Life and Times of the SS United States

William Francis Gibbs

Ship Statistics

Life and Times of the SS United States


William Francis Gibbs is born on August 24th 1886 into an affluent Philadelphia family. His brother and future business partner, Frederic, is born 2 years later. By the age of 3 William is drawing his first ship pictures.


November 12th, 1894 at the age of eight, Gibbs witnesses the christening of the St. Louis, the largest American passenger liner ever built. He is instantly enamored with ships and the direction of his life is set. He begins dreaming of designing a 1000ft American superliner and starts to read engineering journals.

1906 Gibbs starts his undergraduate studies at Harvard – he refuses to follow the curriculum and takes the courses that interest him- everything that touches on naval architecture. One of his favorite pastimes at Harvard is re-designing British battleships.
1910 After graduating from Harvard he grudgingly goes to Columbia law school on the advice of his father. While taking his required law classes he continues designing blueprints of naval ships and educating himself in marine design.
1913 Gibbs receives his bachelors of law degree while simultaneously receiving a Masters of the Arts.

May 1915 Gibbs decides he is advanced enough in his designs for a 1,000ft liner and stops practicing law to devote all of his attention to perfecting the superliner designs.

Later that same year Gibbs and his brother Frederic land a meeting with GE executive, Mr. Emmet. He agrees to have the company draw up the preliminary outlines that a ship of 1,000ft needs to break the Atlantic speed record.


William and Frederic go through a whirlwind of meetings with important figures such as Chief Constructor of the US Navy - Admiral David Taylor, Secretary of the Navy - Josephus Daniels, and head of the International Mercantile Marine – Phillip A.S. Franklin.

Later in 1916 Phillip Franklin sets up a meeting for the Gibbs brothers with J.P Morgan, controller of the largest fleet of passenger ships in the world. At this meeting J.P Morgan agrees to finance the final plans for the 1,000ft superliner.


April 1917, the US declares war on Germany and Gibbs is forced to put his plans on the shelf and support the war effort. He is appointed as the assistant to the Chairman of the shipping control committee.

The United States seizes a German passenger liner named the Vaterland. The Vaterland is renamed the Leviathan and converted into an American troop ship to carry soldiers to Europe.

1919 The Leviathan overhaul is assigned to the Gibbs Brothers. It is the largest project the Gibbs brothers have ever undertaken and it sets their company firmly on an independent course.
1922 - 1922 William Francis Gibbs and his brother Frederic set up their own company called Gibbs Bros Inc.
1930 Gibbs Bros Inc. changes to Gibbs & Cox with the addition of Daniel Cox a well-known yacht designer.
1930 - 1933 Early 1930s the company makes a major contribution to the U.S. Navy. William Francis Gibbs determines that to make a new class of navy destroyers more efficient, steam pressure in the ships’ boilers must be raised. He is able to demonstrate how raising steam pressure actually makes the ships more reliable and effective. This advancement increases the efficiency of the “New Navy” by 25%.
1939 The oceanliner America is launched. It is designed and built by the Gibbs & Cox team. It is the largest liner built in the United States up to this point and is the precursor for the S.S. United States.
1939 - 1944 During WWII under William Francis Gibbs’ direction, Gibbs & Cox produces the designs or working plans for over 63 percent of all oceangoing merchant vessels built in the war period and 74 percent of all naval vessels earning him the nickname of “Mr. Navy.”
1946 General John M. Franklin, President of the United States Lines shipping company, officially requests Gibbs & Cox to start design work on the superliner.
1948 April 5th 1948 the very first finished model of the new superliner was revealed in front of top officials.

Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock is contracted to do the construction of the ship.

April 7th 1949 – US Lines agrees to offer 28 million dollars to the financing of the ship to go along with the rest of the money being subsidized by the government. The total cost coming to over 70 million dollars. Her length would be 990ft and her beam 101 ft.
1950 February 8th, 1950 the keel of the S.S. United States is laid. Twenty-five hundred men are employed at the yard on construction work. Other companies across the country are hired to prefabricate interior work and equipment.


May 14th 1952 first set of the ships sea trials are underway testing efficiency of engines and builders economy.

June 9th 1952 – the most anticipated speed sea trials commence. This is the only documented time that the engines are pushed to almost full capacity. It is at this time where it is deemed likely the new superliner will take the Atlantic speed record from the British Queen Mary. Revealed later in 1977 that on this sea trial the ship exceeded 38 knots.

June, 21st 1952 at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. The wife of well-known Senator Tom Connolly performs the traditional bottle breaking ceremony for the new liner S.S. United States – the new flagship of the American fleet.

June 21st 1952 - ten thousand people attend the launch; it is the first big ship christening to be televised. Spectators line the streets and watch from rooftops.

July 3rd 1952 – the S.S. United States embarks on her maiden voyage from Pier 86 in New York Harbor to the cheers of thousands.

July 7th 1952 – The “Big U” captures the Blue Riband by crushing the Queen Mary’s record by a whopping 12hours. The official time is 3 days 10 hours and 40 minutes at an average speed of 35.59 knots.

1952 - 1958 The “Big U” is the pride of the Atlantic carrying heads of state and celebrities ranging from President Eisenhower to Rita Hayworth. Companies like American Coffee, Westinghouse, IBM, Kodak, Newsweek, Formica, Socony Mobil, and Esquire boot polish – all feature her in their advertising. She is the Flagship of America’s merchant marine.

October 4th 1958 Pan America’s first transatlantic jet passenger service flies from New York to London.

The late 50s brings labor troubles in the maritime world. A tugmen’s strike goes on for over a week and there are no tugs to help the 990ft 53,300-ton S.S. United States pull into the dock in New York. Commodore Anderson docks the ship unaided by tug boats.
1964 The S.S. America is removed from North Atlantic passenger service leaving the S.S. United States as the last U.S.-flagged liner servicing the Atlantic
1964 - 1967

Mid 1960’s the number of passengers on the “Big U” fluctuates and there is an unmistakable decline in revenues.

In September of 1967 at the age of 81, William Francis Gibbs dies, one day after the arrival of the “Big U” into New York City, completing voyage No. 352.

1967 The Queen Mary is retired from service and one year later her sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, is decommissioned as well.
1968 The Rhodes Scholar class sails on the S.S. United States as a means for the students to become acclimated to each other and to prepare for their upcoming academic experience. One of the students is future President Bill Clinton.

October 1969 the S.S. United States embarks on her 400th voyage. Unbeknownst to the crew and passengers, it will be her last.

Upon docking in New York harbor on November 7th, 1969, Commodore Leroy J. Alexanderson rings “finished with engines.” This will be the last time the S.S. United States will dock in New York.

The S.S. United States quietly slips out of service and out of the minds of the generation that once hailed her as the pride of the Atlantic and the country.

1973 The U.S. Navy is called in by the Maritime Administration to seal the ship and install dehumidifiers to preserve her for active duty. When the Department of Defense determines it has no use for the huge ship, she is offered for sale.
1980 Developer Richard Hadley of Seattle purchases the vessel in 1980. He intends to restore her to active cruise service under a condominium time-sharing scheme, but financing never materializes.
1984 Hadley decides to auction the ship's interior furnishings and fittings to pay creditors. Guernsey's of New York manages the auction which turns out to be the largest in history.

In February of 1992, U.S. Marshals seize the S.S. United States due to unpaid mortgage and docking fees. Fred Mayer of Marmara Marine, Inc. purchases the ship at auction for $2.6 million.

To avoid any lawsuits resulting in the ship’s abundant use of asbestos-laden wallboard , she is towed to Istanbul, Turkey in June of 1992, and then on to the Ukraine to be stripped of all hazardous material.

The S.S. United States Preservation Society, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the S.S. United States, supports the introduction of the S.S. United States Preservation Act of 1992, Congressional legislation designed to protect the ship from destruction.

1996 The S.S. United States is towed back to the United States in 1996 and is moored in Philadelphia on the Delaware River. She is sold again in November 1997, this time to real estate developer Edward Cantor for $6 million dollars. Cantor dies in February of 2002, passing the ship to his son Michael.
1999 The S.S. United States Foundation plays a lead role in convincing the National Registry of Historic Places to accept the ship into the Registry even though she is less than the threshold of 50 years old due to her "compelling National significance."
2003 The ship changes hands a final time, amid concern the S.S. United States may be sold for scrap, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) purchases the ship in April, 2003.
2006 The National Trust for Historic Preservation has included the S.S. United States among its 2006 nominees for its prestigious "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" list thanks to advocacy of the S.S. United States Foundation.
Today The S.S. United States’ fate is still unknown. Her current owner NCL has made no public announcements as to a final plan for the ship. She still sits on the Delaware River in Philadelphia awaiting her future.

"The heyday of the ships transatlantic career are traditionally dominated narratives of the Cold War and the sixties social ferment.  This ship provides a fresh vantage point on the era...the ship's history is a floating vehicle for a terrific story of life and culture in postwar America."

Daniel Walkowitz, Professor of Culture and History, NYU