Exploring the SSUS as a Teenager by Scott Davis
My fondness for the S.S. UNITED STATES all started with the wonderful and always gracious Frank Braynard. I had literally bought his last copy of “The Big Ship” he had for sale and read it cover to cover in about a day. From that time forward, I was completely hooked. Realizing the ship was mothballed “somewhere around Norfolk”, I contacted Frank, and he gave me the information for then owners U.S. Cruises. I immediately wrote a letter to U.S. Cruises and asked for permission to visit the ship in Newport News. Though at the time I did not know it, my mother had also sent a letter with mine explaining the genuine and vested interest of her teenage son. At this point, you can imagine the excitement when U.S. Cruises responded that I would be allowed to visit the ship. That initial letter still hangs framed and matted on my study wall. Thanks again Mom!
I was 19 during my first visit, and drove about 14 hours from my land locked home in Indiana to reach the ship in Newport News. On that first visit, I was lucky enough to meet and befriend most of the folks that U.S. Cruises had watching over the ship, and especially a wonderful fellow I will simply refer to as Jim. He worked on the ship and was mainly involved in maintaining the electrical and dehumidification systems. Through his kindness, I was able to tour almost every part of the ship from stem to stern, mast top to shaft alley. I am sure I made it to parts of the ship that no private visitor had ventured into in some time. After making the rounds with him and reviewing safety procedures, I was free to wander into anyplace I could manage. I honestly think the only place I never made it was the morgue… which remains the one place onboard that I had no desire to visit.
On those several trips I spent most of my time in the public and cabin areas. Certainly the passing of time, the auction, Navy Seal visits, scavenger and souvenir hunters and taken their toll on the Big U … but there was a lot of evidence of her glorious past. Most of the public rooms had been relieved of their artworks and furnishings, but some pieces remained onboard and were in remarkably good condition. All the public rooms were still carpeted; and many still had their draperies hung at the windows. A lot of the large-built in furniture was also intact. For instance, the ballroom still had the Gilbert carved glass panels, built in sofas, carpet, draperies, table stanchions and miscellaneous chairs. I must say those glass panels were so incredibly beautiful! The First Class theater was also almost completely intact … all the seating remained as did the glittering pom-pomed stage curtains. The Novelty shop adjacent to that room still smelled deeply of perfumes and powders.
My favorite public room on board was the Observation Lounge. This room was pretty empty of all furnishings, but there was still one 3 seat sofa and one 4 person “writing” desk still in the space. The kelly-green carpet and all of the multi-colored blue and green draperies were still in place on my first visit. I was lucky enough to be given a section of drapery panels from this room on my second visit. I’m sure the remaining drapery panels eventually made it to Turkey and the Ukraine. This drapery panel remains one of my most cherished SSUS possessions. Not many dry-cleaning shops can handle cleaning items of this size and weight.
The cabin areas also had many of the same attributes of the public areas. The furniture and fittings in the famous “U -suites” were completely gone, but many of the other rooms still had furniture remaining. Most of the cabins still had their “convertible” sofa bed … which looked remarkably new considering they had not been used in over 20 years. Many cabins still contained scores of aluminum hardware (hooks, towel rods, holders), triptych mirrors, and almost always carpet and curtains. As I ventured into Cabin Class and Tourist Class areas, I discovered that many more furniture items (like aluminum dressers) were still in place. I guess the auctioneers only tried to sell the really good stuff from the First Class spaces. I was told later, that many of the mattresses from the ship were donated to homeless shelters all around Chesapeake Bay.
I also spent a great deal of time in the machinery spaces … all of them quite amazing and completely perplexing. These parts of the ship were normally off limits to any visitor, again I was lucky to have the ability to have access. Certainly the secrecy of these spaces had long since been declassified, however safety was always a concern. Honestly, it would have been easy to be lost or injured in these deep dark areas of the ship. Luckily, I learned my way around quite quickly and efficiently. The enormous boilers and propulsion equipment were completely intact and remarkably rust and corrosion free. The boiler rooms were packed with hardly an inch to spare, in contrast to the engine spaces which certainly offered more room to walk and maneuver. It was easy to imagine W. F. Gibbs, or Chief Engineer Kaiser walking about these areas and inspecting every dial and gauge.
One unique area on the ship at this time was “Hadley’s Treasure Room”. You would not find this space labeled as such on any plan of the ship … as it was a nickname for a former B Deck “crew mess” that was turned into a storage space during the USC tenure. Here is where many treasures left aboard after the auction were stored. In the photo you can see at least one of the engine room telegraphs and many other pieces of bridge equipment. Also evident in the photo are different pieces of silver service and small pieces of artwork. Most interestingly, there is a small stack of about 5 Gwen Lux “state medallions” that once graced the First Class Dining Room. I always wondered which states remained and were not purchased at the auction. No one will probably ever know!
Overall, I do not think anyone could deny the ship was in need of cosmetic and custodial attention; and I think the ownership by U.S. Cruises was not perceived well by ship buffs. I remember many articles and excerpts from nautical trade publications that were not too supportive of any activity that took place on the vessel. However, there really was a lot of preservation and maintenance that did take place on-board those many years. The dehumidification system installed by MarAd in the 70’s was still in place and operational my last visit in 1991. There was always a guard onboard and on duty 24/7/365. My friend Jim constantly preformed tasks and kept the general electrical system intact and operational (including at least 2 elevators). Even the simple task of placing a Christmas tree on the bridge was done every holiday season. In all, this work was a daunting task for a small group of local folks, and credit should be given for all their efforts.
I’m sure that many folks have similar stories and experiences surrounding the greatest passenger ship ever built in this county: the S.S. UNITED STATES, our national flagship. Maybe at some point each of our paths will cross and we can share these stories in person. It is my sincerest hope that our collective efforts will bring some form of useful life back into her hull that now sleeps in Philadelphia. Nothing would please me more.