Every so often something so rock and roll comes past our desk that we just can’t pass it up. Recently, NEO Music Scene was given an opportunity to tour a relic from a time long past…and how could we say no?
While having nothing to do with music or Northeast Ohio, this story, of a dying ship slowly rotting away in the Delaware River was something we felt our readers would want to experience and, perhaps, even be moved to help save this old lady.
The SS United States is an ocean liner, reminiscent of the RMS Titanic or Lusitania in the fact that she was large, very fast and considered the most extravagant way to cross the Atlantic.
Born in the shipyards of Newport News, Virginia, she was commissioned with the idea of capturing the Blue Riband, a “medal” that honored the fastest ocean crossing of a transatlantic liner. Held (and swapped back and forth) by giants such as Cunard and the White Star Line, RMS Titanic‘s owners, the medal was bestowed upon the new liner on her maiden voyage. Previously held by the Queen Mary, it was taken by the United States and is still held by her to this day. Her building costs underwritten by the U.S. government, she was built specifically for speed and the idea that she could be converted to a troop transport ship in the event of war. Astonishingly, she never opened her engines up to full speed.
Not once. Even in an almost twenty-year record of service.
After a long and distinguished career, the late 1960s saw ocean travel replaced by much-faster jet airliner travel. Realizing the economic realities, her owners decided to retire her in 1969. She was sold to new owners, who subsequently stripped her fittings away for auction. She was then purchased by a Turkish company, towed to the Ukraine, and gutted to a shell. Nothing remained; even the ship’s wheel was removed. Her four massive screws were unceremoniously stripped from her stern and she sat, dying, in a foreign land. She was then sold again, towed back across the Atlantic and eventually found herself at Philadelphia’s Pier 82.
After recently spending a week on Maryland’s Eastern Shore photographing the famed horses of Assateague Island I received a telephone call from the Washington D.C.-based conservancy. I was offered an opportunity to visit and chronicle the famed ship. Cutting short an ocean-front vacation, I zipped up through the oh-so-boring state of Delaware and ended up at Philadelphia’s re-developed centuries-old commercial waterfront. Where massive docks, warehouses, and port authority offices once resided now stand a revitalized retail-based waterfront. Much like Cleveland’s Steel Yard Commons, a massive IKEA store, a Lowe’s and a Best Buy superstore now inhabit the former site. Where thousands of dock workers once loaded and unloaded ocean-going ships, hundreds of retail employees now hawk unpronounceable Swedish knock-down furniture to hipster twenty-somethings and soccer moms buzzing through the old site in mini vans and Priuses.
I was met by my guide Ray, an employee and maritime savant. His incredible knowledge of the old ship belied his youth. Ray was in his early thirties; he knew every nook and cranny of this ship.
We drove through the port authority security and made our way to the pier. The ship became bigger and bigger as I ambled past her. If the movie Titanic is your only reference to what a large ocean-going vessl may be, then you’d be in for a shock. The rusty shell is huge; she’s almost a thousand feet long and well over a hundred feet wide.
Since 1996 the United States has been berthed on an east-west bearing; the elements, time, and a steady southerly wind haven’t been kind to her. Her port side is chafed; her paint is peeling and the exposed steel is rusting. The starboard side, facing north, has fared a little better. The paint is mostly intact and the rust isn’t as noticeable. On Independence Day, Philadelphia’s fireworks display is best seen from the starboard wing bridge; it’s the best seat in Philly to see the river and sky explode in multi-colored starbursts.
As we boarded the ship through a gangway door, we started our tour at “Broadway,” the port side crew entrance. After signing the insurance no-fault riders we made our way into the bowels of the ship. Boy, they weren’t kidding when they said the ship had been gutted. There was nothing within the interior of the hulk resembling a luxury liner. The walls between the staterooms had been removed. The plumbing fixtures: toilets, sinks, and bath tubs were all missing. As we made our way fore, to the extravagant First Class Lounge, I wish that I had a reference of some sort to gauge what the ship once was. If I had done a little research and found some old photos to contrast to the emptiness that I was now seeing I may have been better able to absorb the sheer grandness of what this old dame once was.
Relying heavily on Ray’s narration, I had to use my imagination to fill in what once was standing before me. In lieu of the massive, dark hole that was the ship’s movie theater I could only imagine that Salvador Dali and Marlon Brando took in a movie in this room as they were making their way back to New York after a time in Europe.
The tour took us to the bridge and the remains of the wheelhouse. The starboard wing bridge has an amazing view of downtown Philly and the Benjamin Franklin bridge. The crow’s nest, a daunting climb up an interior mast of about a hundred steps, seemed too high and dangerous as my expensive camera was swinging back and forth like a pendulum as I attempted the ascent. After about thirty feet of climbing, I thought better of it and returned to the relative safety of the bridge. I cursed myself, as that vista would have been the most stunning view of both the ship and the skyline unfolding before me. Oh well…some things are better left to the imagination.
Unlike the SS Minnow, our three-hour tour ended safely back on terra firma. Before exiting the same gangway we stopped at the stern of the ship; the weathered tar that had covered the deck, much like an industrial roof, had cracked and peeled. The remains of four shuffleboard courts were still visible after almost fifty years of neglect. One of the four massive screws laid on the starboard aft deck, a testament to the sheer power this ship had on the high seas. Once classified as a state secret, the propeller now sits as a roost for seagulls and hawks.
The ship sits, anxiously awaiting its fate. The only other vessel from the “Silver Age” of sailing is the Queen Mary, and she sits, protected and preserved, in Long Beach, California.
The United States almost had a saviour. In October of 2015 she was perilously close to being sent to the scrapyard. A Hail Mary culled together by the conservancy brought the attention of Crystal Cruises; a purchase agreement was drawn up to save the ship, restore her and put her back into service as a passenger cruise liner. After a year-long feasibility study, Crystal Cruises reneged on the purchase, stating that the cost of restoration would be close to a billion dollars. The cruise line made a $350,000.00 donation to the conservancy in an effort to keep her alive just a little while longer.
Her fate seems to be up in the air right now. There have been several recent ideas floated past the conservancy. One is to move her to New York to a more permanent home; rent her former engine rooms out to IT companies to store massive banks of computers in them. The constantly-cold temps of the river water would be a fantastic cooling system for the heat that millions of terabytes generate. It seems like a great idea; the conservancy now needs to find a willing partner in the plan. The upper decks and staterooms would be restored into restaurant, retail and even hotel space.
In the meantime, as you sit in the drive thru of the Wendy’s right off Christopher Columbus Boulevard, the massive liner emerges from behind the fence directly across the street. She’s a reminder of a different era. And, hopefully, a saviour will soon emerge so future generations can explore and enjoy this ship as she was meant to be seen.
We must consider the economic realities of the new century, but too much of America’s cultural history has been lost to neglect. We shouldn’t endorse the loss of such a fine example of 20th century ingenuity and power. Conceived in a time when America was at the height of our economic, engineering and inventive powers, this post-war gem represents everything that truly made this country shine.
Maybe her rescue and rebirth could herald another such time.
To donate to the SS United States’ conservancy, please visit them here.