From Clippers and Sails to Iron and Steam

As early as 1908 an American naval architect named William Francis Gibbs had dreams of 1,000 foot, super fast 30-knot passenger liners. In 1914 Gibbs began to design his premier ship. By 1916 Gibbs had the first model of such a ship water tested in Washington, D.C.

Gibbs' work was the evolution of sound design applications so successfully evident in America's beautiful wooden clippers of the mid and late 1800's. Officially speaking, the SS United States saw her first blue print at naval architects Gibbs & Cox in July 1945, but conceptually the development of her breed began in 1838 with the incredible transatlantic race of two British vessels. The Great Western and Sirius were the first steam hybrids to travel in a race from England to America. The technology and speed race was on. And 114 years later on July 7, 1952 the newest entrant in the field crossed the finish line near Bishop Rock. It was on that day the world crowned the SS United States with the Blue Riband - holder of the Atlantic crossing speed record. Not bad for her maiden voyage. Since then no other equally sized passenger liner has eclipsed her speed, nor is it likely that any ever will.

Upon her arrival in England this American ship was given a hero's welcome at Southampton even though she had just stolen the record from Britain's much loved Queen Mary. There was a bit of fuss in the press when Commodore Harry Manning, senior captain of the United States Lines, told British journalists that, in fact, he had only been "cruising" the United States during the record breaking run. Somewhat stung, the industry Brits labeled him as a Yankee braggart.

In typical fashion, London editors at Punch Magazine wrote: "After the loud and fantastic claims made in advance for the liner United States, it comes as something of a disappointment to find them all true."

But Harry Manning wasn't bragging. The United States in fact, made the winning run at her merchant speed, running at only two-thirds of maximum power. At a comfortable "cruise" the Big U bested the 1938 speed record of the Queen Mary by ten hours and two minutes. Further confirmation of her ability was made when she also established a new eastbound record on her return voyage. Average speed over the 5,850 mile round trip Atlantic crossing: 35.05 knots.

John R. Kane, retired vice president of Newport News Shipbuilding wrote in-part of Gibbs success formula: "It is, in simple terms, to combine the maximum driving power you can achieve with the lightest displacement compatible with the work the ship must do, and with the longest, finest and cleanest lines that will serve to make a good wholesome seakeeping ship."

She proved herself against all challenges of the sea. Her seakindliness, ability to maintain speed in adverse weather and safety features combined in perfect harmony. From dream to reality indeed, America had built the world's fastest, safest luxury liner - The SS United States.

From day one she has turned heads. The sea has known few ladies like her. Mammoth in size, yet sleek and very fast! And best of all, the SS United States was an all American beauty.

Imagine this floating city steaming into the ports of New York, Southampton, Bremerhaven or Le Havre. Her signature red, white and blue funnels - the largest in the world- could be seen for miles. In port the SS United States towered above all else.

On board a transatlantic sailing up to 1,972 passengers could enjoy the many exceptional features of her design while a crew of 1,066 ensured comfort and safety for all.

When built in 1952 she represented the best of American workers and presented the leading edge of modern technology. Ship architect Gibbs and his dedicated team at Gibbs & Cox designed a ship of innovation. Just look at the sharpness of a bow that cut through countless barriers to ride strong and proud. Inside her, the source of unsurpassed power was a redundant system of boilers and steam driven turbines. Engineers will marvel at the 240,000 shaft horse power she delivered on command. But her real power came from those who knew her.

From the hands of her thousands of builders to the souls of those who traveled on board, her magic is that she was, is, and always will be a ship of dreams. You see, the SS United States was much more than a luxury liner. In service she was a symbol of American pride and ambition that extended beyond all boundaries of nations and people. The truth is she crossed oceans, even for those who never sailed on board her.

Continue on to discover the stories of those who experienced the SS United States.

The Crew of The SS United States

As this site is developed, we will continue to add personal commentary from the people that served duty on the SS United States, as well as those who helped build and maintain her.

If you were SSUS Crew and wish to "sign on" please forward us an e-mail. Click on the NOTICE above to do so. It would be a pleasure to hear from you and share your story here.

If you know of a hand that helped build her or maintain her, please encourage them to come forward and share in their accomplishment.

Many passengers sailing the SS United States would be shocked if they knew the number of crew on board. We think of the ship as being a hotel with nearly 700 rooms. But it was also home for over a thousand crew members!

No wonder service, housekeeping and ops was so spectacular!

Where did they all live on board?

    • Sports Deck.....24
    • Sun Deck.........50
    • Upper Deck.....74
    • Main Deck.......64
    • A Deck..........156
    • B Deck..........413
    • C Deck..........263
    • D Deck............22

Total: 1,066

Who were they? Deck Stewards, Linen Keepers, Photographers, AB Seamen, Lookouts, Engineers, Station Cooks, Waiters, Firemen, Bartenders, Room Stewards, Wipers, Bakers, Elevator Operators, Chefs, Porters and many more.

All contributed to a service record that is the envy of world fleets.

The Passengers & Friends of The SS United States

Sailing on board the SS United States really can be equated to riding in a luxury sports car - except there was room for you and about 3,000 of your friends. Talk about going for a joy ride!

But there were many friends of the SS United States that never even sailed her. People living near New York or Southampton in England or Bremerhaven in Germany became friends with this visiting giant. Even beyond her service years she enchanted. Many people living or traveling near Hampton Roads became familiar with those big beautiful stacks in the distance. For some she became an appreciated landmark.

A landmark. Ironic isn't it - that something built for ocean going speed should be called a landmark. Of course, the SS United States is a national treasure, yes even a national monument. But why not a living, moving and ocean going national monument? Start thinking about it because the SS United States is still a great ship of dreams. Anything is possible.

If you were a passenger and have an interesting story to share send an e-mail to the address below. If space permits we can include it here. If you have a web page dedicated to your SS United States or SS America passenger experience we will be happy to list with similar links.

Have a photo of your experience on the SS UNITED STATES. Let us know. E-mail

Making Headlines

If you enjoy digging through the microfilms in the reference department of your nearby library take a look at this list of news articles on the SS United States. For a historical perspective on the beginning of the Big U, here is an early clip from the Times.

From The New York Times, February 9, 1950, Page 54:


Not a Single High Official of Maritime Body or the U.S. Lines Sees 'Ceremony'

By GEORGE HORNE, Special to The New York Times

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. Feb 8 -- The greatest merchant ship ever ordered for this country had her official beginning here today in the plant of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company.

The liner, tentatively named the United States, is to be commissioned in August, 1952, according to the contract, but the yard hopes to get her ready by April of that year, in time for the travel season. The ship is being built for the United States Lines and the Maritime Commission.

In a giant building basin, while a handful of yard officials and guests watched in a cold wind, a big crane slowly settled a fifty-five ton keel assembly on a long row of timbers. It was 10 A.M. when the cables started down and at 10:20 the first chipping hammers were gunning away and another crane was lowering the next keel plate.

It was a strange ceremony, hardly worthy of the name. Conspicuously absent were the drama and fanfare to which the embryo superliner should be entitled. Not a single high official of the Maritime Commission was on hand and executives of the United States Lines stayed deliberately away. No invitations were issued, as would be normal for such an occasion.

First U.S. Prestige Liner

This ship is to be a prestige liner for the United States, the first it has had and the first in decades that will compete in the Atlantic with the British Queens for speed laurels. It will cost $70,373,000. It will be at least 980 feet long, longer than the basin in which it is being built, as indicated by converging yellow lines marked out where the stern will be, extending over the end platforms. Where the knife-like bow will rest, it will crowd into the work street itself. Under American Bureau of Shipping classification, the ship will be registered at about 48,000 gross tons.

William Francis Gibbs, of the firm of Gibbs & Cox, who designed the ship, said today he had no intention of disclosing any of the many secrets that make her a mystery liner. Yard attaches said that competitor nations were making every effort to discover her details.

Someone asked Mr. Gibbs for her speed today, and the designer, who has been credited by the Navy with signal contributions to the fleet in World War II, said dourly: "Joe Stalin would love to know."

In addition to Mr. Gibbs and his brother and partner, Frederick Gibbs, present at the keel laying were: J.B. Woodward, president of the shipyard: William E. Blewett Jr., executive vice president, and a cluster of newspaper reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen. They were uninvited, but the yard made them welcome.

The day turned brilliantly clear for which the photographers were grateful, but there was a kind of cloud over the vast array of cranes and trestles and the ranks of basins and building ways, most of which are empty in this low stage of American shipbuilding. It was an intangible cloud, spread by yesterday's renewed attack by the Controller General, Lindsay C. Warren, on the Maritime Commission's ship and construction subsidy administration.

Commission Is Confident

Mr. Warren has found fault with the Government's assumption of a $48,000,000 share in the costly super liner, and with the subsidies granted under the terms of the merchant marine laws to other ship operators to offset lower foreign costs. The Maritime Commission is confident that its subsidy studies are defensible under the strict terms of the law, and the builders do not believe that anything will stop construction of the ship now.

The vessel has been in preparation for six years. Several thousand man-hours of work have gone into the design, and the shipyard already has 75 per cent of the steel on hand.

Shipping men generally, including those not connected with current projects, feel that with the new ships now under construction the United States is at last making progress on a segment of its economy too long neglected in peacetime.

One of the many mystery aspects of the liner is the complex of defense features. It could be said that primarily this is a Navy ship so numerous are these features including the speed, the remarkable extension of new light-weight metals in shipbuilding and her secret safeguards against dangers. There are also numerous commercially competitive factors in the design.

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