In 1851, the American paddle-wheeler Pacific of the Collins Line set a speed record for the Atlantic crossing. During this period, steamships could barely outpace the faster sailing vessels. The Pacific crossed the Atlantic in 9 days, 19 hours, and 25 minutes. For over 100 years, the Pacific was to be the last American speed queen. During the period from 1851 to 1952, the North Atlantic was dominated by the British, Germans, French, and Italians. Speedy European liners which included the Mauretania, Queen Mary, Europa, Normandie, and Rex competed for the coveted Blue Ribbon and surpassed all American vessels in speed and luxury. There was a spirit of optimism and pride in the postwar era and America was determined to not be outdone. During the maiden voyage, all eyes were on the SS United States to see if she would reclaim the speed record for America.
The 2,707 ton Collins Line paddle-wheeler Pacific in 1851 was the last American Blue Ribbon contender before the SS United States took to the seas. Tragically, in June of 1856 she left Liverpool and went missing, between 186 and 286 are presumed to have perished.
The SS United States was officially handed over by the government to United States Lines on June 20, 1952 at Newport News. Commodore Harry Manning, master of the SS United States was there to take delivery. On June 22, 1952 the SS United States took on approximately 1,200 invited guests and made an overnight run up the east coast to New York. She was greeted at New York by a spectacular gala reception in honor of her maiden arrival. America's flagship was surrounded by a multitude of tugboats, fireboats, and small excursion craft. Whistles sounded everywhere, and the Big U's deep-throated steam whistles responded to the welcoming salutations. Welcome flags were hung from the windows of the Gibbs & Cox building and ships of the American merchant marine present in New York were dressed in their flags. The ship was docked on the north berth of Pier 86 on the Hudson River and for the next several days would take on supplies and be made ready for the historic maiden voyage.
Left: The SS United States receives a gala reception in New York harbor. Right: The SS United States during her maiden arrival to New York.
Over 1,700 passengers would make the first trip eastward including Miss Margaret Truman, daughter of the President, and William Francis Gibbs. This was the only round trip Mr. Gibbs would take on his ship. Rates were set at $360 first class, $230 cabin class, $170 tourist class, and the luxury suites went for $930.
After taking on passengers and cargo, the SS United States sailed out of New York on Voyage No. 1 on July 3, 1952 at 12:07 pm. Commodore Manning and United States Lines officials would not comment on whether America's flagship would make a Blue Ribbon attempt. When asked, Commodore Manning replied "I've been instructed to keep to schedule. After all, the main thing is a safe passage." At 2:36 the SS United States passed the Ambrose Light, the starting point for all east-bound Blue Ribbon attempts. The clocks were set and the race was on. Passengers aboard immediately noted an increase in speed as the vessel settled noticeably at the stern. The SS United States would follow Track C in the North Atlantic, a shorter route used when there was no iceberg danger. During the first two days, the SS United States averaged approximately 35 knots. Commodore Manning commented the SS United States had just been "cruising along." Despite just "cruising along," no other merchant vessel had traveled this fast for such a sustained period of time. When asked if his expectations had been met, Mr. Gibbs replied "my expectations are rather high, and the ship is running them hard." Miss Margaret Truman took the wheel of the ship for a few minutes on July 5. During the first couple of days of Voyage 1, there was a thick fog which limited visibility, followed by moderately choppy seas, but this would not thwart America's flagship from making a Blue Ribbon attempt.
The SS United States outbound on Voyage 1 from the windows of Gibbs & Cox, July 3, 1952.
Passengers and crew quietly celebrated the nation's birthday at sea. Several ships exchanged messages with the SS United States while the ship was en route to Europe. A telegram was received from the master of the Queen Mary and later the two ships passed at speed. The Queen Elizabeth's master sent a message stating "you can take it for granted that there will be no attempt to beat the United States." Captain Donald Sorrel, master of the Mauretania sent Commodore Manning and the passengers a message saying "God speed to all aboard."
The SS United States officially captured the coveted Blue Ribbon on July 7, 1952 at 5:16 GMT as it passed Biship's Rock. America's new superliner made the crossing in an unprecedented 3 days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes, averaging 35.59 knots. This was 3.9 knots and over 10 hours faster than the Queen Mary's best run in 1938. The ship's booming whistles were sounded to mark the occasion and cheers erupted throughout the ship. The band began to play, despite the early hour. During the previous 100 years of steam powered ships on the North Atlantic, the speed record was broken over 100 times. The largest increase in speed on any of these occasions was just below two knots. The SS United States broke the Queen Mary's record by just shy of four knots, doubling the increment.
The SS United States proceeded to Southampton where she received another enormous reception. It was a surprisingly warm and cheery welcome coming from the country whose Queen Mary had just lost its record to the SS United States. There was a fanfare of boats and thousands of cheering spectators watched America's superliner enter Southampton. When the Big U pulled into Southampton, it became evident that a large amount of paint at the waterline had flaked off the bow of the ship due to the tremendous speed of the vessel. Winston Churchill sent his personal congratulations. In classic British humor, Punch Magazine commented "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."
A crowd cheers on the SS United States at the Southampton Ocean Terminal (left). The SS United States in Southampton (right).
The SS United States is greeted by a crowd of spectators upon arrival to Le Havre.
After a few days, the SS United States traveled to Le Havre and was greeted with another gala and an enthusiastic French reception. On July 10, the SS United States returned home westbound with approximately 1,600 passengers. Notable passengers on Voyage 1 westbound included Milton Berle and Vincent Astor. America's flagship passed the Ambrose Light on July 14, 1952. The westbound record was set at 3 days, 12 hours, and 12 minutes, averaging 34.51 knots. The SS United States had made a "clean sweep" and flew a 40 foot banner of the Blue Ribbon above the wheelhouse to signify capturing both the eastbound and westbound records. America's flagship was greeted with another gala and reception at New York harbor and was again saluted by ships in the harbor with great fanfare. The SS United States had proclaimed her mark in history. The ship was met at New York by President and Mrs. Truman who came to pick up their daughter. The band continuously played the Star Spangled Banner. It was a joyous occasion for both America and her flagship.
After a "clean sweep" of the records, the SS United States is seen here returning triumphantly to New York. Note the 40 foot Blue Ribbon pennant hanging above the wheelhouse.
Click here to view the log abstract for Voyage 1.
Click here to read the New York Times coverage of Voyage 1.