Ever since my mother introduced me to the story of the RMS Titanic and Titanic Historical Society, I have always been interested in the world of ocean liners. I have toured the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA twice (the second time they had a Titanic exhibit) and have sailed on the RMS Queen Mary 2. One of my projects SOS United States is based around the story of an ocean liner. Of course it was the international premiere of Justice Is Mind on the MS Queen Elizabeth that has been a career highlight. Thus, you can imagine my excitement when I learned about the Ocean Liners exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.
Last Tuesday, on my birthday, I drove to the museum to check out this exhibit and could not have been more impressed with the level of detail and information. The exhibit starts with how the cruise lines advertised and promoted their ships before moving on to engineering, artifacts and life on board during those heyday times of travel by ocean liner. The 1947 model of the RMS Queen Elizabeth, which once adorned the New York offices of Cunard, was a featured display.
For me I was particularly interested in learning more about the SS United States. As some of you may know, in my story SOS United States the fictional SS Leviathan is based on the SS United States. As she was partially funded by the United States government, she was designed for speed and conversion to a troop ship in times of conflict. The tank and plating models were fascinating. Then there were select pieces of her fittings that were truly spectacular. But seeing the Blue Riband trophy on display really illustrated her place in history. The trophy was won by the SS United States in 1952 for recording the highest speed for westbound service in the Atlantic Ocean. She still holds that title today.
But for all the glitz and glamour of those days, there were those ocean liners that met unfortunate times. No story is more tragic and sad than that of the RMS Titanic. When I entered one of the galleries I saw a piece of beautifully sculpted wood on one of the walls. It was from her first class lounge. Apparently it had washed up in Nova Scotia after her tragic sinking on April 15, 1912. I found myself just staring at it and imagining the pomp and circumstance of those entering the lounge to enjoy a festive evening only to then picture the sheer horror as they tried to escape a doomed ship. We will never know what that was like, but this piece of living history is a reminder of those days long gone.
Another highlight was from Titanic’s sister ship RMS Olympic (known as “old reliable” as she was in service until 1935). Seeing the clock from her Grand Staircase was truly something. Considering this panel was identical on Titanic, it just makes that time in history all the more real when you see artifacts like this. There was other unique area of the exhibit that featured the entertainment industry. Select scenes from movies that took place on ocean liners; one of my favorites starring Bette Davis and Paul Henried in Now, Voyager.
But voyages by sea are still, in my view, the best way to travel. You arrive at the port of embarkation with your ship looming up in the near distance calling for attention. Soon you find yourself on board as your luggage is brought to you. And before you know it, you sail into your holiday. However, if your holiday is a New England one, visit the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ocean Liners exhibit. You’ll be glad you boarded.
S.O.S. United States. The call went out by the SS United States Conservancy this week and was answered by media around the world. From The New York Times, to The Telegraph to CBS, the famed ocean liner SS United States may be auctioned by the end of the month and scrapped unless a buyer, developer or investors save America’s flagship. As the conservancy’s Executive Director Susan Gibbs stated to CBS, “We have never been closer to saving the ship and never closer to losing her”.
After World War II, the United States government realized the value ocean liners could bring when Cunard’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were converted into troop ships during the war. Partially funded by the government, the SS United States keel was laid in 1950 and was launched in 1951. A technological marvel, she projected American pride around the world and shattered speed records during her sea trials sailing through the ocean at 38 knots or 44 miles per hour. She won the eastbound and westbound Blue Riband for speed records in 1952 and still, to this day, holds the westbound title. So advanced were her propellers and steam turbine engines, they were classified Top Secret until the 1970s. In the event of war, she could quickly be converted to a troop ship for 15,000 soldiers.
Of course, with jet travel literally taking off in the 1960s, the SS United States along with the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were withdrawn from service. While the Queen Elizabeth was lost in a mysterious fire in Hong Kong, the Queen Mary is still with us as a museum ship in Long Beach, California. I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Queen Mary on a few occasions. That liner still projects to this day a symbol of an era that should be remembered, not scrapped.
I have long wanted to write a story that revolved around an ocean liner. A story that also enveloped the complexities of world governments and the atmosphere of the Cold War, but set in the present. In SOS United States we learn that the “world’s fastest ocean liner” is heading to New York and may, or may not, have a nuclear device on board. Modeled after the SS United States, the ship is called the SS Leviathan. In the real world the SS Leviathan was originally called the Vaterland until it was seized by the United States government after World War I and became the flagship of the United States Lines; the same line that would eventually build the SS United States. It was maritime engineer William Francis Gibbs who renovated the Leviathan and who went on to design his dream ship the SS United States. Entirely self-taught, he devoted himself to this singular passion.
And now that same passion has been picked up by his granddaughter Susan Gibbs. Her tireless efforts, determination and commitment to save this ship reflects the best in America—pride.
Stated Gibbs, “It’s our shared history as a nation.”
SS United States