At this summer’s grand opening for the revamped Pier 76 in Manhattan, most visitors likely noticed a massive ship propeller on display near the entrance. At 18 feet in diameter and weighing more than 30 tons, it is certainly hard to miss.
State Parks oversaw the propeller’s installation from the nearby Intrepid museum as part of its $31 million construction and renovation project to remake Pier 76 into the newest public recreational and cultural space in the city’s Hudson River Park. But another part of State Parks’ mission is preserving and documenting history, such as this massive nautical object and the story behind it.
It is a story of a bygone era of luxury transatlantic travel aboard the SS United States, a liner launched during the Korean War whose passengers included such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, and a former king of England, as well as four U.S. Presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Clinton, who crossed the ocean as a college student on his way to Oxford University in England. After iconic animator and filmmaker Walt Disney traveled to Europe aboard, he used it as the setting for one of his family-friendly comedy movies of the 1960s. The ship featured prominently in the advertising of the 1950s and 1960s as an epitome of style and casual elegance.
The bronze-manganese propeller at Pier 76 was one of four that allowed the SS United States – a ship longer and heavier than the ill-fated RMS Titanic – to have blazing speed. Able to go faster in reverse than the RMS Titanic could go forward, the “Big U” set a speed record for passenger liners using only two-thirds of its power on its July 1952 maiden voyage from New York City to Europe. That record still stands today, decades after jet aircraft became the preferred way for people to cross the ocean.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the SS United States being launched and christened, with 2022 as the 70th anniversary of that record-setting maiden voyage. After its brief but illustrious 17-year career, the ship was permanently withdrawn from service in 1969, the victim of changing travel habits, increasing fuel costs, and loss of government support. Since then, numerous attempts to repurpose the vessel have fallen through.
Now docked in Philadelphia while a national not-for-profit group, the SS United States Conservancy, seeks to preserve it, the SS United States is one of the world’s last surviving examples of ocean-going luxury.
When the ship was completed, it cost approximately $78 million, with about two-thirds of that cost covered by the U.S. Navy, which wanted to create the world’s fastest ship for military use. That was equivalent to about $800 million today, enough to cover the expense of two modern Boeing 777 passenger jetliners. At the time, many details of the vessel’s construction were a military secret, since the Navy wanted a liner that could be converted quickly into a troop ship in the event of war. The SS United States was capable of carrying up to 14,000 troops, 1,444 crew, and a 400-bed hospital for 10,000 miles without refueling.
In addition to speed and military adaptability, the liner also had modern, distinctly American stylings setting it apart from the more traditional luxury vessels of earlier days. Designed by naval architect William Francis Gibbs of Gibbs & Cox (designer of 5,400 World War II vessels, including the famed “Liberty Ships”) and constructed in Newport News, Va., the ship was marketed as a vacation in itself. Advertising campaigns during the 1960s emphasized that ocean voyages, even for business, could be a pleasure – you would arrive faster on an airplane, but you would arrive happier on an ocean liner!
To further emphasize this vision, designers Dorothy Marckwald and Anne Urquhart worked for three years with a dozen assistants to design the interior decoration of the ship’s public spaces and hundreds of passenger staterooms. Discarding the stuffy old-world style previously found on American ships, the SS United States had a contemporary look that emphasized simplicity over the palatial, and restrained elegance over glitz. The ship’s modern interiors were soothingly homelike.
Gibbs also was concerned with fire risks and mandated that no flammable materials could be used in the ship including construction materials and interior décor. Aluminum was used extensively in the structure, making the ship lighter (and thus faster) while also fireproof. The only wood found in the ship was the kitchen’s butcher blocks and the mahogany Steinway pianos.
Marckwald and Urquhart’s decorating included several commissioned works of American-themed art for public spaces from Hildreth Meière, Louis Ross, Peter Ostuni, Charles Lin Tissot, William King, Charles Gilbert, Raymond Wendell, Nathaniel Choate, Austin M. Purves Jr., and Gwen Lux. Marckwald humorously noted of the interior : “One thing we don’t do on a ship is use color that is at all yellowish green—you know, anything that will remind a traveler of the condition of his stomach.”
After Walt Disney traveled aboard the SS United States, he was so impressed that he decide to use the ship – its exterior colors were patriotically red, white and blue – as a setting for his 1962 comedy film “Bon Voyage!” about an American family’s European vacation.
What gave the vessel its speed was a propulsion system of eight boilers and four 1,000-psi steam turbines that provided more than 240,000 horsepower (more than four times that of the RMS Titanic) to four independent propellers, two with four blades and two with five blades. These designs reduced both cavitation – the formation of partial vacuums in a liquid by a swiftly moving solid body such as a propeller – and resulting ship-wide vibration.
Despite the enormous fuel consumption, the ship could carry enough fuel and supplies to travel non-stop up to 10,000 miles at a cruising speed of 34 knots and a top speed of 38.32 knots (about 44 miles per hour). This incredible combination of weight, power, and speed allowed the ship to make its 1952 maiden crossing at an average of 34.51 knots (or nearly 40 miles an hour).
This earned the Big U the Blue Riband – an unofficial accolade given to the fastest transatlantic passenger liner.
Pioneering marine engineer Elaine Kaplan was responsible for overseeing the design of the ship’s unique propeller configurations. She began working at Gibbs & Cox during the early 1940s while attending Hunter College in New York City and pursuing a mathematics degree. Kaplan’s efforts were noted by the firm’s chief marine engineer Walter Bachman as well as William Francis and Frederic Gibbs. As a result of her intelligence and meticulous work, she was ultimately assigned to design the propulsion system for the SS United States.
Another aspect of the design that aided performance was the underside of the hull, especially the bow, which used an unusual bulbous shape instead of the traditional knife-edge. This improved high-speed performance and reduced water resistance and friction. For many years, this and other below-water details were classified information, and no public drawings or photos below the waterline were available. Display models of this sleek and modernistic liner showed a flat bottom and no details!
Intensely proud of his vision, Gibbs said of his ship: “You can’t set her on fire, you can’t sink her, and you can’t catch her.”
Despite all this, the SS United States was retired from active service in 1969 due to increasing pressure from affordable trans-Atlantic airline flights, increased operating and fuel costs, and the U.S. government’s decision to end its operating subsidies after determining the vessel would never be used as a troop ship. By 1980 the vessel was considered obsolete for military use and subsequently sold off to a successive series of private entities.
In 1999, the ship was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The preservation group SS United States Conservancy, headed by Gibbs’ granddaughter Susan, purchased the ship in 2011 and has been raising funds and promoting redevelopment plans to save it from being dismantled. Now striped of much of its interiors and its trademark funnels faded, the vessel is currently berthed in Philadelphia, Pa., where it has been since 1996. It is not currently open for public tours.
“We appreciate New York State providing such a prominent location for one of the ship’s iconic propellers. It is awe-inspiring to see this sculptural component of the ship on proud display back in her homeport of New York,” said Susan Gibbs, President of the SS United States Conservancy.
“For the past decade the Conservancy has kept the SS United States safely afloat,” she said. “Although “America’s Flagship” remains endangered, this iconic symbol has enormous potential to once again welcome and inspire millions of visitors as a thriving mixed-use destination and dynamic museum on the waterfront. We are working every day, along with our partners and supporters from across the country and around the world, to save the United States.”
Two other SS United States propellers also are displayed in New York State. One is at the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in The Bronx, and the other is at the American Merchant Marine Museum at Kings Point, in Nassau County on the North Shore of Long Island. An additional propeller on public display is located at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va.
Cover shot – SS United States propeller on display at Pier 76. Images from NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.
Post by Daniel Bagrow, historic preservation program analyst NYS Parks, and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks.
Watch this video of the SS United States by Bright Sun Films.
A look at the ship’s role in the Disney film BonVoyage!
SS United States Conservancy Facebook Page
SS United States Conservancy Conservancy web page
Learn about the SS United States Conservancy’s plans to redevelop the ship
Technical details about the SS United States’ propellers