A Surprise Adventure

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In the 1990s I was set to give a speech in Washington, D.C. for a company with which I was employed. An old friend and previous business partner was residing just outside of the Capital and when I arrived in Washington I gave him a call. We enjoyed a nice chat and he asked what I was doing the next day. I told him that I was free. He said, “I’ll meet you tomorrow morning at the railroad station and we’ll ride east.”

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Photo courtesy of Ken Brooks

The greatest passenger ship of all — the S.S. United States.

He wouldn’t tell me anymore. He said it would be a surprise. I was instructed to wear jeans and to bring a sweater. I said OK. Where we were going and what we were going to do was a mystery.

Early the next day I met Paul at the designated train waiting area and when I asked him for details of our trip he simply smiled and said that he wanted it to be a surprise. At 8:30 a.m. our train pulled out of the Washington station headed east. He then told me that we were going to Philadelphia and would meet a friend of his who was training in from New York City. The trains were to arrive there about the same time.

The ride from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia took one hour and 50 minutes passing through the beautiful eastern corridor on the old Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. Upon arrival in Philadelphia we met Paul’s friend who had just arrived from New York and hurried to catch a cab in front of the station. At this point I still did not know where we were going and what our mission was.

After the three of us found our seats in the taxi headed for the Philadelphia riverfront, the man from NYC and I introduced ourselves and exchanged business cards. We chatted a bit and soon I looked down at the man’s card, it read, “Hank Buttleman, President, Gibbs and Cox”. Now, Gibbs and Cox is the leading architectural firm for the design of ocean-going ships in America. They are the leading designers and engineers for the U.S. Navy as well as merchant vessels. They were the designers of great American passenger ships such as the Mariposa, Monterey, Lurline, America and the greatest ship of all, the S.S. United States.

Soon, our taxi arrived at the Philadelphia riverfront, at which time we turned right to travel along the riverside for a mile or so. Soon, I saw two large red, white and blue steamship stacks in the distance. Since I am a fan of passenger ships, I recognized the stacks to be from the S.S. United States. Now, it was all coming together. This was the surprise: to see the great ship again.

The S.S. United States was constructed by the Newport News Dry Dock Company in Virginia. Completed in June 1952, it was to carry 1,928 passengers in three classes, with a crew of 1,000. Its maiden voyage departed New York July 3, 1952 with much fanfare. This was the largest and fastest ship in the American passenger fleet. It is 990 feet long and 53,329 Gross Registered Tons. Its actual speed was a secret until later when it was revealed that the ship could travel at almost 45 miles per hour on its trial runs. It set a record on its first return voyage from England back to New York in three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes. This record is yet to be broken.

It had a rather short commercial life as the jet aircraft were soon to dominate the transatlantic trade and passenger numbers on ships soon declined in the early 1960s. American passenger ships suffered from high costs of labor unions and other expenses.

The United States Line finally laid up their S.S. America and S.S. United States and the company was finished carrying passengers in 1969. The S.S. America was sold to the Greeks and re-named the Americanis. The S.S. United States was laid up in Newport News, Va. and later Norfolk, and then, some years ago, was moved to Philadelphia. The ship was offered for sale and had several owners. None were able to place the ship back into the passenger business.

In the early 1990s the S.S. United States was towed to a European port and asbestos was removed from the ship’s interior. That left her gutted with most walls removed. She was an empty shell. Her exterior remained pretty much as she looked when in service.

The ship’s present owners, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), purchased the vessel with the intent of re-constructing it into a modern cruise ship and probably naming it the United States. Several ship building companies offered bids for the re-construction and they ranged from 400 to 550 million dollars.

You could almost build a new ship for that cost. And, only recently, it was determined that the old rivets that hold the hull plates together are so rusted that a re-construction can no longer be considered.

Back to my “surprise” day.

The taxi pulled up to the dock and there it was, looming high, the greatest American passenger ship of all time. She was looking a bit sad and in need of a few coats of fresh paint, but it was still the great ship we remembered.

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Photo courtesy of Ken Brooks

The bow of the S.S. United States.

Hank Buttleman was a young apprentice engineer when the ship was being designed and built and was working under the chief designer and company head, Francis Gibbs. Now, many years later, Mr. Buttleman was standing on the dock with us and soon we approached the gangway. Hank had arranged for us to board the ship for an inspection and, of course, it had been granted since his company was the architect and engineer. Hank said he had not been on the vessel since it had been de-commissioned in 1973. As we entered the great ship we could see that it was clean as a button inside, but with few walls. It was mostly a long, empty interior. There were sections that resembled recognizable areas when it was in commission but not many.

We took our time to walk all over the several decks both inside and out. The bridge area where the ship was controlled was pretty much the same as it had been when it was carrying passengers transatlantic. The engine room gear was pretty much in place and probably could be readied for service in a rather short time. Someone told me that the S.S. United States had the same engines as aircraft carriers of the period and that is why it was so fast. On one of the aft decks was a large propeller, which was strapped fast to the deck. It must have been there for many, many years.

In total we spent more than five hours walking through the great ship and talking about its possibilities for future and discussing its famous past.

When it was carrying passengers, it was for many the premier transatlantic ship. It was known for its speed, which was faster than any other passenger ship on the Atlantic; plus passengers enjoyed the fine American service, cuisine and ultra modern interiors. Among its famous passengers were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They traveled frequently on the S.S. United States between Europe and America and always requested the same suite of rooms.

An old friend of mine, Fred Sarver, was at that time, head of the passenger reservations department for the United States Line and he told me that the Duke and Duchess would come aboard with 90 pieces of luggage plus their dogs. They did circulate throughout the ship during the crossings and were often seen dancing in the main ballroom after dinner and walking about the decks. Many movie stars crossed on the ship; including Cary Grant, Greta Garbo and Bette Davis to name just a few.

This was the “in” ship for many. Sad that it carried passengers for such a short time as compared to many of the great transatlantic liners.

When we were finished walking about the ship we headed for the gangway and said farewell to the guards and found our way to the taxi we had ordered to take us back to the Philadelphia railroad station. Paul and I took the train back to Washington, D.C and Hank Buttleman returned home to New York City.

Some years later I visited Mr. Buttleman at the Gibbs & Cox office in NYC and he took time to show me about the offices and explained ship design and engineering as we passed through the sections.

The ship, the S.S. United States, is still docked in Philadelphia and costs its owners more than $800,000 per year to keep it there. I think its only future lies in being broken up in some salvage yard.

I have enjoyed reliving the “surprise day” and I hope you have enjoyed reading about it.

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