By Jonathan Haeber
Imagine cutting through the Atlantic waters while admiring the bright lights strung across the dual smokestacks of an opulent ocean liner — one of the best of its time. Hundreds of stewards wait to serve you in starched white jackets and bow ties. Caviar and coho salmon up in the dining lounge. At the promenade, money passes on the felt green poker tables while the sound a muffled trumpet passes through the cabin. You are on the SS Oceanic Independence.
The Indy was not only posh — she was powerful. A massive self-sustaining steam system burned 1,500 barrels of fuel oil per day, had 120 miles of electrical cable and 75 miles of piping. The four generators on the 683-foot-long ship were capable of powering a city of over 20,000. She could travel at 26.8 knots and was heralded by all who were intimately aware of her as the “Speed Queen of the American Merchant Machine.” Beyond the story of her power, though, is the story of her decline. When she was built, in 1950, the Independence was a first-class ship.
Long before cruise ships took people to exotic two-week vacations to feed on second-rate fare, they transported people on 52-day sojourns across the Atlantic. They entertained with the best live music, prepared the finest food, and featured an architectural wonderland specially designed to feel at home hundreds of miles out on sea.
The Indy was no ordinary ship. She was an exclusive conveyer that also had the privilege of being American built. She was an ocean liner that excelled in her luxurious offerings — Presidential suites with panoramic views of the sea, two mosaic tiled pools, three themed bars, ballrooms, lounges, theaters. All of it meant to entertain a rising class of the American elite. Ronald Reagan took a sojourn on this ship. So too, did the Prince of Saudi Arabia. Lucille Ball and Grace Kelly rode aboard her sister, the SS Constitution. The food on both ships — but especially the Independence — was considered to be excellent.
In her final days, this great white whale of a liner spent her days ferrying between the Hawaiian Islands and entertaining middle-class tourists to margaritas, mai-tais, and Hawaiian hospitality. Her glory days had since receded — the classes of the cabins removed in an earlier 70s-era refitting (to accomodate what were then known as go-go cruises, God love the 70s), and the rooms given a generic Hawaiian theme. You walk from cabin to cabin seeing much the same thing — save the ocassional appearance of a personal letter left behind by a crew member, or a few boxes of hotel toiletries stuffed in a corner.
Guests were treated to macadamia nuts and leis. A grass hut heralded “Aloha!” to oncoming passengers. Museum-like installations describing the history of the Hawaiian Islands dominates the grand lounge, where passengers had once entered an art-moderne hodge-podge of intersecting and dancing geometry — a meticulously waxed wooden floor.
Just before returning and becoming in all senses of the word a Hawaiian “Cruise Ship” rather than an Atlantic “Ocean Liner” — she had briefly flirted with a life of noble philanthropy. She conveyed refugeees from decolonized Angola, but such a life was ephemeral; tourists in Hawaii beckoned for an inter-island Hawaiian experience and the Independence, one of only a handful of American flagged ships could do so without circumventing U.S. Maritime law.
The Atlantic run was in its last era of great profit and high popularity. in the late 40s the commercial jet was a very distant threat and post-war travel to and from Europe was expected to increase. All of that had changed in the early-to-mid 60s. By 1970, sales had declined. The new Italian liners built with Marshall Plan money, Andrea Doria and Cristoforo Colombo, were bigger and more luxurious. The Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, both behemoths in comparison to the Indy, had been christened.
In the era of fast movement and cheap eats, jet travel and high-speed Internet — the Indy just fell by the wayside. September 11th was the nail in the coffin. She was a ocean liner that could no longer serve a changing culture. She once served a total of 160 pounds of fresh caviar for each voyage. Today, she sits awaiting a precarious future.