America's flagship headed for the scrapyard?


The SS United States is the fastest, sleekest ocean liner ever built, a giant gem of midcentury design and engineering, and in the brief time it spent on the high seas before the great liners were finally supplanted by jet flight, it truly became what its admirers now call it: "America's flagship." In its glory days it seemed hard to believe it would ever end like this: Moored permanently in a berth on the Philadelphia side of the Delaware River, cold and empty. That's where it's been for a long 14 years while a succession of owners have tried to figure out what to do with it. There's been talk of turning it into a casino, or a luxury dockside hotel; there's been talk of refitting it and sending it back out on the seas. But the clock is running down, and now it looks like the end may be approaching: The current owners, Genting Hong Kong, have begun to seriously solicit bids from scrappers. The SS United States Conservancy has mounted a last-ditch effort to raise public awareness about the dire straits in which this beautiful ship now finds itself. Take a look at the trailer for "SS United States: Lady In Waiting," a documentary produced by SSUSC board member Mark Perry, and if you're moved to help, contact the Conservancy.

Red Alert: SS United States in Imminent Danger of Scrapping


  1. The problem with the USS United States is that she was built to be fire proof. Memories of the Moro Castle fire were still in the back of the designers minds. Fire proof means lots of asbestos. Because of that, the costs of a refit are enormous. In fact, she’s never been scapped for that same reason – The cost of asbestos removal.

    1. The ship was towed to Turkey in the early ’90s for asbestos removal, then towed back to Philadelphia.

    2. @Aron

      actually, the opposite is the problem: the SSUS has had all of its asbestos removed – as well as everything else on the inside. The ship is a hollow shell, with no decks, staterooms, engine rooms, or anything else that would make it a ready-made tourist attraction.

      1. Just to clarify, the ship isn’t a hollow shell… only the fittings and wall paneling (which was made of marinite, an asbestos-based material) were removed in the 1990s in Turkey. She has all her decks in place, stairwells, elevator shafts, etc. Restoring her would be akin to renovating an old skyscraper. The good news is the ship could be configured inside however desired, the bad news is that her mid-century modern interiors are gone forever.

    3. The asbestos was removed from her many years ago in Turkey. Numerous books and internet sources as well as period newspaper articles can comfirm this.

    4. Not true. The ship was gutted overseas from the United States. Nothing reamins inside: including asbestos. The thing about refit being so expensivce is that there is a “blank slate”. If the buyer wanted to refit the ship, it would cost over 500 million. And the thing about it is, NCL would make that twice over with the amount of cruises/crossings if they refitted her now.

    1. It’s a symbol of 1950’s American waste. It’s neat, but refitting it doesn’t seem like a good use of american taxpayer dollars to restore for commercial use. If the asbestos has been removed as claimed above, it would be a good candidate to be a hospital ship in the Pacific, maybe stationed out of pearl harbor where it’s only about 4 days travel from anywhere on the pacific rim.

      1. Why was building and operating a world-class ocean liner, in the days when ships were the primary form of trans-oceanic passenger transportation, an example of “waste?”

        And in an era when many, if not all, advanced, seafaring industrial nations had such large passenger vessels as symbols of national prestige, why single out America?

        Your anti-American bias is showing.

  2. Fundamental problem is that maintaining ships – and refitting them, to make them useful for habitable purposes – are expensive compared to buildings on land, for a variety of reasons.

    A lot of people with “Oh, just put it in a museum” thoughts don’t understand how much maintenance the museums end up paying for. You don’t just put it under glass and have visitors walk by it – the steel hull keeps corroding if you don’t paint it and clean it and keep the anodes current. Electrical wiring decays over time, as insulation is exposed to the humid salty air.

    Sad, but reality – ships are designed for a finite lifetime, and way past that lifetime, they’re a wreck.

    1. Agreed. I’ve been to the Queen Mary and while it’s somewhat a novelty, it seems awfully silly to try and keep fleets of “significant” ships in repose.

      I’m curious to the percentage of recyclables that come out of ship breaking?

        1. – I’m curious to the percentage of recyclables that come out of ship breaking

          – If they do it right, they’ll at least get some damn fine video.

          And if you haven’t invented video, you can still make some damn fine art about it.

      1. The Queen Mary is quite popular, too, and maintained pretty well for a ship that’s never meant to sail again… and yet parts of it are still very decrepit and the last time I visited the thing was still leaking like a colander.

  3. By far, by mass, ships are nearly entirely steel, and that is efficiently 100% recyclable. Much of India’s infrastructure is built of steel beams and rebar that used to be ships, for example.


    There are often significant masses of other stuff, by normal terms – interior linings and fittings, wiring, plastics, electrical equipment, insulation, etc. In some cases the insulation is asbestos, for older ships, making cleanup to western standards very very expensive. In some cases electrical equipment has PCBs. There are lots of environmental messes associated with shipbreaking.

    Cleaner ship building, green thinking and lifecycle environmental impact, have been big things for the last decade, but most ships are older (and pretty dirty).

  4. It’s a shame they can’t do anything with it. It’s parked next the the Ikea in South Philly and I’ve seen it a dozen times. Even in its deteriorated shape you can tell it was a magnificent ship at one time.

  5. It’s like a metaphor-maker’s dream: “United States’s glory days decades in the past.” “Chinese owners consider scrapping United States.”

  6. Get together some non-profits, talk to a few underwater preserves, and come up to the Great Lakes and sink it. It will take just as much work to clean the thing up to sink it as it would to clean it up to scrap it, but instead of losing a piece of valuable history forever, it can live on as an attraction for SCUBA divers. The Great Lakes are remarkable for their ability to preserve wrecks, with hundreds of wrecks over 100 years old in excellent condition. The water is cold and oxygen deprived enough that rust is very slow to form. Zebra mussels may encrust the wreck, but to a lesser and less permanent extent than saltwater marine growth. If you talk with the right preserve, they may give you some government money to sink it, and with good publicity the sinking and dives immediately following may net a profit for the owners.

  7. The Big U has been rusting away since they laid her up 40 years ago. My Grandfather was her last Master and as much as that means to our family and so many others, I don’t believe it’s feasible to ressurect her. Euthansia may be her best bet.

  8. I always thought that Ikea used the ship to bring over all of its merchandise from Sweden.

  9. Clearly, it must be retrofitted with a wave motion engine and gun to fight the Gamilons.

  10. 1900: Christ, did you…did you see the streets, just the streets? There were thousands of them! Then how you do it down there, how do you choose just one…one woman, one house, one landscape to look at, one way to die…?

  11. I’m sure it’s a nice ship, but honestly, this is probably a lost cause. I lived in Long Beach a few miles from the Queen Mary for 28 years, and it was always struggling to bring in visitors. The amount of expense involved with keeping a huge ship like this maintained is just way too much compared to its potential. Unless these conservationists are insanely wealthy, there’s no way to preserve this.

  12. Well, let’s be fair – there is one way to preserve ships without huge ongoing maintenance. Haul them ashore…

    The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago did this with U-505, originally hauled her up on a lawn, then brought her inside.

    You can do that with great effort with full sized ships. Getting them out of the water and away from the water a bit makes a huge difference.

    You don’t see it very often, though. It’s pretty expensive, other than at shipyards with existing lifting facilities…

    1. There are several things that set the looks of this ship apart from the Titanic, not the least of which is that the Titanic had four stacks, while this ship has two. Most passenger liners from the 1900s through mid century looked similar, because that’s where the technology was, and that was the paradigm of the designers. It looks like the Titanic the same way that all modern lake freighters, or modern cruise ships look the same: if you’re interested or passionate, they don’t really, but there are definitely over-arching styles, construction techniques and other factors that tie them all together.

    2. First of all, the United States looks NOTHING like the R.M.S. Titanic, take another look at the pictures and you will see the obvious differences.

      Second of all, Titanic was actually the second of three Olympic-class sisters. R.M.S. (Royal Mail Ship) Olympic was launched on 20 October 1910 with her maiden voyage being 14 June 1911. R.M.S. Titanic, as we all know, was launched on 31 May 1911 with her historic maiden voyage commencing on 10 April 1912. The final sister was H.M.H.S. (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic (Originally was to be named Gigantic), who did not launch until 26 February 1914, was requisitioned into WWI service on 13 November 1915 only to be sunk on 21 November 1916 by what was beleived to have been a German torpedo or mine.

  13. A sad thought, indeed, that the Blue Riband winner could be broken up, a loss as a historical object. I have to say, the restoration and upkeep in the water would be unending. If she has to go, use her up in a movie – been done, could be done again. Dry and high would be best, stripped of bad stuff, replaced with safe stuff. This is sadly the usual end for even the greatest of vessels – the original America’s Cup yacht, “America”, was pretty much forgotten to death, while still they bickered over the cost of saving her.

  14. If I remember correctly I went to a restaurant on the Outer Banks that was USS U.S. themed with lots of pictures and fittings from the ship.

    1. You’re right moebrook. The Windmill Point Restaurant in the Outer Banks had quite a bit of memorabilia from the SS United States, including the first-class lounge. It has recently closed, and the contents will be coming to the Mariner’s Museum here in Newport New, Virginia at some future date. I was a passenger on the lady back in 1965 when I was 10 leaving Bremerhaven, Germany for New York. I’ll never forget this wonderful adventure!

    2. Yes. In the 1980’s the ships owners at that time knew that she would be there for quite some time, so they gutted her and sold all her fittings. You can still find some other fittings floating out there today: extremely expensive though. People are reluctant to let them go.

  15. The United States doesn’t look like the Titanic. The Titanic had 4 funnels (3 working, 1 dummy), the US has 2. The Titanic’s funnels were tall and almost upright, while the US’s are shorter and raked back. The Titanic had 2 tall masts, while the US has 4 small masts, rigged together.

    The paint scheme looks superficially similar, with red and black, but the US has a white stripe separating them, and the white stripe at the top of the hull is much larger on the US. Of course, most large ships at this time had red at the waterline, as they were using red lead antifouling paint.

    About the only things you can say about the United States looking similar to the Titanic are those which have to be similar. They were both built for speed, so they were long and thing, and they had pointed bows. They were both liners, so they had many rows of portholes in the hull, and large superstructures with large windows, and they had to have boatdecks and carry lifeboats.

  16. I have to admit I don’t get it. Despite the tug-at-the-heartstrings music, the language like its great stacks “thrusting” into the sky, and constantly calling it “she,” it just looks like a big wasteful piece of trash to me. Problem is, shipbreaking is a pretty gross business as well. I vote for the status quo, keep letting it rot.

  17. Comment No. 1 is wrong: The SS United States contains no asbestos. It was removed years ago, during an earlier project to bring the ship back into service.

    So, yes, the grand SS United States faces many obstacles … but asbestos abatement isn’t one of them!

  18. I think they should build a bridge out of her (witch!). No, seriously, haul her ashore and retrofit her into a pedestrian bridge to cross I95 to help link the city back to the waterfront. The top part can be stores and restaurants and the main husk of the hull can form the bridge.

    How would you like to stream North on 95 and see that big puppy floating above you?

  19. It’s a shame we don’t have an ultra-wealthy patron to step in and purchase it. Or even save a part the exterior ship and some of the interior fittings to re-create the interior.

    As for the possibility of a refit, it’d be a damn shame if the asbestos was actually a serious impediment. Asbestos can be dealt with safely, or in many cases simply left alone. It’s amazing how much money, time, and architecture has been wasted because of asbestos litigation based on fear.

  20. “Most passenger liners from the 1900s through mid century looked similar, because that’s where the technology was, and that was the paradigm of the designers.”

    Much the same way that the jet airliners today look eerily similar to the 707s and DC8s that were di-rigeur in 1960. Sure, a “plane nut” could point out hundreds of differences that the untrained eye would miss. The state of the art found a basic overall design that did the job and all engineering worked around that basis until the next big paradigm shift occurred.

  21. I saw this comment at the link

    “We cannot give up on this irreplaceable symbol of American “can do” spirit. Just as we would allow this to happen to the Statue of Liberty or the Liberty Bell, the SS United States must be saved.”

    C’mon. The liberty bell and Statue of liberty were designed TO BE SYMBOLS. They’re a statue and a bell. Nobody would let them go, because they are inhereny symbols of the United States.

    The ship is only a symbol of “can do” spirit, because, at the time, it was a very fast means of efficient transport. Now we use planes and other things: which is what makes this COMPLETELY REPLACEABLE as a symbol. The Space Shuttle and the Boeing 767 have replaced it.

    Its also replaceable as a symbol because virtually nobody knows about it. So not much good for symbolizing things when it doesn’t communicate to anybody.

    1. Okay, I’ll grant you that the Statue of Liberty was built to be a symbol, but the Liberty Bell was just a bell before it became a symbol after it cracked. When the SSUS was built, she was in fact built partially as a symbol of American Cold War technological supremacy — at a time when having the fastest ship in the world, capable of almost overnight conversion to a troop carrier — actually mattered. History is worth preserving, not discarding. The SS United States is a symbol of what Americans can do, or at least used to be able to do.

  22. Alas, every ship built ends in one of two ways: She’s towed to the breakers, or she goes to Davy Jones. Funerals are sad, but they’re better than having a taxidermist stuff the corpse and setting it at the dinner table.

  23. I can’t understand billionaires. Personally, If I were Bill Gates I’d see this and toss a few hundred mil into restoration and live on the thing while sailing the world and bringing aid to the impoverished. You could be like some kind of superhero; imagine pulling up to Haiti with this thing filled up with food, water, and medical facilities.

  24. I’ve stopped by to show it to my children several times. It’s an amazing sight, even from behind a fence on Delaware Avenue. It will be missed, at least by us.

    It would be a pity to lose it, but if it can’t generate enough revenue to sustain itself there is no hope for it. There are more important causes.

    – Amphipolis

  25. Sigh. I have fond memories of the United States- making the crossing from New York to France in 1968, when I was six. It will be a shame when the last of the great liners goes; but I’m afraid she is a white elephant, designed for sheer speed and not adaptable to the Caribbean cruise trade. Her pool is indoor and salt-water!

  26. The SS United States is a SYMBOL! Just like the Statue of Liberty and Liberty Bell. In the 1950’s she was a symbol of American hope, democracy and progress around the world. The world could use a positive symbol of hope and freedom, and we can use all the jobs created by refurbishing the ship. I say: DO IT!

  27. It’d be a shame to see her go; the only other great liner of that period still with us is Queen Mary and she’s no looker. The United States was apparently a pretty soulless place, but her designers gave her that wonderful deco-influenced shape that was so popular in the 1950s.

    She’s no Normandie, but short of me getting a de Lorean, a lump of plutonium and a fire extinguisher, she’s the closest we have.

  28. My father-in-law RIP was on the design team for this great ship. He was very proud of his work as well he should be. He also designed the hulls of the Nimitz class aircraft carriers. I don’t know what to do with her, but I say sink her and reef her.

  29. The SS United States has been completely gutted of all asbestos and furnishings. She is ready for renovation. She is almost like a blank canvas.

  30. They wouldn’t name any old tub the SS United States. The frigate USS Constitution was considered to be a piece of junk in the 1920s and almost scrapped – now she is a famous national icon. You would think we would have learned our lesson with the demolition of New York’s Penn Station in the 1960s. People also through New York’s Grand Central Station was a gigantic dinosaur when it was almost pulled down for another skyscraper. Thankfully wiser minds prevailed and now people cannot imagine life without it. To learn more about the vision, energy, and raw talent it took to design the SS “United States,” read some of the PlanPhilly articles I wrote. I can easily say that it took as much skill and ingenuity as building Notre Dame.

  31. Fire proof means lots of asbestos. Because of that, the costs of a refit are enormous. In fact, she’s never been scapped for that same reason – The cost of asbestos removal.

    No real need for asbestos removal. However, the regulations on asbestos are not based on reality. Asbestos is harmful when mining or processing it, or — ironically — when removing it from structures as per the law.

  32. Bring it up on land and split it in half length wise. Or stand it up on end. Then people would come to see it.

  33. The internals would have been a big part of the draw. Since the decor’s gone, all that’s really left to admire is a hull shape and a paint job.

    I agree: reef her, or scrap her. But doing either in the US would be good: the ship breakers in developing nations are, from what I have read, an environmental menace.

    Workers are mostly barefoot, without safety gear, and scrap ships by hand on the beach. Greenpeace estimates that due to the potential for structural collapse on the ships, and the hazardous chemicals abound, one worker a day is likely to die. It tends to be a “whole-family” thing, with kids helping or playing on the polluted beaches nearby.

    Still, there’s a nice photoset of some parts of the process by Edward Burtynsky at (I think he, too, is against the idea of beach breaking, though).

  34. If you want to save something of it, do what the French did and have the clipped off tip of the bow (which is always the first thing to be removed at Alang shipyards) brought back to the US and made into a memorial for the ship. I believe a private citizen bought the bow tip of the France.
    Everyone’s for restoring it, but what happens once it’s restored. Upkeep is a major consideration and, let’s face it 30-40 years from now one is going to care because no one will be around who will be able to associate with it. This has been going on for too long. Scrap it or sink it, but get it over with.

  35. The S.S. United States should be saved. Our generation has a duty and responsibility to preserve this ship for previous and future generations.

    The S.S. United States represents everything this country was and is. She is the ship of state. How can this country turn its back on the last vestige of ocean transport between Europe and America? In addition to her speed record and advanced design, the S.S. United States is tangible evidence of every person that ever immigrated, traveled, worked, and played on the North Atlantic.

    The S.S. United States should be declared a national monument and prominently displayed for future generations. She should be treated no differently than the Washington Monument, the Battleship Wisconsin, and Mount Rushmore. How can you put a price on these American treasures?

    China should deed the ship back to the U.S. as a cultural exchange – both countries could stand a little gratitude and goodwill. The exterior of the ship can be cosmetically restored back to its original 1952 grandeur for a fraction of the cost to refit her. The S.S. United States should then be permanently berthed at one of the remaining piers along the Hudson in New York. How majestic this ship would be as part of Manhattan’s waterfront – a fixture no less prominent than the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. If we can save the carrier Intrepid, and countless other warships, we can save the United States.

    The United States is a cultural asset and we should treat it as such. For the amount of money that it takes to run the defense department for one day, we could create a thing of beauty that celebrates the lives of every person that ever dared to discover the new world or freely travel to the old world.

    Reduce the S.S. United States to scrap and write it off to progress – how irresponsible. Do the right thing and contact your elected representatives to save the “Big U”!

    Bob, Dallas, TX

  36. the ship is in Philadelphia correct?
    By chance can you see it from the IKEA restaurant?
    There is this huge ship that you can see from the Philly IKEA
    just wondering

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