Save Our Ship: Passionate Preservationists Fight for a National Treasure

SS United States
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"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).

It would take the record going the other way, too -- one the ship amazingly still holds. And yet, even as SS United States is capturing records and imaginations, the skies above it are now ominously filled with a new kind of ship, quite literally blowing the "national flagship" out of the water.

We make our way up the darkened tourist class stairwell on our way to the bridge. I am taking my time, mentally cataloging the plastic fencing and the spray-painted warnings on the bulkheads, knowing that one wrong step could send me five decks below into a cargo hold.

As we make our way higher, the daylight grows brighter. A few more stairs, and I am standing where Manning would have. Holes and mangled wiring litter the sole where controls once stood.

But the sense of absolute power that staring out over the ship's immense bow confers is undeniable. Sea gulls circle overhead and Center City Philadelphia looks insignificant through the windows.

The only functioning gauge left on the bridge, a bubble level installed by an anxious insurer in recent years, confirms the strength of the ship's engineering. After decades of neglect, SS United States still refuses to list -- the level reads exactly 0.

A 1969 labor dispute was the last straw for the ship's frustrated owners, already watching the age of jet travel shred their profits. They abruptly pulled SS United States from service.

Since then, it has passed to a variety of well-intentioned, but ill-financed speculators, as countless plans for the ship's resurrection have been conceived, and then shelved just as fast.

The ship's fittings were pawned to pay creditors. One group of owners had it towed to Turkey and Ukraine to undo Gibbs' famous obsession with fireproofing, and clear the ship of its extensive asbestos. All of the ship's historically important interior appointments were destroyed in the process.

In 1996, SS United States was towed to its present location in South Philadelphia, tied up and left. Before extensive security measures were placed around the ship, it was a sadistic South Philly pastime to shoot out its portholes.

Meanwhile, fiercely passionate enthusiasts gathered to fight for the future of the ship, most with deep personal connections to it-- Gibbs, the granddaughter of the architect; Marine Capt. Dan McSweeney, a first-generation American whose father came to this country to work aboard the ship as a steward, to name just two.

By 1999, they achieved the mostly symbolic goal of getting the ship added to the National Register of Historic Places. They installed informational signage outside the ship's berth five years later which was quickly chewed up by the notoriously rough neighborhood.

The next step for the group, now known as the SS United States Conservancy, was to produce a documentary on the ship "Lady in Waiting." It debuts today aboard the ship SS United States took the Blue Riband from, RMS Queen Mary, and will air on PBS stations nationwide starting this month. But to gain access to this grand piece of Americana for filming, they suddenly needed the permission of Asian-parented Norwegian Cruise Line.

We are walking aft along the "sports deck" of SS United States when I get my first glimpse of how crippled the ship really is. Out of the water and strapped to the deck are all four members of its last set of propellers. They are the size of economy cars with precisely sculpted spirals large enough to be used as children's slides. An engraving still visible in the side of one of them helps me more fully appreciate the strength of the deck: "WGT. 60,200 (ACTUAL LBS)."

Looking down at the sole, I see lines and numbers, rectangles and squares, mangled but still discernable.

"Shuffleboard?" I ask my escorts.

"Yup."

Colin Veitch is courteous but very direct as the no-nonsense native Scotsman schools me in the business of shipping. But even he can't help the childlike enthusiasm that creeps into his voice while talking about SS United States.

"I would like to see her sail again, to deliver modern product all over the world," he tells me. And then, with a devious mirth I can feel through the phone he says, "I'd really like to see the ship able to perform at its original speed."

Veitch, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, has the power to make at least one of those wishes come true.

In 2003, NCL received unprecedented permission from Congress to operate foreign-built cruise ships under the American flag in the waters of Hawaii. But thanks to the vagaries of American shipping law, if he ever hoped to ply other U.S. waters, Veitch would either have to request further dispensation from Congress (which he likely wouldn't get) or find American-built hulls.

"We knew of only two that were left," he said -- the since-renamed SS Independence and SS United States. NCL snapped up both ships at auction. Engineers hired by NCL examined SS United States stem to stern and announced that the ship was in surprisingly good condition and could be rebuilt.

But as the months wore on it became clear that the business model for "NCL America" was not in the same kind of shape. The service hemorrhaged cash from the start. The line was gradually cut back from three ships, to two, to one.

SS Independence was quietly sold off to "an American firm," according to Veitch, and towed toward Dubai. The Environmental Protection Agency has since filed a formal complaint against that company, Global Shipping, for the illegal "export" of toxic material, of which Independence represents tons. (The company vehemently denies its intent is to scrap the ship) And in the process, SS United States was treated as it has gotten used to lately: forgotten.

Despite Veitch's enthusiasm, his wishes, even his personal boyhood memories of the ship bringing his "rich old aunt" from the United States, it is abundantly clear he is a businessman first.

"Ships are trading assets. … Every shipping company in the world either operates them, or sells them," he said. "If we do not see any value for our business in the ship, then we would sell it to someone else. I would hope they would have better plans for it than breaking it up."

In the meantime, Veitch says he is "holding on" to the ship until NCL America can be righted. But he admits, that looks like "later, rather than sooner."

They are my last moments in the company of SS United States. I walk alongside it on a pier defiled with totaled cars that are the ship's only neighbors. Its hull paint, last applied in 1969, is oozing off the ship like chocolate. High above on the funnels, the last remnants of its red, white and blue color scheme are defiantly refusing to chip off.

I take a picture of its stern, leaning against one of the tree limb-like lines tying it to the dock. I am shocked to feel the rope drift away under my weight, returning only to definitively, almost smugly shove me back towards the pier.

"The ship's moving -- always moving," says one of my escorts.

Always moving, indeed.

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