LOCATION :: “The Big U” in Philly


Chip Bunnell Photography Travel Events Palm Beach FloridaOn a recent photo-trek, I needed to make an unscheduled lay-over in the City of Brotherly Love. As I reflected on my next course of travel, I remembered a story I saw on the SS United States, a historic cruise liner that seemed to share a similar situation. I am a self-professed history nerd and I felt the need to feed that part of my being. Much to my surprise, this relatively unknown national treasure rested just a few miles from the Philadelphia airport. This called for a personal investigation of “The Big U”, as she was once called.

She was relatively easy to find. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but on approach I saw parts of her massive structure rising above wharf warehouses. Upon arrival, I could see she was docked in the middle of a fully functioning shipping dock. Giant ocean going containers were stacked as trucks and forklifts went about their daily activities, completely ignoring the great faded lady behind them. A menacing security checkpoint was the only break in the high chain-link fence that encircled the site. Fortunately, I was able to find a wide shoulder next to the road which allowed me to stop and take in the vision, as well as reflect on her past. I was soon joined by another who too had a camera, all be it much smaller than my 70-300 lens. I struck up a conversation with him and learned he was a local truck driver that frequently works on this dock. We soon bonded over the majesty of the vessel and the sadness to see her simply rusting away. For the next 20 minutes, he shared stories of her past, then returned to his car and departed. In my later research, I learned that in 1968 former President Bill Clinton was one of the many that sailed on her. Here is a bit of her story…..

In 1950, the keel was laid on one of the most unique cruise liners ever built. Her home was the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Newport News, VA. For the next 2 years she was grew in size and stature as individual pieces were welded and bolted together. Upon completion, she was 990’ long with a beam (width) of 101.5’, giving her less than 2’ clearance on either side to pass through the Panama Canal. The 12 decks filled with luxurious amenities comfortably transported her 1,928 passengers. She was powered by 4 steam turbines and had a top speed of roughly 38 knots, or 44 mph. That is very impressive as typical cruise liners of today travel at roughly 22 knots. To great national pride, she is the largest ocean liner ever built entirely in the US as well as the fastest commercial ship in the world. During her maiden voyage on July 3, 1952, she broke the transatlantic speed record previously set by the Queen Mary…by over 10 hours! Today, she still holds the west bound speed record as well as the honor of the Blue Riband, the award given for the transatlantic speed record. It is for these reasons, and many others, that she bears the name of our country.

Interestingly, she was a joint venture between the US Navy and the United States Lines. That in itself is unique, but why did the US Navy become a $50M funder of a luxury cruise ship? The answer is quite interesting. On the heels of WWII, she was designed to easily be converted to a troop transport carrying up to 15,000 aboard or quickly become a hospital ship as needed. As this was the ultimate goal, she was built to exacting and extreme Navy specifications. For example, there is no wood in any of the framing, decorations, accessories or interior surfaces to help eliminate the greatest fear at sea – fire. All furniture and fabrics were made from custom glass, metal and unique spun glass fiber to ensure compliance. Even the clothes hangers were aluminum to remove wood normally found in luxury closets. The ballroom’s grand piano was also originally speced to be aluminum, but was changed to a rare fire-resistant wood only after the material was subjected to a test of pouring gasoline over it and ignited it, without the wood itself burring. The Navy designs also included heavy compartmentalization to increase the odds of surviving a wartime attack.

In 1969, the United States was docked in Newport News for her annual service. Due to declining profits and reduced demand for cruise travel, she was instead removed from active service. During the decades that followed, she was bought and sold by a variety of companies, including Norwegian Cruise Line. There were a series of plans for her refurbishment and reinstatement, but each time she was passed over. Today, she lays in waiting behind a locked fence of pier 84 to once again welcome passengers aboard.

I made this image from the parking lot across the street. The containers, power lines and street were left intentionally to create an environmental portrait of her current home. She is visible from I95 and makes quite a unique vision when she appears from behind newly constructed structures that now surround her. This single frame image has only minimal retouching to showcase the rust and faded colors of this once grand dame. While it is unlikely that she will ever return to active seagoing service, there have been a number of plans to include her as part of a waterfront entertainment complex. Cities from Philly to New York and even Miami have had investors considering the addition. I, for one, vote for her to come to Miami, but would welcome any plan that would restore her to her former glory and allow others to learn of her remarkable past.  The SS United States is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

To learn of the effort to save this ship, please visit: https://www.savetheunitedstates.org/

Single Frame, Processed in LR and Topaz Clarity