Saving the SS United States

The S.S. United States, which sailed from 1952 until it was retired in 1969.
S.S. United States Conservancy

(CBS News) "Sail on, O Ship of State, Sail on, O Union, strong and great!" Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote those stirring words in his 1849 poem, "The Building of the Ship," a ship he meant as a metaphor for our country. Roughly a century later, we built a ship that really DID stand for our country. As Mark Strassmann is about to show us, that ship of state is a long way from sailing on:

If you ever find yourself south of downtown Philadelphia, in the parking lot of a strip mall, take a look past the buzzing traffic. There, chained to an idle dock, floats a legend -- forlorn and largely forgotten.

Only her name still speaks to the pride she once inspired across the nation: The SS United States, what was once heralded as "the greatest ship in the world."

"This is the most famous ship that didn't sink," said Susan Gibbs, executive director of the SS United States Conservancy. "We all know the Titanic and this spectacular, maiden voyage catastrophe. This ship is famous for many of us, precisely because she did her job."

Gibbs never sailed on this ship. But interest in the vessel's fate runs in her blood: her grandfather, William Francis Gibbs, was the ship's designer.

"Certainly, my grandfather was obsessed with this ship. And my children would say I am following in his footsteps," she laughed.

Gibbs was a self-taught naval architect, a Harvard dropout with a single-minded devotion to his work.

"He was once asked, 'Mr. Gibbs, do you love that ship more than your wife?' And Gibbs responded, 'You're a thousand percent correct' -- and his wife happened to be there, and she didn't mind," said author Steven Ujifusa. "She understood what this ship meant to him."

The S.S. United States, which sailed from 1952 until it was retired in 1969. S.S. United States Conservancy

Ujifusa has set out to restore the acclaim Gibbs once enjoyed. Consider this: During World War II, three-quarters of U.S. naval vessels built were designed by Gibbs' firm, from destroyers, to "liberty ships," to the landing craft used on D-Day.

After the war, Gibbs poured everything he knew into one, ultimate ship. Larger, faster, and far safer than the Titanic, the vessel could accommodate 2,000 passengers in high-style -- though if war broke out, she could be converted to carry 14,000 troops.

The design was so revolutionary it was classified.

On her very first Atlantic crossing, in July 1952, she set the world's speed record: three days, ten hours and 40 minutes. Her return time, from England to New York, remains unbeaten to this day.

"Imagine taking a structure the size of the Chrysler Building, turning it on its side, and pushing it through the Atlantic at 44 miles per hour," said Ujifusa. "That's a heck of a lot of engineering -- and on top of that, make it the most beautiful ship in the world."

This beautiful ship attracted the beautiful people of her day: Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and artist Salvador Dali. Even that legendary European beauty, the Mona Lisa, made the crossing aboard the "Big U." It was a heady experience for everyone on board.

"I remembered how absolutely gorgeous those stacks were, what it looks like when it's painted properly," said Roz McPherson

Back in 1958, five-year-old McPherson and her family sailed to her father's new Army posting in Europe. They had come from the segregated South, but McPherson discovered something remarkable on board: the ship was color-blind.

"You figure that's 1958 -- that was a big deal to us, as a family from the South, 'cause I would not have been frolicking in a pool in New Orleans, I can guarantee that, with white kids and white families, I can guarantee that," she told Strassmann. "My parents are dressed up in the lounge with white families. We were really treated like regular human beings on this voyage.

"And that was a big deal."

Everything about the experience made passengers feel special, and yet no ship could compete with a 707. Jet travel cut the journey to just over six hours. And so in 1969, the SS United States was moth-balled.