The S.S. United States, the Fastest Ocean Liner Ever Built, Makes a Comeback

February 9, 2016

Editor’s Note: The mid-20th Century was an exciting time; the war in Europe and Asia was over, prosperity was everywhere, and the might of American industry was working overtime. As America claimed a firm grip on the American Century, transportation of all types was improving.Website Insert Fleet for Sale or Lease copy

The Budd Company of Philadelphia was creating the Santa Fe Hi-Level fleet for use on the transcontinental streamliner El Capitan. The airlines were flying Constellations, and Boeing was getting ready to tee up the 707, which would revolutionize travel for half a century to come.

On the seas, before the Boeing 707 went into revenue service, trans-Atlantic ocean voyages were still scheduled year-around, and the cruise ship lines fought for the prestige of holding the record for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing by a steamship. Cunard’s RMS Queen Elizabeth and RMS Queen Mary had been put into passenger and fast mail service in the 1930s, before World War II. After yeoman service during the war, they were transformed back from huge troop ships to fast, luxury ocean liners, plying the seas of the world.

In 1881 with the founding of Canadian Pacific Railway, soon came what the company labeled itself as the World’s Greatest Travel System in the 20th Century. CPR owned not only a transcontinental railroad, but Canadian Pacific Steamships, Canadian Pacific Hotels, and CP Air. While CPR and rival Canadian National Railway were busy populating the vast wilderness of Canada with immigrants, CP was bringing the future CP passengers from Europe and elsewhere on its own ships.

As the 20th Century wore on, CP made a decision to focus on its core railroad business, and CP ships were sold to a new, American operator – Carnival Cruise Lines. The end of Canadian Pacific Steamships was the beginning of Carnival Cruise line, now the largest cruise line in the world.

While the Canadians were busy with their railroads, ships, and airline, in 1952 the S.S. United States, flagship of American ocean liners, was launched and put into trans-Atlantic service. The United States immediately claimed the prize as the fastest ship on the North Atlantic. It was modern, fast, and elegant. But, its glory days were numbered because of the coming Boeing 707.

In 1961, the French had the S.S. France, which would rival the S.S. United States. Both ships would suffer indignities at the hands of jet airplane travel. The United States would be taken out of service, as was the France. But, the France found a second life as the S.S. Norway and would sail into the 21st Century before being taken out of service for a second, and final, time.

Ironically, about the same time Americans were rediscovering passenger rail travel in the late 1970s, in 1977 television mega-producer Aaron Spelling took a little known, actual cruise ship, the Pacific Princess of Princess Cruises, and turned it into a floating Saturday night hour-long television hit show that ran for 250 episodes over 10 seasons. Suddenly, the glamour was back in travel over the high seas, and the North American cruise industry was reborn and grew into a strong, vital industry that now boasts dozens of mega-ships, all of which dwarf the iconic RMS Titanic, RMS Queen Elizabeth, and every other ship ever built before the 21st Century. The Pacific Princess, built in 1970, stayed in service under multiple owners until the early 21st Century, and has since been scrapped.

The Pacific Princess did her duty, though, and not only revitalized the cruise industry, but also gave a much needed shot in the arm to all of the surface travel industry, proving good leisure travel was available other than by jet airplane. Passenger train travel enjoyed the surge brought by the cruise industry revitalization, and, today’s growing North American passenger rail industry is a direct beneficiary of a desire for a broader array of travel choices.

The story below is one of hope for the S.S. United States and everything it stood for on its launching in 1952. Just as today the Budd Company’s Hi-Level fleet is again on the verge of new service through Corridor Capital, the S.S. United States is about to prove yet, again, that the original mid-century American ingenuity and spirit of industrial accomplishment 65 years later is not only indestructible, but, desirable. – CCRail Editor

Crystal Cruises plans to resurrect what was once America’s largest, speediest, and most glamorous passenger ship.

It wasn’t that long ago that we made the bold claim that “Crystal Cruises may change cruising as we know it”—and it looks like the luxury cruise line isn’t slacking. On the heels of an announcement that it plans to pivot the brand from a cruise-only company of two ships to a veritable lifestyle fleet of ocean, river, and small ships, Crystal also just signed a deal to resurrect the famed S.S. United States—once the fastest, largest, and at times, most glamorous passenger ships ever built in America—as a 400-suite, 800-guest ocean liner.

“It will be a very challenging undertaking, but we are determined to apply the dedication and innovation that has always been the ship’s hallmark,” Crystal President and CEO Edie Rodriguez said in a statement. Crystal Cruises will work with the S.S. United States Conservancy to conduct a technical feasibility study this year, to see how much work will be required to bring the 64-year-old ship up to modern standards; Crystal says it will cover all costs associated with the preservation. When the ship made its debut in 1952, it was a $70+ million beauty, more than 100 feet longer than the Titanic and the ship of choice for the glitterati, everyone from Marlon Brando to Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly. But it was retired abruptly in 1969, and has been docked (and seemingly doomed for the junkyard) on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

In its glory days, the S.S. United States was the flagship for the States’ transatlantic passenger fleet, regardless of line. Though its older competitor, the RMS Queen Mary (now preserved as a hotel in Long Beach, California), wowed for decades with lavish Art Deco interiors, the United States’s mid-century modernism both influenced and helped popularize a newer, fresher, more forward-looking aesthetic. It was the height of fashion as well as the speediest ship at sea. “I have family who sailed on the S.S. United States when it made its debut in 1952—the same year it broke the speed record for a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic, for which it won (and still holds) the Blue Riband prize,” says Traveler contributor Cynthia Drescher. “Photos of my family posing for the ship’s photographer on the stern and one large, brown suitcase bearing the ship’s luggage sticker are still prized family heirlooms.”

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