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.
“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.
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, SaveTheUnitedStates.org, 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.