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Historic ocean liner SS United States ordered out of its berth in Philadelphia


FILE - The SS United States is seen in Philadelphia, July 1, 2010.
FILE - The SS United States is seen in Philadelphia, July 1, 2010.

The SS United States, a historic ship that still holds the transatlantic speed record it set more than 70 years ago, must leave its berth on the Delaware River in Philadelphia by September 12, a federal judge says.

The decision issued Friday by U.S. District Judge Anita Brody culminated a years-old rent dispute between the conservancy that oversees the 1,000-foot ocean liner and its landlord, Penn Warehousing. It stemmed from an August 2021 decision by Penn Warehousing to double the ship's daily dockage to $1,700, an increase the conservancy refused to accept.

When the conservancy continued to pay its previous rate, set in 2011, Penn Warehousing terminated the lease in March 2022. After much legal wrangling, Brody held a bench trial in January but also encouraged the two sides to reach a settlement instead of leaving it up to her.

The judge ultimately ruled that the conservancy's failure to pay the new rate did not amount to a contract breach or entitle Penn Warehousing to damages. But she also ruled that under Pennsylvania contract law, the berthing agreement is terminable at will with reasonable notice, which Penn Warehousing had issued in March 2022.

"The judge's decision gives us a very limited window to find a new home for the SS United States and raise the resources necessary to move the ship and keep her safe," Susan Gibbs, conservancy president and granddaughter of the ship's designer, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Besides finding a new home, the conservancy also must obtain funds for insurance, tugs, surveys and dock preparations for a move.

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

FILE - The SS United States glides down the Hudson River as it begins its first voyage to Europe from New York in view of the Manhattan skyline, in this view from Hoboken, New Jersey, July 3, 1952.
FILE - The SS United States glides down the Hudson River as it begins its first voyage to Europe from New York in view of the Manhattan skyline, in this view from Hoboken, New Jersey, July 3, 1952.

Christened in 1952, the SS United States was once considered a beacon of American engineering, doubling as a military vessel that could carry thousands of troops. On its maiden voyage in 1952, it shattered the transatlantic speed record in both directions, when it reached an average speed of 36 knots, or just over 41 mph (66 kph), The Associated Press reported from aboard the ship.

On that voyage, the ship crossed the Atlantic in three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, besting the RMS Queen Mary's time by 10 hours. To this day, the SS United States holds the transatlantic speed record for an ocean liner.

It became a reserve ship in 1969 and later bounced to various private owners who hoped to redevelop it but eventually found their plans to be too expensive or poorly timed.

It has loomed for years on south Philadelphia's Delaware waterfront.

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