Where Titanic Failed, American Vessel Stood Tall

By: Susan Gibbs

Originally published in the USA Today, April 13, 2012

As we approach the Titanic’s 100th anniversary on Sunday, the doomed luxury liner seems to be sailing across every television and computer screen. Amidst the rapt attention paid to a British ship’s tragic end, the most famous ocean liner that never sank still bears the proud name United States. Though sadly overlooked by most Americans, our nation’s flagship still serves as an enduring symbol of American postwar power, pride and innovation.

There are many measures of a vibrant society — the freedom it guarantees its citizens, its technological advancement and the opportunities it affords its people, to name just a few. An advanced society is also one that appreciates its own history. As the red, white and blue funnels of the SS United States fade in Philadelphia, this storied ship, once a metaphor for American strength and ingenuity, risks becoming a tragic symbol of our nation’s decline. We cannot allow that to happen.

While the Titanic carried more than 1,500 passengers to a watery grave on her first Atlantic crossing, the SS United States barreled across the ocean on her record-breaking maiden voyage averaging 35.59 knots— or more than 40 miles per hour. On that historic trip in 1952, America’s answer to Europe’s dominance of the seas sped through the water with such force that bow waves blasted the paint off her hull. She became the fastest ocean liner ever built using only two-thirds of her power and still holds the trans-Atlantic speed record for a passenger ship, nearly 60 years after her launch. The SS United States could go faster in reverse than the Titanic could travel forward.

Storied history

After a ticker tape parade up the Canyon of Heroes in New York honoring her crew, the “Big U” went on to serve for 17 mishap-free years, carrying more than a million passengers across the sea, including four U.S. presidents, business moguls, movie stars, military personnel and immigrants beginning new lives on our shores.

SS United States Returns from its Record Breaking Maiden Voyage

Built as part of a top-secret Pentagon project to create the safest and fastest ocean liner ever constructed, the 1,000-foot-liner is 100 feet longer than the Titanic. The size of the Chrysler Building, the SS United States served as both a luxury liner and Cold War weapon, capable of transporting 15,000 troops, 10,000 miles without refueling.

Like the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the Washington Monument, there is only one SS United States.
Thanks in part to lessons learned from the Titanic’s tragic demise, the SS United States was designed for safety. The ship’s dual engine rooms ensured that she could still make port even if one of them flooded. The ship’s aluminum superstructure eliminated the need for “expansion joints” — small seams in the steel superstructure that contributed to the Titanic’s breakup.

Major safety precautions

The “Big U” was completely fireproof. Her designer, my grandfather William Francis Gibbs, took this mandate to an extreme. He demanded that Theodore Steinway customize the ship’s baby grand pianos in aluminum. Mahogany pianos were permitted only after Steinway offered to douse one in gasoline and ignite it to illustrate its fire-retardant qualities. The wooden shuffleboard discs were replaced with plastic alternatives, and the conductor’s baton was rendered in aluminum. However, as one magazine noted wryly after the vessel’s debut, they had “devised no way of rendering the musicians incombustible.”

Rather than resting some two-and-a-half miles below the ocean’s surface off the coast of Newfoundland, the SS United States still floats at a Philadelphia pier. Decommissioned in 1969, she has passed through the hands of a number of owners over the decades. The non-profit SS United States Conservancy saved the ocean liner from certain scrapping last year by purchasing the vessel, thanks to a grant from a patriotic philanthropist named H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest.

This irreplaceable piece of American engineering is now poised to serve our nation and the world yet again. Partners and supporters from across the country are needed to help redevelop the vessel as a mixed use destination featuring a museum, educational programs and other uses in an urban waterfront setting. The ship’s more than 650,000 square feet of interior space offers unique opportunities to explore and celebrate everything from American technological innovation, engineering, and postwar history to sea-going travel and the Mad Men era.

In response to the Titanic’s sinking, the bishop of Winchester stated: “The Titanic, name and thing, will stand for a monument and warning to human presumption.” The SS United States also stands as a monument and also issues a warning. Today, the Big U quietly warns us that time, tide and complacency can threaten even our most awe-inspiring patriotic symbols.

The Titanic and the SS United States both embodied their nation’s loftiest aspirations. But only one of these legendary vessels can still be saved for future generations. Once the Titanic memorials, movies and television shows become a memory, we have a chance to save our own history.

Susan Gibbs is the executive director of the SS United States Conservancy and the granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, the designer of the SS United States.

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