Last weekend, to kick off the 50th anniversary of the summer of love, I went to the city of brotherly love. Long Beach watermen, mostly rowers, are familiar with Philadelphia with its historic boathouse row, and Schuylkill River National course.
But I was there to visit a bigger vessel — the 990-foot SS United States, currently docked in Philadelphia.
I like to think of the famous ship, with the nickname the Big U, as the younger American cousin to our own British Queen Mary. Both ships were built for transatlantic travel and each held speed records for crossing. By the late 1960s, Boeing’s 747 had made its first flight and the market for transatlantic travel by ship had dwindled.
These seagoing cousins each played key roles in history and continue to hold a place in our hearts. While many are familiar with Cunard Lines Queen Mary’s history since her 1967 arrival in Long Beach after serving 31 years at sea, the SS United States retirement years have not been easy.
After a short 17 years of sailing, SS United States was forced into retirement. The shipping line withdrew her from service during her annual overall in 1969, leaving the ship docked at the port. That was the last year that people like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would stroll her decks laughing, John Wayne would visit the navigation bridge or Kim Novak would strike a pose while playing shuffleboard.
Over the next 48 years, the ship’s ownership passed between multiple companies, each with a grandiose plan for her. But unlike the Mary, no plan has been implemented and she sees no visitors. She sits alone in the dark without electricity behind locked and guarded fences.
For almost five decades, we have celebrated weddings, proms and Rotary meetings on the Queen Mary. School children, servicemen who sailed on her as a troopship, and vacationers from around the globe have toured her. Sure many preservationists lament that more parts of the ship should have been untouched. But her decks are alive, educating the next generation about a time that has passed.
On the other hand, proposals for SS United States's life after transatlantic service have included becoming a New Jersey casino, a timeshare at sea, a Caribbean party cruise ship and a Navy hospital ship.
The ship was towed in 1992 to Turkey and then Ukraine, where the ship’s interior was almost completely stripped for asbestos removal in anticipation of a rebuild that failed to materialize. The sad hulk was hauled back to Philadelphia, where in 1999 and despite her condition, she was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Next came plans for Hawaiian passenger service and development of a "multi-purpose waterfront complex" with hotels, restaurants and a casino along the Delaware River in Philadelphia. That was blocked gaming control board officials.
Talks about possible locations in Philadelphia, New York City and Miami continued. In New York City, one developer pitched using the ship as part of a waterfront redevelopment called Vision 2020. In Miami, one proposal had the ship in a slip on the north side of American Airlines Arena. One idea to repurpose the ship in Philadelphia was to install computer servers in the lower decks and link them to software development businesses in office space on the upper decks.
Most recently, in 2016, Crystal Cruises pursued a purchase option for the SS United States as they studied returning the ship to New York City-based service. It was estimated that it would take a billion dollars to put the United States back on the high seas, and a 2016 estimate for restoration as a luxury cruise ship was said to be "as much as $700 million." That plan was dropped, citing too many technical and commercial challenges.
Today the ship sits waiting for her next suitor. Some dream she will one day be moored on Washington DC’s Potomac, as a part of the Smithsonian Museums maritime collection.
Queen Mary and SS United States deserve some brotherly love. My wish for the summer of love is that SS United States will share in the good fortune of her British cousin and both can serve as the pride of their nations.