All Hands on Deck for the SS United States

Posted on: May 13th, 2013 by Katherine Flynn 12 Comments

The SS United States was built in 1952 and designed by William Francis Gibbs to capture the trans-Atlantic speed record. Credit: SS United States Conservancy
The SS United States was built in 1952 and designed by William Francis Gibbs to capture the trans-Atlantic speed record.

The luxury liner SS United States still holds the world record for the fastest westbound transatlantic crossing -- 3 days, 12 hours, and 12 minutes.

These days, it’s not doing much travel from one side of the world to the other. It’s been docked since 1969, biding its time until it is either sold for scrap, or rehabilitated and given new life.

Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, the original designer of the ship, describes the United States as “the most famous ship that didn’t sink.”

“Most of the famous vessels are known for tragedy,” she says. “This vessel is known for its success. It smashed the speed record.” It also transported passengers such as John F. Kennedy, Salvador Dalí, and Marlon Brando from the new world to the old, and back again.

In recent years, the Conservancy has been hard at work raising money and awareness in an attempt to see the ship redeveloped in a way that is worthy of its storied history. In late March, the group launched an urgent fundraising appeal, hoping to raise $500,000 in the next few months.

A plaque on the SS United States commemorates the ship’s designers and builders. Credit: SS United States Conservancy
A plaque on the SS United States commemorates the ship’s designers and builders.

“We’re in a race against time,” says Gibbs. The ship currently runs up a bill of about $80,000 a month in insurance policies, maintenance, security costs, and pier rental in its current location at Pier 84 in South Philadelphia. It’s been gutted of its lavish furnishings and interiors, and its hull is rusting. The current campaign has raised about $100,000 so far.

Gibbs thinks that it’s essential to save the United States not only because of its place in history, but also because of what the 990-foot-long ship symbolizes -- American technological prowess and ingenuity. The passenger liner, built with monetary support from the U.S. government, also had the capability to be turned into a military vessel if necessary.

“We don’t have too many of those, these unifying, truly national icons that represent the nation’s greatest technological achievements,” she says.  “It’s on that par.”

Captain Alex Keisch, who served on the United States during his time as a cadet at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and went on to captain ten different ships for 3 different companies, describes his brief experience on the ship as impactful. “It’s like dating a beautiful, famous woman,” he says. “I had one date with her, and it was memorable. I carry that memory with me.”

The SS United States is currently docked at Pier 84 in Philadelphia. Credit: SS United States Conservancy
The SS United States is currently docked at Pier 84 in Philadelphia.

Future development plans for the ship include repurposing it into a stationary entertainment complex, possibly in New York, Philadelphia, or Miami. To date, the Conservancy has raised close to $6.9 million toward the vessel's purchase and preservation through various fundraisers and a crowd-funding site,, where donors can purchase virtual inches of the ship. This also includes $5.8 million in grants that the ship received from a local philanthropist last November, allowing it to be berthed for 20 months.

A source of frustration for Gibbs has been the fact that the project, which would generate both jobs and tax revenue, hasn’t received public funding. “We feel like there certainly is an opportunity for political leaders to associate themselves with this patriotic project,” she says. “It advances maritime preservation in a very important way, and it’s an economic development opportunity.”

But maybe the most important aspect of this campaign will be educating the public about a ship that, at one time, represented America’s might to the world.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores and uncovering the stories behind historic places. Follow her on Twitter at @kateallthetime.


12 Responses

  1. Calvin

    May 13, 2013

    One of my fears is that in the short-sighted political rancor of our times we will lose many of our historic sites and icons to an inglorious fate.

  2. Diane

    May 16, 2013

    She is quite a sleek beauty!

  3. Bob

    May 30, 2013

    Sailed on her in 62. Sad that a national icon which still holds the Westbound speed record sits and rusts while we throw billions of dollars at countries that want nothing to do with us. Wake up America

  4. Don

    June 7, 2013

    Restore to Hudson River berth in New York to return to transAtlantic passenger service in competition with Queen Mary II

  5. George Myers

    June 7, 2013

    One of her propellors and history is at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, Bronx in the grounds of the New York State Maritime College, all of its captains, alumni.

    Here are some photos I’d taken:

    I would think it might be better at berth in New York City, therefore.

  6. George Myers

    June 7, 2013

    Sorry here are the specific ones,

  7. Bob Bousquet

    June 7, 2013

    We’ve taken the Queen Mary from the Brits & turned her into a historical maritime showcase in California. It would seem that we could do something along the same lines for this once majestic & speediest of American technology, engineering, & know-how. It would certainly create badly needed skilled jobs for Americans here, & ongoing ones after successful development.

  8. Diane R

    June 7, 2013

    I hope we can save this ship. My uncle sailed on her from New York to England around 1962. I remember boarding the ship and looking around it before it sailed.

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  10. Linda Hargrave

    June 8, 2013

    I’ve worried about this ship forever. I’m glad there is at least a last-ditch effort to save her! I just now tried to make a donation on-line but my computer doesn’t have a Flash Drive. Can someone send me a snail mail address for the organization raising money?


    Linda in Denver

  11. Anne DeFreece

    June 9, 2013

    I sailed on her in April of 1956 from New York to Germany. Quite an experience!! Is it possible to get info on how to donate?

  12. PresNation

    June 11, 2013

    Hi everyone — if you’re interested in donating, please visit the SS United States Conservancy page to give and join:

    Julia Rocchi
    Managing Editor