Steamship Saturday – S.S. United States

Steamship Saturday


S. S. United States leaving New York, 1952

As a country, the United States was a “Johnny-Come-Lately” to the trans-ocean passenger ship business. The doyen of the steamship companies is Cunard. Cunard has its roots in North American – the company was founded in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1839 as the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company by Samuel Cunard. Cunard relocated to Liverpool in 1840. The White Star Line, who in 1912 inaugurated the ill-fated Titanic, became Cunard’s principal competitor. Germany under the Kaisers wanted a piece of the steam ship action, too, despite not being historically a maritime nation as was the case of Great Britain. (The Kaisers were blood relatives of Queen Victoria.) Thus Germany competed in the trans-ocean steamship market with the North German Lloyd steamship line. On the U.S. west coast, Matson found a niche by shipping cargo and passengers to Hawaii. United States Lines came along in 1921, but it was Cunard that had become the “500 pound gorilla” of the passenger steamship business. Famous Cunard liners included the Lusitania, which entered service in 1907, Queen Mary (1936) and Queen Elizabeth (1940). France put up a formidable rival against Cunard with Normandie. But no U.S. steamship line had a ship comparable to Cunard’s Queens. At the close of World War II, United States Lines began working with the U.S. Navy to change that.

With this as the backdrop, the Navy and United States Lines began development of the most famous of U.S. passenger ships, United States. The Navy wanted a passenger ship that could easily be converted to a troop ship or hospital ship and that ship needed to be fast. Her keel laid in 1950 and entering service in 1952, United States met those requirements.

United States, configured as a troop ship, could transport 15,000 troops. And, she is fast!. Even though she was retired from service in 1969, she still holds the Blue Riband for fastest trans-Atlantic crossings in both directions.


The ship was designed with lessons of World War II combat experience in mind. She is highly compartmentalized in order to increase the likelihood of survival in combat conditions, being made up of 183,000 sections. (These sections were prefabricated in order to simplify and speed construction.) Each of her four powerful Westinghouse double-reduction gear steam turbine engines is housed in a separate compartment.

Her engines developed 240,000 horsepower and drove four 18′ diameter manganese-bronze propellers. The power plant of the United States could push her through the water – all 990 feet of her – at 35 knots; 40 miles per hour. She is capable of steaming in reverse at 20 knots! She develops as much power as an Essex-class aircraft carrier (like U.S.S. Hornet, CV12), but because of the extensive use of aluminum in her construction, she has a very favorable power-to-weight ratio.

United States’ graceful lines were drawn by the famous ship architect William Francis Gibbs. Through her design are details aimed at reducing weight and making her fireproof. The only wood on the ship was the butcher block in the galley and the grand piano. The piano was originally proposed to be constructed of aluminum, but there were sound quality issues with this idea, so the piano is made from a rare fire-resistant wood. The wood was tested by having gasoline poured over it and ignited. The gasoline burned, but the wood did not.

United States Interior

On board the United States: the two left images are views of the Grand Ballroom. Upper right: Promenade Deck, lower right: the Stateroom once used by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

All of the ship’s furnishings were designed with fire resistance and weight saving in mind: the clothes hangers are aluminum; the curtains throughout the ship are spun glass fiber.

The passenger steamship business was severely damaged by competition from jet airliners. By the mid to late 1960s, the grand liners were one by one retired – Queen Mary in 1967, Queen Elizabeth in 1968, with United States following in 1969.

United States at Philadelphia

Decaying grandeur: United States awaiting her fate in Philadelphia.

Granddaughter of the Man Who Designed the SS United States Hopes to Save the Famous Ship
PHILADELPHIA, PA- JULY 10, 2014: The SS United States can be seen for miles as one drives toward South Philadelphia. The SS United States is slowly rusting away in Philadelphia while Susan L. Gibbs, of Chevy Chase, granddaughter of the ship architect works to raise money to save it. Her grandfather, the famous ship designer, William Francis Gibbs, designed the ship. The ship has been docked at a pier on the Philadelphia waterfront for 17 years and has been the target of numerous “save our ship” schemes, all of which have failed.(Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Since then, United States has had several close calls with being scrapped. Currently she is tied up in Philadelphia, awaiting her fate. There have been numerous proposals for “repurposing” the ship over the years, but thus far, none have been carried out. Currently, Crystal Cruises is developing a plan that may see this grand ship fitted out once again for sea duty and used in the niche cruise market.

United States1


Add yours →

  1. Amazing how we try to avoid age and hope for renewal. The SS United States like thousands of ships cannot stay in shape and WAIT, every day, the ships in ship grave yards rust away. A pity. Unfortunately they cannot be moved to the desert as the planes. Many a seaman will tell you, yo cannot bet father time, SALT WATER and RUST.
    Great story, beautiful pictures, proud vessel.


  2. Chris Houck 06/03/2016 — 20:28

    Another great bit of research and story building! For one of your next projects, may I suggest the SS Jeremiah O’Brien?


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