Save Our Ship: Passionate Preservationists Fight for a National Treasure

SS United States

"This is the most important commercial vessel ever constructed in the U.S.," said retired Coast Guard Officer Stephen Ciccalone, flatly using the present tense as he welcomes me aboard SS United States.

We are standing inside what I have heard described as "the space program of the 1950s," a "national treasure" and an "engineering marvel."

Now, it is a decayed, ghoulish hulk. Stalactites of rust protrude from the overhead. A hastily strung 60-watt light bulb casts a haunting glare, as does a single stream of sunlight through a distant porthole. The bulkhead I'm standing next to was loaded with deadly toxins little more than a decade ago. The opposite wall is lined with hard hats, lanterns and stacks of blank insurance release forms -- the one on top carries my signature.

I petitioned for weeks to come aboard and sign my life away, and I am one of only a handful of people to be granted admission. I am honored, excited and eager to get started.

I am also scared.

July 3, 1952

SS United States departs New York for Southampton. It carries more than 1,700 souls, the weight of a nation's pride and more than a few secrets.

One of them is its twin engine rooms containing Iowa-class battleship steam engines. Another is that the United States' owners on this day fully intend to challenge the trans-Atlantic speed record.

The ship's captain, Commodore Harry Manning, is cagey, saying only that he will "keep to schedule." But, as the ship crosses Ambrose Light, the traditional start of all Blue Riband attempts, the passengers report a noticeable surge as the ship's four massive, 60,000-pound propellers savage the water.

The race is on.

"There was always the dream of the 'One Big Ship,'" Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of renowned naval architect William Francis Gibbs, told me. "It meant everything to him."

In the lingering shadow of the Second World War, and the gathering Cold War, the Navy would make Gibbs' dream come true. What Gibbs gave the Navy (and its lesser partner in the venture, the long-since defunct United States Lines) was his magnum opus -- an opulent 990-foot ocean liner that could carry 1,900 paying passengers across the Atlantic in high style, or in the event of war, 14,000 troops 10,000 nautical miles nonstop.

As such, SS United States sported warshiplike features never before seen on a passenger vessel -- features that will never be seen again, like the redundant military power plants so brutal they were classified for decades. Or the heavily compartmentalized construction, sound-powered telephones and multiple steering stations.

The ship was the largest use of weight-saving aluminum at the time, and it was designed with an obsessive avoidance of potentially fire-spreading wood. According to legend, Gibbs went so far as to personally petition Mr. Steinway for a grand piano made from metal. (Steinway reportedly refused, citing "tone.")

July 7, 1952, 5:16 a.m.

Bishop Rock off Cornwall finally appears on SS United States' radar.

Despite the earliness of the hour, the ship's band blasts into "The Star Spangled Banner." Most passengers were up all night anyway, waiting for this moment.

SS United States has absolutely smashed the trans-Atlantic speed record, making New York to the United Kingdom in little more than three days, at an unheard of average speed of 35.6 knots (41 mph).

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