Preserving a (giant) piece of the SS United States

Businessman Jim Bollin announces a $220,000 gift to save one of the six propellers that used to drive the SS United States. A project to redevelop the storied ship is in the works.
Businessman Jim Bollin announces a $220,000 gift to save one of the six propellers that used to drive the SS United States. A project to redevelop the storied ship is in the works. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 19, 2014

To the casual eye, the SS United States is a floating heap of rust and peeling paint. To Jim Pollin, it is a testament to the greatness of its namesake.

Standing at the deck of the ship's stern Tuesday morning, Pollin held an oversize check - and blinked away tears - as he announced his donation of $220,000.

With that gift, he bought himself a 61,200-pound propeller.

"I fell in love with the ship when I saw it from a river cruise," said Pollin, founder of travel management firm Pollin Group. He signed up to receive e-mails from the SS United States Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to its preservation.

"When I saw the e-mail saying the last propeller was going to get scrapped, I thought, 'That would be like taking all of Elvis' costumes out of the [Graceland] museum,' " Pollin said. He added that he plans to make another donation in September, and hopes "the American people will step up."

Susan Gibbs, executive director of the conservancy and granddaughter of the ship's designer, William Francis Gibbs, thanked Pollin repeatedly before discussing the vessel's redevelopment.

"Not only is Jim emotional, but we all are," she said. "We have never been closer to ensuring that this symbol of American engineering and innovation is preserved."

Behind them, the rust-coated propeller lay on the deck. Its five wings stretch 18 feet in diameter. The propeller is one of six that once pushed "America's Flagship" to record speeds.

For its maiden voyage in 1952, the United States broke - and still holds - the world record for a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic in three days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes.

Prior to retiring in 1969, the United States carried, among other celebrities, Marilyn Monroe, Walter Cronkite, Duke Ellington, and Grace Kelly, as well as four U.S. presidents.

Four of the vessel's propellers are on display at museums in New York and Virginia. The conservancy sold the fifth to a recycling company to raise money for the ship's preservation and upkeep.

That would have been the fate of Pollin's propeller had he not stepped forward by a June 3 deadline.

Today, rust streaks and paint chips cover the surfaces of the United States, but the conservancy has plans to revive the nearly 1,000-foot-long liner. Leading the effort is H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, owner of The Inquirer's parent company.


LO' Neal@phillynews.com

215-854-2619 @LydsONeal

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