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Historic ocean liner docked in Philadelphia fights for its survival

Historic ocean liner docked in Philadelphia fights for its survival
Historic ocean liner docked in Philadelphia fights for its survival

“America’s Flagship” is evacuated.

That’s the current situation the SS United States finds itself in a years-long dispute with its landlord, a Philadelphia warehouse company. The historic ship is the largest ocean liner ever built in the United States and holds the record for the fastest average speed on a transatlantic voyage. It’s currently moored along the Delaware River at an old warehouse in South Philadelphia. The ship has until Sept. 12 to develop a viable alternative to staying there or finding a new home.

In June, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the SS United States must find a new home. The dispute arose from an August 2021 decision by Penn Warehousing to significantly increase the price it charged to dock the ship at its location. The SS United States Conservancy was charged $850 per day to dock the ship, before Penn Warehousing sought to increase that amount to $1,700 per day. Penn Warehousing terminated the docking agreement in 2022, and a lawsuit was eventually filed.

“Today, America’s flagship is in grave danger,” Susan Gibbs, president of the SS United States Conservancy, wrote in an op-ed earlier this year. “Without notice, the ship’s lessor, which leases the pier from the Port of Philadelphia, doubled the ship’s dockage during the pandemic. Then they issued an eviction notice.”

“The SS United States Conservancy — the national nonprofit organization that has cared for the ship for more than a decade — faces a huge financial challenge as long-term plans to renovate the ship move forward,” Gibbs wrote. “Unless America’s Flagship finds a new home — and soon — it will not survive.”

The decision by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody came after a January 2024 lawsuit in which Brody suggested that the two sides work together to reach a new mutual agreement for the daily dockage fees rather than rely on the court’s decision. When no agreement could be reached, Brody ruled that Pennsylvania contract law provided that Penn Warehousing had the right to terminate the lease upon reasonable notice. Additionally, Brody ruled that the conservancy’s refusal to pay the new fee did not constitute a breach of contract or require Penn Warehousing to pay liquidated damages.

At this point, however, Penn Warehousing only wants to say goodbye to the SS United States.

“The best hope of everyone involved was that the conservancy could successfully repurpose the ship,” said Craig Mills, attorney for Penn Warehousing. “But after decades of decay and delay, it is time to acknowledge the inevitable and return Pier 82 to productive commercial service.”

The ruling to evict the SS United States from its current location threatens its future existence. If the conservancy cannot find a new home, negotiate a new agreement with Penn Warehousing, or find a financier to help with the costs, the historic American ship could be sold for scrap.

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“The ruling makes it clear that this iconic American symbol is in danger,” said Gibbs. William Francis Gibbs, her grandfather, was the ocean liner’s designer.

“The judge’s decision gives us a very narrow window to find a new home for the SS United States and to gather the resources necessary to move the ship and keep it safe,” Gibbs said. “We must do both to prevent the tragic fate that countless supporters around the world have been trying to prevent for more than a decade.”