The Next Page / SS United States: A noble lady awaits rescue

A grand ocean liner (chock full of Pittsburgh steel) sits rusting in Philadelphia. Can it come alive?


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The SS United States is an irreplaceable icon of American industrial might -- or what might be described as what America made when it made things.

Today, this noble ocean liner, built 60 years ago for the North Atlantic route, sits quietly at a South Philadelphia pier awaiting its ultimate fate.

The SS United States Conservancy and its Redevelopment Project are dedicated to ensuring this marvel of engineering, that could go faster in reverse than most ships today can go in forward, has a future.

The sleek 990-foot race horse was built from the finest Pittsburgh steel and products from nearly 20 other area companies -- including Allegheny-Ludlum Steel, Carnegie Illinois Steel, Rockwell Manufacturing, Westinghouse and Pittsburgh Plate Glass (more details at the end of this article on what these companies supplied). It looks like no other vessel built because it was unlike any ship built.

The obsession of marine architect William Francis Gibbs and the product of post-World War II American know-how, the ship was built with subsidies from the U.S. government and the U.S. Navy to serve both as a passenger liner and, in the event of war, the fastest troop vessel afloat. The history of the ship and its builder is the subject of a recent book -- "A Man and His Ship: America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the SS United States" by Steven Ujifusa. The book details the trials and tribulations of building this liner and its sad fate.

The SS United States cruised at 30 knots (35 mph) and made crossings in a little more than three days. It still holds the blue ribbon speed record for both east and westbound passages. Although its maximum speed was not revealed until the late 1970s and is still a matter of conjecture, for sure, it reached close to 40 knots (over 40 mph) in speed trials. It was built to outrun any enemy vessel on the ocean while moving thousands of troops to any fray. Gibbs made the SS United States just about fireproof with metal and glass (much of it from Pittsburgh companies) taking the place of wood throughout the ship.

The ship, fortunately, was never called into military service. For 17 years, it provided the rich and famous and the not-so-famous a truly American experience on a trip to Europe unlike any other.

Remember, until commercial airlines switched their fleets to jets in the 1960s, a flight across the Atlantic could take 12 hours or more and include a stop in Newfoundland. Many travelers of the era still preferred the comfort and civilized passage on an ocean liner.

The SS United States made its last voyage in 1969 and was laid up after docking in Newport News for annual maintenance.

• • •

The history of this famous ship that really ended the golden age of trans-Atlantic crossings is well documented. Its recent history and the passion of a number of individuals to save it from being cut up for scrap is inspiring.

Through multiple owners and several failed attempts to revitalize the ship, the SS United States today sits floating, tied to Pier 82 in South Philadelphia at the cost of almost $1,000 day just for dockage. It has sat for nearly 20 years as a fixture on the Delaware waterfront.

In 2011, the ship was purchased by the SS United States Conservancy (headquartered in Washington, D.C.) with, according to Executive Director Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the builder, "the goal of preserving this American flagship for future generations." The conservancy launched a national campaign (savetheunitedstates.org) designed both to raise awareness of the vessel and initial funding for restoration.

The Conservancy formed the SS United States Redevelopment Project (based in New York City) a year ago, with Dan McSweeney, son of a longtime member of the ship's crew as managing director. He is charged with finding partners and investors to redevelop the ship for mixed use which might include a hotel, restaurants, spa, school, boutiques and the like.

A small professional staff in both organizations supplemented by volunteers are involved in the Save the SS United States effort.

One such individual is Pittsburgh native Robert Wilburn, a member of the conservancy advisory council. Mr. Wilburn, the former president of the Carnegie Institute, is director of Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College in Washington. An experienced executive with non-profit and government service, he led the effort that built the Carnegie Science Center in the early 1990s. "This flagship is a nationally important historic attraction," said Mr. Wilburn. "It symbolizes an era when U.S. design and technology were emulated everywhere."

The ship continues to draw the attention of the media, historians and the general public. A number of short documentaries have been done that has rekindled interest in saving the SS United States from the scrapper. And in recent weeks, the "CBS Sunday Morning" television crew spent time on board and will air a 12-minute segment on the ship and its plight later this fall.

The Redevelopment Project also has been in discussions with the City of New York to see if the ship, when redeveloped, would be welcome on the New York City waterfront. An answer is expected later this year. "Today, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance not only to preserve this ship," Mr. McSweeney says, "but also to create a sizable economic development project that will mean new jobs, generate tax revenues and help revitalize a waterfront district."

The late TV journalist Walter Cronkite, who traveled on the ship in its heyday, served as honorary chairman of the Conservancy. An avid sailor, he supported efforts to revitalize it. He said, in 2007, of the ship sitting at the pier in Philadelphia: "This is a crime against shipbuilding, a crime against history [to] let such a ship die such a miserable death."

The jury is still out. But today, with the help of this effort and growing interest by the general public not to let this symbol of American manufacturing might fade away, the SS United States just might have a bright future.


• • •

The following Pittsburgh companies supplied steel and other materials for the SS United States:

Allegheny-Ludlum Steel Corporation: Corrosion resisting steel castings, sheets and floor plates, and nickel-copper alloy castings.

Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa): Aluminum alloy sheets, plates and shapes, tubing, rivets, rods, wire, pipe aluminite finish.

Carnegie Illinois Steel Corporation: Hot rolled steel flat bar, corrosion resisting steel shapes, structural steel shapes, steel plates, grade HT steel plates, steel forgings for propeller shafts.

Diamond Wire Spring Company: Steel compression springs.

Dravo Corporation: Right angle speed reducers, motor driven rotary pumps (mechanical portions only), turbine driven rotary pumps.

Fisher Scientific Company: Titanium chloride, rubber stoppers.

Gulf Oil Corporation: Lubricant.

Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation: Structural steel tees and shapes.

Kerotest Manufacturing Company: Steel stop valves.

Koppers Company, Inc.: Bituplastic no. 28 and primer.

Mine Safety Appliance Company: Gas masks, flame safety lamps and rescue breathing apparatus.

Pittsburgh Corning Corporation: Foamglass insulation, vapor sealer.

Pittsburgh Equitable Meter Division, Rockwell Manufacturing Company: Repairs to fuel meters.

Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company: Glass for notice and license frames, mirrors, dials.

Rockwell Manufacturing Company: Meters.

Westinghouse Electric Corporation: Main propulsion machinery, turbines, heaters, fans, forced draft blowers, instruments, etc.

Edwin L. Wiegand Company: Strip heaters.

Williams & Company: Aluminum alloy beam.

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Art Petrosemolo is a writer and photographer living in Shrewsbury, N.J. An exhibit of his photographs of the SS United States will be held this fall at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he serves as assistant to the president for academic publishing (petrosem@fdu.edu).


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