Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Historical Preservation
The 20% federal tax credit for historic preservation is said to have been the special pet of Senator Lugar of Indiana. Much of the recent transformation of Philadelphia's downtown is attributed to this incentive.

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Philadelphia has always been defined by the waters that surround it.

Right Angle Club 2009
The 2009 proceedings of the Right Angle Club of Philadelphia, beginning with the farewell address of the outgoing president, John W. Nixon, and sadly concluding with memorials to two departed members, Fred Etherington and Harry Bishop.

Saving the United States

Anyone crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge into Philadelphia or driving along Columbus Boulevard along the port's edge can't help but see two red smoke stacks rising above the pier buildings at a rakish angle. They belong to the SS United States, the fastet ocean liner ever to ply the Atlantic or any other sea. On her maiden voyage in 1952 she traveled between Ambrose Light Ship in New York harbor and Bishop Rock off Cornwall, UK, in 3 days, 11 hours and 40 minutes topping the previous record held by the Queen Mary by over 10 hours, setting a new record that still remains unbroken. They teach people at Annapolis that the top speed of a naval vessel is related to the length of the ship at the waterline. Contrary to what you might expect, the bigger the boat, the faster it is capable of going. That's just the theoretical limit, of course, and things start to shake a little when you approach that limit, which is a function of the square root of the length. Submarines generally can't outrun a liner, so in wartime liners travel alone instead of in convoys. But now this ship unhappily is a derelict headed for the scrap yard unless efforts to raise the money necessary to bring her back to life are successful. Dan McSweeney, vice president of the SS United States Conservancy whose father emigrated from Scotland to work aboard the ship, gave the Right Angle Club members a heart-felt slide presentation of why he thinks the United States must be saved.

During WWII ocean liners were pressed into service as troop carriers; not many people were taking pleasure cruises at the time. They were fast, reliable and able to carry thousands of troops to overseas destinations and thus allow warships to be used to fight rather than as transports. The SS United States was built to Navy specs right from the start to fulfill this mission should it ever arise and yet be a premier ocean liner with all the amenities people expect from a cruise ship. The idea worked out well and she was a spectacular success with a long list of famous people who have walked her decks - including several Right Anglers who still have fond memories of their crossings. The ship was a regular player in the ocean liner trade right up until 1969 when she was decommissioned by her owners and laid up at Newport News where she was built between 1950 and 1952. Since then she's had several owners and been idled at a number of ports. She's presently owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines, a company that bought her in 2003 with serious plans to put her back in service with new engines and a total refitting. Alas, the costs were astronomical and given the current economic conditions the plans have been dropped by NCL so here she lies awaiting her fate.

{(L-R) Richard Rabbett, Susan Gibbs, Jeff Henry, and Dan McSweeney}
(L-R) Richard Rabbett, Susan Gibbs, Jeff Henry, and Dan McSweeney

The SS United States Conservancy was formed to ensure that her fate is not to be converted to metal cans or whatever else thousands of tons of scrap metal might be used for. One doesn't have to be an aficionado of ocean liners to be entranced by the United States; she's not only big, beautiful and sleek but a real symbol of the power and glory that all Americans have come to associate with their country. The founders of the Conservancy all recognize these attributes and have family ties that make them truly passionate about saving the ship. Besides Dan, whose father was noted above as having come to America to work on her, the president of the Conservancy, Susan Gibbs, is the granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, the naval architect who designed the ship. Another board member, Charles B. Anderson, is the son of the longest-serving master of the United States, Commodore John W. Anderson. So, it's not too surprising to hear of their pride and zeal relative to the ship. They are also experienced scholars, historians and fund raisers so we can hope that something good can yet be done.

Several PBS documentaries have been produced to educate us Americans, frequent meetings with city planners and philanthropists take place, especially in Philadelphia and New York City where the greatest interest currently lies and where maritime museums and displays are already in place due to their own history. In the meantime the present owners are paying Philadelphia Regional Port Authority $1000 a day for docking fees and simple maintenance while awaiting public money to be found. Because of previous owners having stripped her in their efforts to recoup their costs, she's really just a shell at present and whatever is finally decided to make of her (if she's saved at all) will be a project almost as big as her initial construction. Her initial cost to build in the early 1950s was $78 million. To bring her back to life, estimates range from a low of approximately $200 million all the way up to $700 million. This writer fervently hopes that one day we are lucky enough to once again walk the decks of the SS United States as a museum piece and symbol of the pride of the American people.

Originally published: Monday, June 15, 2009; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019

11"The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more— 12cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men.

14"They will say, 'The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your riches and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.' 15The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment. They will weep and mourn 16and cry out:
" 'Woe! Woe, O great city, Revelation 18
Posted by: Grace   |   Dec 16, 2009 9:56 PM
I was 16 the summer of 1952 and my Dad, Jack Naso worked for the U.S. Lines. We watched as she sailed past Pier 61 on her maiden voyage. It was a
fantastic sight that I will always remember it. I also had the chance to go aboard the S.S. America.
Posted by: Joe Naso   |   Dec 12, 2009 10:29 PM