What’s next for the SS United States?

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When people loved ocean liners and were sad to see them go. The RMS “Mauretania” sails to the breakers yard, 1935.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, lover of ships and the sea, was greatly distressed when he heard Cunard had sold its venerable former flagship RMS Mauretania for scrap in 1935.  Mauretania entered service in 1907 and held the Atlantic speed record for over two decades. By the early 1930s, however, the aging British ship could not compete with newer, faster giants from Germany, Italy, and France. The Great Depression had devastated the transatlantic business, and older ships suffered the most.  

As the rust-streaked Mauretania sailed to a Scottish breaker’s yard, President Roosevelt penned the essay “The Queen with the Fighting Heart.” He entrusted it to a friend, who promised to open it only after the president’s death.  Here is an excerpt:  

"The Mauretania always fascinated me with her graceful, yacht-like lines … her appearance of power and good breeding. But why couldn’t the British remember the Mauretania’s faithfulness –taken her out to sea and sunk her whole – giving her a Viking’s funeral, this ship with a fighting heart? It would be more inspiring to those who come hereafter to know that a ship that was a ship received decent treatment at her death."

In the coming months, I hope that no such eulogy – presidential or not -- will be composed for the SS United States, our own “Queen with a Fighting Heart.”

Over the past five years, I have chronicled the story of the great ocean liner SS United States, which has been moored on our Delaware River since 1996.  Now a fixture on our waterfront, the Big Ship has come full circle: she was designed by a Philadelphian, built in Virginia, sailed out of New York, and now has come to rest – rusting and gutted – in the city of her designer’s birth.

Two years ago, this American technological icon was saved from certain scrapping by a $5.8 million grant from philanthropist Gerry Lenfest. His gift allowed the SS United States Conservancy to purchase the ship for $3.5 million. The remainder paid for 20 months of dockage, insurance, and other maintenance costs.  

Lenfest tasked the nonprofit with raising the funds needed to redevelop the ship as a floating attraction in a major American city.  

Three weeks ago, Lenfest’s grant ran out. Since then, there has been intense public speculation about the ship’s future. The sixty year saga of the greatest ocean liner ever built in America can now only end in only two ways: the announcement of a real estate deal or sale for scrap.  

The SS United States Conservancy has been tight-lipped about the ship’s immediate fate. In an end-of-the-year statement, Executive Director Susan Gibbs wrote: “While the Conservancy has been making progress every day toward securing a sustainable future for the SS United States, the vessel’s maintenance costs are formidable. We have moved closer to securing a deal for the ship’s redevelopment, but terms are still being negotiated and success is not guaranteed. Without a major infusion of funds in the coming months, the vessel’s future is in dire jeopardy.”

The Conservancy has also launched an online initiative called, which allows people from around the world to purchase sections of the ship and share their stories while raising money for the ship’s restoration. An innovative blend of historic preservation and micro-investing, it is modeled on how Lee Iacocca raised grass roots funding to save the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in the 1980s.

Although avoiding specifics, the Conservancy reports that it is currently working with potential developers, who if successful will finance the conversion of the SS United States into a permanently moored hotel, convention center, and museum. Gibbs states that they are “making steady progress in both cities (Chester, Pa., and New York) and we will be able to offer a more detailed update in the very near future.”  According to a Conservancy source, New York is the most likely destination of a restored SS United States.

The SS “United States” up-close and personal: Steven Ujifusa discusses the ship during the August 1, 2012 PlanPhilly Delaware River cruise.

Although there are many who hope to see the ship return to commercial service, such an outcome is highly unlikely. Even though her hull is structurally sound after four decades of idleness, the cost of re-engining and retrofitting her to meet current Safety of Life at Sea guidelines would be prohibitive.

Compared to today’s cruise ships, the SS United States is relatively small. Built for speed on the treacherous North Atlantic, she does not have private balconies, soaring auditoriums, outdoor swimming pools, rock-climbing walls that today’s cruise ship travelers take for granted.

Her steam turbines, the most powerful engines ever placed in a commercial vessel, are not fuel efficient by today’s standards. She is an ocean liner that sailed the Atlantic before the jet age, able carry 2,000 passengers in elegance, comfort, and safety one destination to another as fast as possible. Her like will never be seen again.

The SS United States -- Philadelphia’s “Queen with a Fighting Heart” -- has escaped the breakers torch many times during her forty years of lay-up.  It would be a tragedy comparable to the loss of New York’s Pennsylvania Station fifty years ago should this ship end her career being wrenched apart on a Texas beach. Regardless of her ultimate fate, I believe that the story of this ship, her brilliant designer, and the age made her possible will continue to inspire future generations of Americans.

We will have Christmas every day, if our nation’s ship comes in.

Franklin’s Favorite: the RMS Mauretania in her prime.

Steven B. Ujifusa is author of A Man and His Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the SS United States, published by Simon & Schuster this past July.  He serves on the Advisory Council of the SS United States Conservancy. The Wall Street Journal has recently selected A Man and His Ship as one of its top ten nonfiction books of 2012.  It is available at all bookstores and on For more information, visit

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Steve Ujifusa

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