How an American Ship Dominated the Golden Age of Ocean Liners

In ‘This Week in History,’ European nations vie for maritime dominance with their massive and speedy ocean liners, but an American ship rises above them all.
How an American Ship Dominated the Golden Age of Ocean Liners
The SS United States photographed during her maiden voyage in 1952. (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass

Since the middle of the 19th century, the Blue Riband trophy had been unofficially awarded to the fastest commercial passenger ship to cross the North Atlantic. Ships were transitioning from sail to steam and from wood to steel, and by the 19th century’s end the transitions would be complete—and the awarding of the trophy would become official. This transition ushered in the Golden Age of ocean liners, demonstrated fully on Sept. 19, 1897, when the 655-foot, six-deck, four-funnel SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse made her maiden voyage.

The SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, with a cruising speed of 22.5 knots (25.9 mph), was an unmistakable show of German strength and naval ingenuity. When she made the transatlantic voyage in five days and 20 hours from March 30 to April 3, she triumphed as the world’s fastest commercial ocean liner, and with this triumph came the Blue Riband. It was the beginning of a European scramble for oceanic superiority and national pride.

The German liner SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in 1897, full starboard view. (Public Domain)
The German liner SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in 1897, full starboard view. (Public Domain)

For the next nine years, the title of fastest ocean liner would remain in German hands, though shared with ocean liners Deutschland and Kronprinz Wilhelm. The British, alarmed and irritated at the German dominance, had the Cunard-White Star line build two ocean liners: RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania—ocean liners that could also be refitted as troop ships.

In October 1907, the Lusitania completed the voyage in less than five days—four days, 19 hours, and 52 minutes—bested by her sister ship, Mauretania, in September 1909, with a run of four days, 10 hours, and 51 minutes. Britain would dominate the waves in more ways than militarily, until 1929 when the German ocean liner Bremen took the title. For the next decade, the title would switch between Britain, Germany, France (the first to break the four day threshold), and Italy, until 1938, when the 1,019-foot British ocean liner Queen Mary reigned supreme—a crown she would wear for the next 14 years.

For the Love of Ships

A decade before the Golden Age began, William Francis Gibbs was born in Philadelphia. Despite his educational opportunities, his grades typically floundered. At an elementary school age, however, he discovered his first and lasting love: ships. In 1894, at 8 years old, he and his father watched a ship built by William Cramp & Sons launch from the Cramp Shipyard. The company would go on to substantial maritime fame when it built Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet. Before graduating high school, he and his younger brother, Frederic, took several voyages on the great ocean liners of the day, starting with the Oceanic in 1901. The two boys also rode the Celtic, Lusitania, and the Mauretania on her maiden voyage in 1907.

A year before that maiden voyage, Gibbs entered Harvard. His plan didn’t involve obtaining a degree, but rather attending as many ship design and maritime classes as he could. His time at Harvard ended in 1910 (since he did not receive a degree, he is often considered a Harvard dropout). His life to this point involved two things: school and ships. A career, however, was needed, and his father encouraged him to pursue a law degree. He entered Columbia University Law School in 1911 and earned two degrees in 1913: one in law and another in economics.

He worked at a law firm in New York City for two years, but every weekend he took a train to Haverford, Pennsylvania, to join his brother in their pursuit of designing a 1,000-foot ocean liner that could compete with those that currently dominated the seas. After two years, Gibbs could no longer think of anything else and decided to end his law career and dedicate himself fully to the ship’s design. Less than a year later in January of 1916, he and Frederic completed the design to the extent that they believed it worthy for presentation. The Gibbs brothers presented their design to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Adm. David W. Taylor, chief constructor of the United States Navy.

A Career in Naval Architecture

The response was encouraging. Six months later, with an updated design, the two presented it to Philip Franklin, president of the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMMC). The Gibbs were onto something. Franklin introduced the two to financier mogul J.P. Morgan, who agreed to finance the continued research and development. The Gibbs had their proverbial ship pointed in the right direction, but Europe had been aflame with World War I (which had already claimed the Lusitania in 1915), and the fire would soon reach America. When the United States entered the global conflict in April of 1917, the American brass wished to keep Gibbs close by. He was hired as the assistant to the chairman of the Shipping Control Committee of the General Staff of the U.S. Army, a position he held throughout the war. When the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, Gibbs settled into a new position as assistant to the chairman with an equally long title for the upcoming Paris Peace Conference: U.S. Shipping Board on the American Commission to Negotiate Peace.

With the war over and the Treaty of Versailles signed, Gibbs was hired as the IMMC’s chief constructor. Gibbs oversaw several refittings of ships, including the SS Minnekahda into a third-class passenger ship and the Leviathan troop ship (which had originally been a German cruise ship) back into a passenger vessel. With the encouragement of the United States Shipping Board, the Gibbs founded Gibbs Brothers in 1922.

Gibbs seemed to be moving closer to building his great ocean liner. The new company designed and built the SS Malolo in 1926 for the Matson Navigation Company, which was the fastest and largest ocean liner built in the United States. The Malolo had barely launched before being labeled the “Pride of the Pacific.” Her advanced safety features were copied by other shipbuilders across the globe.

A Merger and WWII

Three years later, Gibbs Brothers was reorganized as Gibbs & Cox to include the renowned yacht designer, Daniel Cox. The new company designed several passenger and cargo vessels. In August 1938, the year of Queen Mary’s rise to maritime dominance, construction began for Gibbs & Cox’s grandest design—the 723-foot ocean liner SS America. A year later, on Aug. 31, 1939, with 30,000 spectators looking on, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt christened the ship. The following day, however, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. SS America would soon be refitted as a troop ship, though she would later return to her original purpose as a cruise ship.
Hull of the SS America under construction. (Public Domain)
Hull of the SS America under construction. (Public Domain)

World War II kept Gibbs & Cox busy. The company designed approximately 70 percent of the U.S. Navy’s ships, while also helping mass produce the cargo vessels known as Liberty Ships. The company also designed the Mahan-class of U.S. destroyers, which improved upon the Farragut class.

Gibbs’s goal of building his great ocean liner had been interrupted now by two world wars, but he never lost sight of the vision. The war was over and the goal was now in sight more than ever. When Gibbs met with United States Lines president John Franklin in March 1946, it was clear the two shared the same vision: to build the “greatest ship in the world.”

A Vision Realized

The SS United States in the 1950s at sea. (Public Domain)
The SS United States in the 1950s at sea. (Public Domain)

Gibbs’s ocean liner dream would finally see the light of day. The design for the SS United States required it to be fire resistant; therefore, no wood was used in the construction (fire had claimed the Normandie, the Blue Riband-winning French ocean liner). It was largely made of aluminum, which made her lighter and faster; it needed to be powerful, capable of long range travel, and luxurious.

It also needed to be big. The SS United States exceeded all of the design requirements. It was fully fire resistant, from the hull to the drapes; at 53,300 gross weight tons, it was nearly 30,000 gross weight tons lighter than the Queen Mary; its four steam turbine engines produced 240,000 horsepower, 80,000 more than the Queen Mary; it could cover 10,000 nautical miles without refueling; its interior design, led by Dorothy Marckwald, of the New York’s Smyth, Urquhart & Marckwald, proved exquisite, luring some of the world’s most prestigious and glamorous people, including Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, John Wayne, Walt Disney, Bob Hope, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando, Duke Ellington, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and several first families, like the Eisenhowers, Trumans, and Kennedys; and it reached, almost, the 1,000-foot goal at 990 feet.
An onboard stairway, with an aluminum sculpture of the Great Seal of the United States on each landing. (Public Domain)
An onboard stairway, with an aluminum sculpture of the Great Seal of the United States on each landing. (Public Domain)

Completed in secrecy by 3,000 workers in a Virginia dry dock, she could also be retrofitted as a troop ship, capable of carrying 14,000 troops. Conflict nearly derailed Gibbs’s dream again when the Korean War erupted, but by the time the ship was completed it was deemed unnecessary for the war. It was during this week in history, on June 23, 1951, that the SS United States was christened and launched.

The power and beauty of America’s greatest ocean liner was guided by the capable and heroic Adm. Harry Manning, who, fittingly, was born in Hamburg, Germany, the same year the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse took its maiden voyage. Manning had been chief officer on the Leviathan as well. Under his command, the SS United States would reach the goal Gibbs and Franklin had set before her.

On July 3, 1952, SS United States began her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. She would arrive at Bishop’s Rock, UK, on July 7. She wasted no time breaking all records. She had covered the distance of 2,906 nautical miles in three days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes—shaving 10 hours off of the record time. Her four massive propellers had thrust her forward at an average speed of 35.59 knots (39.50 mph) and reaching speeds as fast as 38.32 knots (44 mph).

The SS United States, the ship that would become known as “America’s Flagship,” had beaten them all. Its records still remain. There has never been a ship that combined the size and speed as that of the United States. For Gibbs, it was a dream come true, and he would get to see it maintain its reign as queen of the seas throughout his life.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the average speed in knots and mph for the July 7, 1952 record. The Epoch Times regrets the error.
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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.