The BIG U: Turn Of Events?

“With redevelopment goals closer than ever to coming to fruition”, the SS United States Conservancy’s Director, Susan Gibbs (granddaughter of the legendary ship’s designer, William Francis Gibbs), shared in a conference call to the conservancy’s board members and key supporters on Friday that “we are nonetheless closer than ever to losing the ship”. Gibbs has worked tirelessly for over a decade in efforts to find a new role for the historic liner, nicknamed “The Big U”, which has been idle since 1969.

SS United States Conservancy

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SS UNITED STATES at Philadelphia. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2012.

With monthly bills of over $60,000 to keep the former United States Lines flagship berthed, secure and insured at its current Philadelphia location, there is just enough funding to keep her in place through the end of October. Various campaigns to save the ship have been ongoing in one form or another for decades, from both the prior, now defunct, SS United States Foundation and the SS United States Conservancy.

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SS UNITED STATES at Philadelphia. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2012.

The Conservancy is bound by confidentiality agreements with potential developers who have for nearly a year invested some $500,000 into the project. Gibbs was able to share that two locations have been selected for the re purposed ship to serve as a combination hotel and convention center and that rebuilding estimates have been culled from leading shipyards. “But if it doesn’t come together by the end of the month, it would be irresponsible for us to continue without a contingency plan.” That contingency plan would be to put the ship up for sale and the only likely viable buyers at this point would be scrap brokers.

Built in 1952, the 53,330 gross ton, 1,928-passenger SS UNITED STATES was the largest passenger ship ever constructed in the U.S. and to this day retains the speed record as the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic, which it did at an average speed of 35.59 knots on her maiden voyage. No liner or cruise ship has ever come close to challenging that record.

Felled by jet travel and high operating costs, the UNITED STATES was laid up in 1969 and kept in mothballs at Norfolk and later, Newport News, Virginia, until being sold to Richard Hadley, a Seattle-based developer with plans to return the ship to cruise service in 1978. In 1984, prior to an intended rebuilding, the ship’s vintage interiors were sold at auction. Eventually, Hadley’s plans were shelved and the ship was sold to Fred Mayer’s Marmara Marine in 1992. In 1994, the UNITED STATES was towed off to Turkey and the Ukraine for removal of her asbestos. The gutted and stripped ship was towed back to the U.S., arriving in Philadelphia in the summer of 1996.

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SS UNITED STATES at Philadelphia. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2012.

In 2003, Norwegian Cruise Line purchased the UNITED STATES for its American division but after those plans were dropped, they agreed to sell her for half the scrap market price to the Conservancy, which took ownership in 2011. Since then, the Conservancy’s grass roots efforts to raise funding and awareness, coupled with large donations from private entities, have kept the ship afloat.

“After all this, it would be inconceivable for her to go down”, Gibbs stated. “It’s not over. This month is going to be intense.”


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