In June of 1970, the ship was towed without power to Norfolk International Terminal. United States Lines continued to pay docking fees for the ship until 1973 when title to the ship was officially turned over to the Maritime Administration. The Maritime Administration purchased the ship from United States Lines for $4.6 million. United States Lines was relieved of the burden of spending over $12.9 million to date on an idle superliner. Soon thereafter, to prevent corrosion, an elaborate dehumidifying system was installed leaving the ship virtually airtight. Rumors circulated that the ship was to be revived and would become such things as a floating museum, cruise ship, and recommissioned as a luxury liner. Even a ceremonious return to New York in 1976 was discussed to help celebrate the nation's gala bicentennial. Unfortunately, none of this would come about and the ship remained dormant.
America's flagship is seen here docked at Norfolk International Terminal where she would spend many of her years laid up.
Once owned by the Maritime Administration, the organization conducted studies to determine the feasibility of converting the SS United States into a hospital ship or military vessel. It was rumored that the SS United States would become the USNS United States serving as a hospital ship in the Indian Ocean. Her vast interior space, ease of conversion, and high speed all made the SS United States a prime candidate for this role. The Defense Department supported this plan, but the Navy Department who would operate her felt she would be too costly to operate. This marked the end of the pursuit of a military solution.
During this same period of time, there were rumors the government would place the SS United States in the naval reserve fleet on the nearby James River. This never came about likely due to the fact that there was not enough clearance for the funnels and forward radar mast due to inadequate bridge clearance.
There were regulations stating the SS United States could not be sold to foreign interests or other national interests without the consent of the United States government. In the late 1970s, Norwegian Caribbean Cruise Lines was searching for a secondhand liner for their expanding Caribbean cruise operations in Miami. Due to the regulations, the Maritime Administration was forced to reject their inquiries. The company instead purchased the SS France and returned her to service as the Norway, the world's largest cruise liner. The successful Norway would continue cruise operations out of Miami to this day.
The SS France (left) was purchased by Norwegian Cruise Lines and became the Norway (right) after the organization considered purchasing the SS United States. This illustrates what type of conversion the SS United States might have undergone at the time.
With the potential of finding a government role for the SS United States dwindling, the Maritime Administration began to actively seek a purchaser for America's once proud flagship. The SS United States was now viewed as a liability by the United States government due to docking fees at Norfolk International Terminal and upkeep costs. The initial asking price was $12 million. In 1978, a high bid of $7.5 million was placed by Svanholm Research Laboratories of Washington. They failed to submit a deposit, so the ship went unsold. However, Richard H. Hadley had submitted the second highest bid of $5 million. The Maritime Administration did not at first accept it due to the fact that Richard Hadley was asking for government subsidies.
Meanwhile, Hadley, a Seattle entrepreneur formed a new business venture called United States Cruises with the goal of restoring the SS United States as a cruise ship that would bear the same name and operate as an American vessel. He devised a plan that would make America's flagship the world's first condominium-style time share cruise ship. Negotiations were soon underway with the Maritime Administration, which had come to accept his plans. In early 1980, the SS United States was towed to Norshipco to undergo inspection. The paint and hull condition were said to be exceptional. After over a decade of being idle the SS United States was in nearly operable condition. The ship was again returned to Norfolk.
Following the favorable inspection, title to the ship was officially transferred to Hadley. Most of the fuel was soon pumped out and sold. The ship would cost roughly $150 million to refit. Brochures were printed, press releases issued, time share deposits were taken, and contracts were signed with shipyards. It was rumored that there were plans to send the ship to Haiti for asbestos removal. Following that, Alabama Shipbuilding & Drydock Company would install a new top sun deck, and the ship would finally travel to HDW Shipyards in Hamburg to undergo final outfitting. Due to financial difficulties, no major work was ever performed on the SS United States by the Hadley interests.
In October of 1984, the Hadley interests organized an auction to help pay for the ship's mounting costs. Guernsey's of New York managed the auction which turned out to be the largest auction in history. Virtually everything removable was put up for sale. The ship's dinnerware, blankets, deck chairs, furniture, interior decorations, even bridge equipment, whistles, and bell were all sold. Today, much of the Big U's artifacts live on in places like the Windmill Point Restaurant at Nags Head on North Carolina's outer banks and Virginia's Maritime Museum. Unable to pay mounting docking fees, United States Cruises Inc. was forced into bankruptcy. To learn more about Hadley's time sharing plan, click here.
The SS United States is seen here immediately before her valuables were sold at auction.
In February of 1992, U.S. Marshals seized the SS United States and filed a court motion to sell the ship at auction. Hopes for America's flagship were dim as the high bid could very well have come from a salvage company. Hope for America's flagship would again come when Fred Mayer of Marmara Marine, Inc. purchased the ship at auction for $2.6 million. Fred Mayer emigrated to the United States during the 1960s aboard the luxury liner SS United States. He and his partners, a shipyard owner in Istanbul, Turkey and a wealthy entrepreneur and developer from New Jersey named Edward Cantor negotiated a partnership with Cunard Lines. Cunard would turn the SS United States into a running mate for their popular Queen Elizabeth II.
In June of 1992, America's flagship was towed to Istanbul, Turkey where workers were to restore the ship. Due to its fireproofing properties, asbestos was incorporated extensively throughout the SS United States. The ship's interiors were gutted down to their metal bulkheads to remove the material. Unfortunately, Cunard lost interest in operating another ship like the SS United States. In July of 1996, Mayer and Cantor had the ship towed back to U.S. waters in Philadelphia. In November of 1997, the ship was purchased by Edward Cantor for $6 million. In February of 2002, Edward Cantor passed away and title to the ship was passed on to his son Michael. There were rumors the SS United States would be sold quickly, possibly to a foreign scrapping firm because Michael Cantor did not share the same enthusiasm for the SS United States as his father. If it weren't for the Cantors, the SS United States would have surely been scrapped in the mid 1990s. They helped pay to have the ship towed back to Philadelphia and paid a rumored $1,000 per day to dock the ship at the pier in Philadelphia for a period of six years.
Above, the SS United States was towed to Istanbul, Turkey to undergo removal of asbestos and to subsequently be restored as a cruise ship running mate to Cunard's Queen Elizabeth II.
America's flagship enters Istanbul Turkey (left) and is docked at about the time of the asbestos removal phase (right).
Numerous groups were formed to advocate awareness for the SS United States. In 1997, the SS United States Foundation was formed to advocate the preservation of the SS United States and to spread the awareness of the plight of America's flagship. The 501c nonprofit organization is headed by Chairman Robert H. Westover. The SS United States Foundation was successful in June of 1999 at getting the SS United States listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, to spread awareness, the organization has succeeded in generating thousands of media hits in publications such as the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The SS United States Preservation Society was founded in 1992 by Bill DiBenedetto with the goal of introducing Congressional legislation to save the Big U from destruction. The organization played a lead role in raising public awareness of the ship's plight and in securing the ship's listing on the National Register of Historic Places. More recently, in 2004 the SS United States Conservancy was formed as an initiative of the SS United States Preservation Society. The goal of the initiative is to promote the legacy of the ship through a collaborative effort which aims to bring together the current stakeholders which include former passengers and crew, Norwegian Cruise Line, and all other enthusiasts and individuals associated with the ship.
During its 50 years of existence, the SS United States has had only one truly successful decade (1952-1962). Unlike ships like Titanic that became legends due to their quick demise, America's flagship had a near perfect but abbreviated service career. America's flagship was slowly dying due to four decades of misfortune which has included union turmoil, corruption, a withering market, decreased government subsidies, financial failures, the squandering of her interiors and artifacts, and a general lack of maintenance and upkeep. Given this, it is amazing America's flagship survived this great hardship.
It is ironic that what made America's flagship so successful is largely what prevented the ship from finding a useful role for so long. The ship consumes over 859 tons of fuel oil per day, making the ship uneconomical to run. High fuel consumption was necessary to achieve tremendous speed. Asbestos was used for fireproofing and made the interiors costly to upgrade. In addition, United States maritime regulations prevented sale of the vessel to foreign lines during the 1970s and 1980s when it would have been easiest to return the ship to service. Just when many had given up hope of ever seeing the SS United States returned to service, Norwegian Cruise Line stepped in...
The SS United States at Pier 82 in Philadelphia.