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The Life and Death of America’s Last Cruise Ship the SS Independence

SS IndependenceAfter the drop in tourism following the 9/11 attacks the last cruise ship built in the United States was permanently retired. Until February of this year the ship sat in San Francisco bay and there were initially plans by Norwegian Cruise Lines to rehab the proud ship and sale her again. Sadly the American venture by NCL failed and the ship appears to be headed off for a scrap yard in India or Bangladesh.

In what was the first of three (later scaled back to just two) proposed intermediate liners for American Export Line’s (AEL) New York to Mediterranean passenger service, the keel of the SS Independence was laid on 29 March, 1949 at Bethlehem Steel’s Quincy, Massachusetts yard. Subcontractors from thirty five states contributed to the building of these ships, which cost a total of $50 million. The majority of the steel came from Pennsylvania, the wood from forests in the Northwest and Northeast, the boilers from Ohio, and the air conditioning and elevators from New Mexico.

Independence and the nearly identical Constitution (which was launched on 15 September 1950) were designed with provisional trooping in mind, and were constructed to the highest safety standards. It was intended for use as a trans-Atlantic passenger liner–yet, it adhered to post-World War II U.S. Navy specifications to permit rapid conversion into a troop ship, with a capacity for 5,000 men and their equipment. The vessel, as originally designed, was made entirely of non-combustible or fire-resistant materials and featured extra hull plating–and two engine rooms so that if one were damaged, the other could keep the ship moving at a relatively high speed.

They were also among the first ships to be built in prefabricated sections, which is the standard procedure today. Their interiors were quite modern and typically spartan in the post war “American fireproof” style, unlike their European contemporaries, which still utilized traditional materials and wood paneling.

The Independence was completed in January 1951 and she departed New York on her maiden voyage cruise to the Mediterranean on February 11, 1951. On April 12, she began sailing on American Export Line’s New York – Genoa service, later diverting to a New York – Naples itinerary.
SS Independence Postcard “INDY”, as she was affectionately known, was somewhat overshadowed by her newer sister, Constitution, which was glamorized in film and television roles, most noteably AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, and the famous “porthole” episode of I LOVE LUCY. “CONNIE” was also famous for transporting Grace Kelly’s wedding party to Monaco and was featured on the cover of Life magazine. Nonetheless, Independence carried her share of dignitaries, including President and Mrs. Truman in the summer of 1958. Both ships were immensely popular on the route that was affectionately dubbed the “Sun Lane”. SS Independence Pool Vintage

SS Independence Bar

SS Independence Lounge Vintage

From February to April 1959 the Independence’s passenger accomodation was reconstructed at Newport News, adding 110 First Class berths, increasing her gross tonnage to 23,754. The 6.5 million dollar refit extended the superstructure forward, replaced the Observatory Lounge with cabins, and saw the addition of the Solarium on Sun Deck. Accommodations were now listed as 484 First Class, 350 Cabin Class, and 254 Tourist Class passengers.

In 1962 the cargo fleet operators, Isbrandtsen Company of New York, gained control of American Export Line, merging the two fleets to become American Export Isbrandtsen Lines.
In 1968, with the decline in transatlantic travel, the American travel agency Fugazi chartered the ship for a new style of cruising, and both the exterior and interior were given pop-art designs overseen by Peter Harrison, with a pink and orange sunburst (with Jean Harlow eyes) painted on the hull. Passenger accommodation was all one class, however revenues continued to fall, and in 1968, Independence was laid up at Baltimore.

SS Independence

C.Y. Tung bought the idle liner in January 1974 for his Atlantic Far East Lines and renamed her Oceanic Independence. The ship was refitted for 950 passengers in one class for cruising, which included a Portuguese charter out of Africa. However, she was laid up again in January 1976 at Hong Kong.

In 1979 American Hawaii Cruises (C.Y. Tung Group) was formed and the laid up Oceanic Independence was refitted at Kobe, Japan for inter-island Hawaiian service. On June 21, 1980 she began successful seven day cruises, sailing from Honolulu to Kahului, Hilo, Kona, and Nawiliwili. The ship now carried 750 passengers in one class and was remeasured at 20,220 GRT. Her former sister ship Constitution was brought on line in June of 1982 to join her, sailing Hawaiian waters on a similar itinerary.

SS Independence Hawaii
Independence off of Hawaii by Telestar Logistics

Oceanic Independence ran aground off Nawiliwili, Kauai on September 24, 1981, sustaining heavy bottom damage. Her passengers were taken off and flown home and she sailed to San Francisco for repairs arriving October 7.

The “Oceanic” prefix was dropped from her name in 1982, and the ship was extensively refitted in 1994. In this comprehensive upgrading, her tank tops were replaced, most of the lifeboats were removed in favor of rafts, elevator shafts were extended to Bridge Deck level, and new stairwells were added to the after decks to improve passenger flow. The ship took on a new look with decaled funnels in American Hawaii’s new “lei” theme, and a Hawaiian-styled decor in the public areas and passenger accommodation. SS Independence Hawaii
The Constitution and Independence together in Hawaii, near the Aloha Tower.

The Constitution was finally decommissioned in 1995 and then, very sadly, sank two years later when on her way to Far Eastern scrap yards.

Each of the ships could carry 1,000 passengers – 295 in first class – and could make 23 knots.

The ship had undergone $78 million in refurbishment between 1994 and 2001.
SS Independence Deck Plans

Complete Deck Plans American Classic Voyages which was building two new cruise ships to be named the Independence and America went bankrupt in October 19th of 2001. The new ships were to carry 1,900 passengers around 2004, however construction was never completed. The cruise line had been operating two cruise ships in Hawaii as well as Delta Queen vessels AMERICAN QUEEN, MISSISSIPPI QUEEN, COLUMBIA QUEEN and CAPE MAY LIGHT, and the DELTA QUEEN steamboat.

After the collapse of American Classic Voyages, the Independence sailed to the Alameda Naval Air Station. On March 5, 2002, her mast hit the Carquinez Bridge while being towed by four tugs. The Independence was on her way to Suisan Bay, but was taken back to San Francisco for repairs. The Independence was subsequently moored in April 2002 with the Suisun Reserve Fleet in Suisan Bay, California near the USS Iowa. In February 2003, the Independence was sold at auction for $4 million to Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL). Aloha Booth Independence
Aloha Booth by TunnelBug
Bridge Controls Independence
The Bridge

– Photo by Freeside510
Deck Bar Independence
The Deck Bar by TunnelBug
Deck Independence
Main Deck Exterior by 4PIZON
Crew Cabin Independence
Abandoned crew cabin by TunnelBug
Crew Court
No longer needed freight area converted to a crew basketball court, cruise ships used to carry mail and freight for extra revenue. Photo by TunnelBug
Dining Room Independence
Chairs stacked in dining room, photo by Freeside510Entertainment Booths
Empty entertainment Booths by TunnelBug
Main Lounge on Independence
Main Lounge on Independence
Main Lounge on Independence
Chairs piled in center of Main Lounge by TunnelBug
Main Lounge on Independence
Facing out of the Main Lounge by TunnelBug
First Class Lounge
First Class Lounge in Happier Times
First Class Lounge
First Class Lounge by TunnelBug
First Class Lounge Hallway
First Class Lounge Hallway by TunnelBugIndependence rusting
The great ship rusting away by Octoferret
Independence rusting
The sea had taken it’s tole on the unmaintained ship, Photo by TunnelBug
Independence Main Deck Ppol
The Main Deck Pool by TunnelBug
Independence Pool Upper Deck

The Upper Deck Pool by TunnelBug
Independence Theater
The theater, cruise ships all used to have large movie theaters, now that movies are available on in room TV’s many of the theaters have been converted into additional rooms. Photo by TunnelBug
Closed Pool
Closed Pool by TunnelBug
Tiled Artwork
One of many original artworks throughout the ship by TunnelBugAbandoned Promenade Hallway
Abandoned Promenade Hallway by TunnelBug
Abandoned Promenade Hallway
Promenade Hallway In Happier Times
Abandoned Promenade
Abandoned Promenade Looking out on the deck by TunnelBug
SS Independence Surfrider Bar Vintage
Bar in Happier Times
SS Independence Surf Rider Bar Abandoned
Abandoned Surfrider Bar

by TunnelBug
Independence Stacks
Smoke Stacks by Freeside510
Independence Lifeboat
Abandoned Lifeboat
Independence Suites
Empty Suite by TunnelBug
Presidential Suite
One of two presidential Suites that actually had a president stay on – President Truman in 1959.

NCL planned to add the Independence to its U.S.-flagged fleet, and hoped to have the ship carrying passengers by 2004. However, the ship continued to degrade and was renamed the Oceanic in 2006 without ever sailing for NCL. In its July 2007 interim report to shareholders, Star Cruises Limited (the parent company of NCL) disclosed it had sold the Oceanic, but did not name the buyer. Photo by TunnelBug.
Sailing off Independence
Its voyage is also a bit of a mystery. Norwegian Cruise Line, the ship’s last owner, sold it last year but refused this week to say who the new owner is.

There was even a minor mystery about its destination. Earlier in February of 2008, Leon Hall, of Inchcape Shipping Services, an agent representing the ship, said the final port of call “had not been decided yet.” On Friday, however, the destination was listed as Singapore.

There is a lot of speculation in maritime circles that the real destination is a scrap yard in India or Bangladesh. There is not much of a future for a 57-year-old steamship that has not sailed under its own power in seven years.

“She is one of the great ships,” said William Miller, an expert on ocean liners who wrote a book about the Independence. “But she has had her day, absolutely. I would bet you 50 cents she will be sold for scrap.”

Admirers of old ships have been circulating rumors and reports on the Internet about the fate of the Independence.

Some, like Eric James, a ship buff from Boston, say the ship is full of toxic material like asbestos and is being taken out of the United States illegally. They say it should be preserved as a memorial to U.S. passenger ships. But there is no formal move to preserve the ship, and once it sailed out the Golden Gate, it was probably too late.
Send off for Independence

Great site dedicated to the SS Independence

Great collection of photos of the Independence from TunnelBug

One smaller, but very cool photo set of the abandoned Independence from Freeside510

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Posted By: Jerome Aronson

News Category: Abandoned

 

106 Responses to “The Life and Death of America’s Last Cruise Ship the SS Independence”

  1. i was a marinaer on both the constitution and the indepedence that was a really good time in my life learned lived and loved meet a bunch of diverse and wonderful people theyt called me memphis those were the days too bad they are gone

    david on 30 May 2016 at 11:22 am
  2. My Dad felt the same way. He was a radio operator on the Independence for many years. And on the SS Brazil before that. But his main career was on the Independence.

    Aline on 30 May 2016 at 11:32 am
  3. This ship cruised from Durban South Africa to the Indian Ocean Islands of Mauritius and Seychelles. It was refurbished in Durban in Early 1975 and renamed “Oceanic Independence”. We spent our Honeymoon, 21 days April/May 1975 cruising on the “Oceanic Independence”. It was delightful.
    So very sad she is now no more and the once clean Durban City from which she sailed (colloquially) “the last outpost of the British Empire” is now just another squalid 3rd world dump. The world has changed, so sad.

    Graham on 07 Sep 2016 at 12:18 am
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