doomed by increasingly fast and affordable trans-Atlantic airline flights.

Since 1996, the SS United States has spent her retirement years at a dock on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.  As of 2013, the ship has been in Philadelphia for 17 years – the same number of years she plied the seas.

Despite her faded appearance, the SS United States remains structurally sound to this day – a testament to the design, materials and workmanship that made her the greatest American passenger liner of all time.

The SS United States today in Philadelphia