The Lesson of the SS United States

Last weekend on the way to the Philadelphia airport, I asked my host, Jay Baines, if he could take me to the Philly pier across the street the IKEA store. I wanted to look through the fence and see the rusting hull of the greatest ship ever designed—the S.S. United States. I’d just finished a terrific book about the ship and its designer, William Francis Gibbs. Here are some quotes and summarizations from A Man and His Ship, by Steven Ujifusa.

The first time he saw an ocean liner, William Francis Gibbs, eight, knew what he wanted to do with his life. On a rainy November 13, 1894, twenty-five thousand people waited outside the gates of Philadelphia’s Cramp Shipyard on the banks of the Delaware River. They were there to see a marvel of the age: the steamship St. Louis, one of the largest ocean liners in the world. To little William, the launching of the new ship on that drizzly November day marked the start of a lifelong love affair. “That was my first view of a great ship and from that day forward I dedicated my life to ships,” William Francis Gibbs later recalled. “I have never regretted it.”

From that day, the bookish, sickly William Francis Gibbs began thinking and reading of nothing but ships. Back at his father’s mansion on North Broad Street, his bedroom was cluttered with technical publications that he quietly read into the night. He attended Harvard and Columbia specializing in law, but he kept only one thing on his mind—building the greatest transcontinental ocean liner in history. He and his brother Frederic booked passage on the great ships of their times, like the Lusitania and Mauritania, to study their designs firsthand.

In February 1922, they formed Gibbs Brothers Inc.; and in 1927, William Frances married a New York socialite. But his work always came first. His wife later said, “It may sound trite but he knew what he was going to do in life. He wanted to build ships—if that meant being the best naval architect, all right—but building ships was the most important thing in the world to him.”

During the Second World War, Gibb’s joined forces with FDR and the American Navy to construct a navel fleet that would battle the Axis is the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. His company designed 70 percent of all the naval ships in World War II, including the landing craft that carried the American soldiers onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. And after the War, he was recognized as America’s most successful naval architect. He was spotlighted on the cover of Time Magazine.

As soon as the war was over, he got back to his lifelong dream—designing the greatest ocean liner in the history of travel and the greatest ship in the history of sailing. It didn’t seem to dawn on him that the era of transatlantic voyages was about to be superseded by air travel. He proceeded to build his ship, which cost nearly $80 million — a staggering sum in the postwar economy. The government subsidized most of it, and she was named the SS United States. She sailed into New York harbor for the first time on June 23, 1952, greeted by a cacophony of hooting tugs and spraying fireboats. Planes and helicopters carrying newsreel cameramen whizzed over the tops of her funnels and her radar mast.

At the end of the first transatlantic crossing, during which the SS United States broke all speed records, Gibbs’ wife wrote, “The trip of trips was now drawing to a close. I look back on the weeks, months, and years that W.F. spent on the S.S. United States. I wonder how his enthusiasm remained undiminished. The series of disappointments he had to face, the political battles he had to face, all those went on for so long. Those aggravations kept repeating themselves, with slight variations, over and over again. What I always wondered was why the wellspring of W.F.’s enthusiasm didn’t dry up. I am reminded of what Edmund Burke wrote: ‘The nerve that never relaxes, thought that never wanders, the purpose that never wavers, these are the masters of victory.’”

For about a decade, the SS United States was the most famous travel craft in the world, but as air travel became safer and cheaper, the great ocean liners struggled to fill their berths. Gibbs died in 1967. Three years later, in 1970, after sailing the seas for only seventeen years, the United States was bankrupt and mothballed. Her rusting, gutted remains now sit among the piers in Philadelphia, waiting to either be restored or scrapped as junk.

For me, the lesson was this. From the age of eight until he died at eighty-one, William Francis Gibbs was driven by a single dream, one he managed to fulfill and accomplish. But his vision was short-lived and literally turned to rust. And interestingly in his last days, Gibbs turned his attention in another direction. He became very involved in his Episcopal church in New York City. It’s as if he realized that the dreams of his world—however grand and glorious—are short-lived things; and true happiness only comes when we build our lives on things eternal.

Here are some pictures I snapped. For my sermon that includes this illustration, click here.