San Francisco’s SS Independence: Images and History


By Jonathan H

SS Oceanic Independence

Abandoned Cruise Ship in San FranciscoImagine 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.

Ship Promenade
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.

Topside with Stacks on LF

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.

Aloha Booth

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.

Main Lounge

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.

Life Boat

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.

12 comments on “San Francisco’s SS Independence: Images and History

  1. You always take me on a journey…I like that.

    So…is she still sitting in SF for the foreseeable future? Who decides her fate next?

  2. Thanks for sharing your pics – I found your incredible set on flickr and have stayed up waaaay too late tonight browsing and reminiscing. It’s rumored that the Indy is supposed to depart Pier 70 by mid Feb and make her final journey to be broken up in Alang, India. She’s really the last of her kind. Really a shame that NCL bought her just to let her sit and rot. Would have been nice to see her end up based in an American port with a decor-retrofit to something closer to the early 50’s, even if she only went out for one/two day cruise-to-nowhere affairs. She really appeared to be well maintained when i sailed on her in 2000, but I imagine there’s little hope for her now. Thank you again for taking the time to capture her last days – being into UE myself, it’s really quite an odd sensation seeing something I personally enjoyed in it’s “prior life” now captured in decay. Perhaps you can keep us up to date if you see the ol’ Indy’s gone soon?

  3. Mike Ralph on said:

    WOW! What wonderful (but SAD) pix… Many fond memories of her and sister Connie at NYC and Hawaii. The Big U will be next for India? I will never again sail on an NCL ship (and NCL WAS my favorite cruise line) Their loss! All the best to you for the fond memories.
    Mike Ralph, Ocean Liner Art, Ltd
    Clearwater, Fla

  4. Jeff Gunther on said:

    Wow.. amazing pictures. I worked aboard the Indy during her last few years from 2000-2001, and I can identify quite a few memories from each of those pictures. You were lucky to have a final tour before she was towed to her fate overseas. Thank you for posting them!

  5. Taylor on said:

    This is the way things should be, get off what we are on now

  6. Andy Landolt on said:

    Wow, still not broken up yet. Seems like there’s a big controversy involving toxic materials, and perhaps incorrect registration.

  7. Pingback: Panel Allows Toxic Ship Into Alang Despite SC Ruling

  8. Pingback: SS Independence Ghost Ship | Beyond the Photos

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  10. Grounded on a sandbar 10 miles from alang, partially broke in half, was quickly scrapped on the spot.

    rip SS Indy

  11. Joe Cofone on said:

    I have been searching for info on this ship for some time. It was the vessel that brought my mother to the US from her native Italy on New Years day 1952. I have been trying to find a story about that particular voyage that my mom conveyed to me. It seems the ship was almost swept over by a wave and heavy seas and the US Navy sent an aircraft carrier to block the wind and escort the ship to port.

  12. Rene and Joe on said:

    We had the privilege of sailing on the S. S. Independence in August of 2000. We spent a week on the ship and sailed to four of the Hawaiian islands. The food on the ship was excellent and the staff was very friendly. I remember after dinner one night going to a show on the ship which featured singers, jugglers, and the finale was a man who had a routine he did to music with glow-sticks on his limbs and body. The ship had fantastic accomodations for shore excursions on each island. So sad to hear of the fate of the ship.

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