Philately and postcards reveal the history of the first US nuclear merchant ship

N.S. Savannah, artist conception by Benjamin Eisenstat of Moorestown, NJ

Harlan Radford, Jr.

The N.S. Savannah was the world’s first nuclear-powered merchant ship. The prefix letter “N” designates “nuclear.” President Dwight Eisenhower suggested the idea in 1955 and Congress authorized it in 1956.

postcard NY Shipbuilding Corp.

The New York Shipbuilding Corp. located at Camden, N.J. built this merchant ship for the Maritime Administration, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the Atomic Energy Commission.

The U.S. government provided funding to support a demonstration project that would serve as a showcase for the peaceful use of nuclear technology. The keel was laid and dedicated by Mrs. Pat Nixon on May 22, 1958. More than a year later on July 21, 1959, First Lady Mrs. Mamie Eisenhower ceremonially christened and launched the Savannah. Installation and testing of the nuclear reactor and undergoing a series of sea trials took another 2-1/2 years.

The all-important “maiden voyage” took place on August 20, 1962, and the Savannah did not enter regular service until 1964. During the spring and summer of 1964, the Savannah toured the U.S. Gulf and Eastern coast seaports and then commenced on a historic crossing of the Atlantic Ocean for the first time with visits to Bremerhaven, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Dublin and Southampton. This ship’s namesake, SS Savannah, was the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1819.

philatelic cover Savannah launching 7-21-59

The specially prepared philatelic cover at right marks the date of the actual “launching” of the N/S Savannah on July 21, 1959. Postmarked in Camden, N.J., the postcard features a pictorial postmark which reads “N/S SAVANNAH / FIRST ATOMIC LINER / U.S. MERCHANT MARINE.”

The two 1950s era postage stamps selected for this cover further relate to shipbuilding and the “Arrows To Atoms” program. The purple 3-cent stamp commemorates the 350th anniversary of the building of the vessel “Virginia of Sagadahock,” the first American-built ship used in international trade,

Elements in the blue 3-cent U.S. postage stamp commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Oklahoma Statehood further tie into the theme of atomic energy. The central design of the stamp is a horizontal arrow superimposed on a solid outline map of the State of Oklahoma and piercing the orbital emblem, which has become the symbol for atomic energy. The arrow represents the frontier days of Oklahoma prior to Statehood in 1907 and the atomic symbol represents the new frontiers.

With an overall length of 595 feet, this ship was capable of a speed of 20.25 knots. As for payload, the Savannah was capable of carrying 60 passengers and 9,400 long tons of cargo. The Savannah was only in service for an eight-year period from 1964 to 1972 and was one of only four such nuclear-powered cargo ships ever built.

While officially deactivated in 1971 and after being moved around numerous ports, the ship finds itself presently dry-docked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, yet to be officially decommissioned. History tells us that the SS Savannah was a commercial failure.  Despite the innovative nuclear propulsion system of its successor, the N.S. Savannah shared a similar destiny. It proved to be short-lived and failed to prove its commercial feasibility.

Despite this, the innovative N.S. Savannah was not only placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Nov. 14, 1982 but was also designated a National Historic Landmark on July 17, 1991.

The following five postal covers relate to N.S. Savannah milestones.

NS Savannah World’s First Nuclear Powered Merchant Ship

The first-class letter at left is marked “Mailed aboard The N.S. SAVANNAH” and bears a hand-applied pictorial cachet in black ink which also states “World’s First / Nuclear Powered / Merchant Ship. It bears a Galveston, Texas postmark dated MAR 26 PM 1964.

The officially prepared cachet imprints for the following two covers boast  “First Trans-Atlantic Voyage.” The NS Savannah carried them onboard during its first Atlantic crossing the following June.

One envelope displays a General Post Office in New York City postmark and the other was actually postmarked and dispatched from the United Nations headquarters, also in New York City.

NS Savannah First Trans-Atlantic Voyage

With 11 cents in stamps affixed to each cover and postmarked JUN 8 AM 1964, each received postal backstamps upon receipt at Bremerhaven, Germany, dated in European style “18.-6.64-11” or June 18, 1964 11AM.

Next is an example of a “paquebot” cover, which simply translated means “posted at sea.”

NS Savannah paquebot cover

This piece, destined for a United States address, originated on the NS Savannah. On arrival of the ship in a port, a private messenger transmitted the mail to the nearest post office where it was deposited, canceled, and forwarded through the regular mailstream. Accordingly, this particular cover received two postal markings, one provided onboard the ship dated JUN 16, 1964, and the other marking placed by German postal authorities dated two days later on June 18, 1964 (18.-6.64 -11).

NS Savannah two postmarks

Why two same date postmarks for this next cover? One was applied on board the N.S. Savannah DEC 28, 1964, and another, stamped “Wilmington, N.C.” bears the same date. Presumably, the ship was in her North Carolina port on that date.

The extraordinary ship was in service for a mere ten years. It eventually ended up just across the Delaware River from where it was built in Camden, in a dry-dock at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and finally was mothballed in Baltimore.

The previous several philatelic covers mark milestones in this innovative civilian maritime ship’s short span of existence and the following contemporary accounts in periodicals further expand the topic.

Two interesting and informative videos about the N.S. Savannah are currently available on YouTube and can be viewed by typing in the following titles:

#1 – “NS Savannah: Atoms for Peace (1962)” – Time 5:39

#2 – “NS Savannah in Drydock in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania – November 17, 2019” – Time 3:27

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John McCormick

Teacher at Riverton School 1974-2019, author, amateur historian, Historical Society of Riverton Board Member 2007-2023, newsletter editor 2007-2023, website editor 2011-2023

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