March 22, 2009
Travelers driving south on I-195 in Philadelphia might glance to their left and see a sight both thrilling and melancholy – the sepulchral remains of the SS United States, mouldering away at Pier 82. This is the passenger ship that in 1952 crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Britain to New York in three days, 12 hours, 12 minutes – averaging 38 knots. That broke the record held by RMS Queen Mary, which is now a hotel in Long Beach, California. The United States record still stands.
It was sometime around 1952 when my elementary school class took a trip to see the United States in her berth in New York. At that age, I hadn’t been anywhere outside of Totowa but Lavalette, Seaside Heights, and Erskine Lake, so this colossal ship made a lasting impression on me. I would be married with children before I set foot on a ship again. Ignorant and inexperienced as I was, it had never occurred to me that a ship would be that big, or that it would have amenities such as a movie theater
My son, from an early age, has been knowledgeable about passenger ships, and he asked me once, when we had plans to visit Norfolk, if we could visit the United States, which was then lying there in a derelict state. That wasn’t difficult to arrange, as it turned out. I was surprised, though, when we went down to the pier one day and were casually told by a caretaker to go on aboard and look around. Chris and I were the only human beings on the vessel, and we made the most of the freedom, looking into every corner. She had been stripped, but there were a few scattered scraps of her past, and Chris came away with a table linen with the ship’s green-and-white checked pattern, and a menu. One sight we were unprepared for was a coffin – held in reserve, I suppose, in case one of the kitchens had a bad night.
Among the sights was the movie theater, now in tatters, that had enthralled me when I was about the age Chris was when we went to Norfolk. There have been several reports over the years of the ship being sold, sometimes with the exciting insinuation that she might be restored and returned to service. The Norwegian Cruise Line was the most recent buyer with dreams of bringing the historic vessel back to life, but this is hardly the economic climate for such an undertaking, and it will not happen. Lovers of the United States are worried again about the real spectre of the scrap yard. There are organizations that are devoted to preservation of the grand old ship, including the SS United States Foundation and the SS United States Conservancy. Dan McSweeney, vice president of the conservancy, recently wrote about the plight of the United States and his vision of its possible future – including a role as either a floating hotel or a ship devoted to international relief services. McSweeney thinks in terms of a public-private partnership to achieve such a goal, probably a hard sell at this moment in history, but a dream we’re not embarrassed to dream with him.
Dan McSweeney’s column is at this link: