The Los Angeles Steamship Company came into being around the purchase of two ships already famous on the West Coast; the YALE and HARVARD. These two vessels were originaly built for New York-Boston service, then later operated by Admiral Line on the West Coast before World War 1. The U.S. Navy purchased them both in 1918 for use as troop transports between Southampton and Le Havre.
When the two ships were offered for sale after the war, a group of Los Angeles business men, with the backing of the LA Chamber of Commerce, formed the Yale-Harvard Syndicate, and bought the ships from the Navy. Thus the Los Angeles Steamship Company was formed on June 10, 1920. Harry and Ralph Chandler of the Los Angeles Times were included on the Board. YALE and HARVARD were brought around from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and extensively reconditioned by the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and dry-dock Company, and converted from coal to oil burning.
The YALE sailed from Los Angeles for San Francisco May 2, 1921 with a festive and gala departure. HARVARD followed in August 5. These fast coastal ships became known as “white Flyers of the Pacific”, they each made four sailings a week and carried 565 passengers at an average speed of 24.6 knots between Los Angeles and San Francisco. They operated this fast service almost continuously in to the 1930s, adding San Diego as a stop. Pacific Electric Company began a boat train from Downtown Los Angeles at sixth and main to the dockside at Wilmington for a direct connection the ships.
Clarence Matson (not related to Matson Navigation of San Francisco) and Captain Frederichs of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce sensed enormous potential in the Port of Los Angeles and lobbied Washington for the loan of Government surplus ships for a service to Hawaii. The U.S. Shipping Board agreed to charter two vessels on condition that an existing steamship Company operate them. The LA Chamber of Commerce approached LASSCO, and at a special lunch aboard HARVARD on September 19, 1921 LASSCO officials mapped out their plans.
Two German built war prize liners were chartered to LASSCO in December of 1921. The former GROSSER KURFURST, and FREIDERICH DER GROSSE of Norddeutcher Lloyd, had served as Transports in World War 1 as AEOLUS and HURON. Well suited for the Hawaiian service the liners as they had been built for Norddeutcher Lloyds tropical service and were used both on the Atlantic and Far East routes. Refitted on the east coast, AEOLUS was renamed CITY OF LOS ANGELES and HURON became CITY OF HONOLULU. Arriving in the Los Angeles July 16 1922, the CITY OF LOS ANGELES was the largest American ship in Pacific waters, the CITY OF HONOLULU followed 11 days later. Both were overhauled to all first class accommodation by Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Dry-dock Company, painted white with black stacks. A gymnasium and pool were added to their many amenities.
The maiden voyage of CITY OF LOS ANGELES to Hawaii was of great significance to the port of Los Angeles, this voyage represented the beginning of the first regular connection to Hawaii from Los Angeles and presented the first challenge to the dominance of San Francisco’s long established Matson Line. The LA Chamber of Commerce was in charge of recreation and entertainment for this voyage to Hawaii, reservations were made by members of the Chamber and families then to the general public. Round trip fare ranged from $325 to $635 for staterooms with private baths. 264 passengers booked for inaugural voyage.
At 12:30pm on September 11, 1922 CITY OF LOS ANGELES departed with a gala send off. Hundreds lined the docks, the Los Angeles Police Band played aboard a tug; yachts fired cannons and the USS CONNECTICUT saluted with three blasts of her siren. Seven days later she was greeted in Hilo by thousands of islanders, she sailed on to Maui, then to Honolulu to an even greater ovation before returning to Los Angeles.
Her new “sister” ship CITY OF HONOLULU followed twelve days later. With Captain Lester at the helm she departed Los Angeles for Honolulu, September 23rd to send off similar to that of her running mate. On her return voyage 5 days out of Honolulu disaster struck. At 4:00am on October 12, a mysterious fire broke out, efforts to fight it proved useless, as it spread over the next few hours it became clear that the ship was doomed. Captain Lester gave the order to abandon ship at 8 a.m. when she was about 600 miles from the Coast of California. The orchestra played jazz as passengers were loaded into the boats. Two hours later all crew and passengers had left the ship, a SOS had been sent out, the sea was calm. The disaster was dubbed “ship wreck de luxe” as the chief steward had provisioned the lifeboats with roast chicken, delicacies from the galley, plenty to drink and cigarettes.
The freighter WEST FARALON was 50 miles away and arrived at the scene a little before 3:00am. Other vessels picked up the distress message and the Shipping Board dispatched two cutters, SHAWNEE and TAMOROA. The U.S. Army Transport THOMAS came along side the freighter at 11:00pm and at dawn all passengers were transferred as there was no accommodation on the freighter for them.
The U.S.A.T. THOMAS proceeded on to its intended destination San Francisco with soldiers returning home from the Philippines from a tour of duty. When Harry Chandler, (LA Times and LASSCO Board member) heard that the San Francisco press was preparing sending out a boat to meet the THOMAS and interview the survivors he imagined the media disaster. He quickly contacted his associates in Washington, the result was the THOMAS reversed course in sight of the coast, right outside the Golden Gate, and returned to Los Angeles almost causing a mutiny aboard. When THOMAS docked in San Pedro limousines were sent to met the passengers and special trains were put on for the passengers who by now had received fresh clothes and cigarettes care of Harry Chandler. The press were there to meet the smiling survivors as they walk down the gang plank.
Meanwhile the WEST FARALON had attempted to tow the still burning liner CITY OF HONOLULU, but salvage proved impossible. The hulk had become a danger to other shipping so five days after the fire the cutter SHAWNEE fired 25 rounds in to the smoldering ship and sank her.
Even before the burning CITY OF HONOLULU went to the bottom, plans were made to charter the PRESIDENT HARRISON to complete the bi-monthly sailing schedule. Only two days late LASSCO made good on its timetable with PRESIDENT HARRISON filled to capacity.
As a more permanent replacement LASSCO bought the transport U.S.A.T. SHERMAN, formerly the British liner MOBILE of 1893. Refitted as a passenger liner, again by LA Shipbuilding and Dry-dock Co., she was ready for service as CALAWAII with accommodation for 178 first class and 52 third. February 10, 1923 saw her sail to Honolulu in her new white LASSCO livery. She proved a popular cabin liner.
LASSCO bought the Government chartered CITY OF LOS ANGELES in 1923 and LA Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co re-engined her at a cost over a million dollars to reach the Hawaiian islands in five and a half days instead of the previous seven.
Motivated by Matson Lines’ construction of MALOLO, a replacement for lost CITY OF HONOLULU was purchased. The PRESIDENT ARTHUR, formerly PRINCESS ALICE, another German-built war prize. Reconditioned to luxurious standards she was made ready for the Hawaii service. On June 7, 1927 7,000 people crowded the LASSCO dock to bid farewell to the 300 passengers on sailing on the new CITY OF HONOLULU.
Rumors that LASSCO was bidding on the United American Lines ship RESOLUTE came to nothing, but a freighter WEST ERRAL was purchased and reconditioned for 16 passengers and tanks for molasses and oil, renamed DIAMOND HEAD. She was advertised as a relaxed way to travel and started her service from Los Angeles Feb 2, 1929.
These were the best years for LASSCO and by 1929 layover periods were getting shorter and all ships were sailing more frequently. Passenger volume exceeded that of the Matson Line. Plans were announced to build two new coastal steamers to replace the YALE and HARVARD.
The following year, however, world and local events changed everything. The stock market crash saw freight and in particular passenger volumes decrease, then in May 1930, a fire over took the second CITY OF HONOLULU while she was berthed at Honolulu. The passenger areas were damaged beyond repair though her machinery was still good. With the insurance money LASSCO officials announced plans for a new $7 million dollar vessel, then instead looked for a replacement vessel and Ralph Chandler surveyed the SS REPUBLIC in New York. By mid 1930 LASSCO was financially over extended, plans for the new coastal steamers were abandoned. With the added competition of Matson’s new MALOLO, LASSCO sort talks with Matson. In October LASSCO was absorbed by it’s former competitor Matson with the date of transfer as January 1, 1931. LASSCO ships were to be operated from the Los Angeles office as a subsidiary of Matson. At the time of the merger LASSCO owned CITY OF LOS ANGELES, CITY OF HONOLULU (burned and laid up in LA), YALE, HARVARD, CALAWAII, DIAMOND HEAD, WAIMEA, and the freighters GENERAL M.H. SHERMAN, MARIAN OTIS SHERMAN, HELEN WHITTIER, CONSTANCE CHANDLER and FORT WAYNE.
YALE and HARVARD continued the fast coastal service LA-SF-San Diego and in November 1930, YALE flew a 60 foot pennant to celebrate her 1000th voyage between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The following May disaster struck again when HARVARD on voyage number 972 slammed in to rocks off Point Arguello, near Santa Barbara at 3:00am. All 497 passengers and crew were rescued by freighter San Anselmo and cruiser U.S. LOUISVILLE but the ship became a total loss.
To replace her wrecked HARVARD, CALAWAII made a few coastal trips until the chartered IROQUOIS came into service in mid summer 1931. The 1927-built liner had superior interiors to the 1906-built YALE but proved slower. However, with declining passenger volume, she was returned to Clyde Line by December and YALE sailed alone with the freight traffic handled by three small freighters.
In 1932 CITY OF LOS ANGELES and CALAWAII were laid up finally ending LASSCOs service from Los Angeles to Hawaii. The CALAWAII towed the burned second CITY OF HONOLULU for the final voyage to Japan to be scrapped in 1933. In May 1933 DIAMOND HEAD ceased carrying passengers, reverting to a freight only service. CITY OF LOS ANGELES was moved for lay up to San Diego. Plans for a “South Sea Islands Cruise” were made and the CITY OF LOS ANGELES was reactivated and departed Los Angeles January 12, 1934 and returned February 24 after a 12,000 mile cruise, three days late. A second cruise from San Francisco began June 27, 1934 and ended August 13 after 13,020 miles of steaming. Now old and tired, the company received many complaints from her passengers, and was again laid up in San Francisco. In May 1935, she sailed to San Diego to serve as an Hotel during the San Diego Exposition returning to San Francisco March 1936 for a year before being sold for demolition. Making one last stop in Los Angeles she loaded scrap metal before sail to Japan for demolition.
As competition from the railroad and cars took passengers away from the coastal run, YALE was withdrawn in October 1, 1935. Matson put her back in service in May 1936 for three sailing weekly between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but she service was withdrawn by July and YALE laid up at Antioch and then sold. After U.S. Navy service in Alaska, she was finally broken up in 1949.
On December 30, 1937 the Los Angeles Steamship Company was formally dissolved. LASSCO (with the help of LA Chamber of Commerce) had made a profit and substantially advertised the Port of Los Angeles. They had gained a share of the Hawaiian tourist trade from zero in 1920 to more than Matson Line by 1927. In freight, its impact on manufactures can be seen in that in 1920 there were about 100 Los Angeles companies in trade with Hawaii, by 1930 it was 1,000. During this same period Los Angeles’ exports rose and by 1928 equaled that of San Francisco’s. Though LASSCO was in existence for little over a decade, it had great significance for the Pacific Coast and Hawaiian shipping industries and the routes it pioneered were continued by Matson Line to the present day.
Martin Cox, 2000
A unique illustrated book on the entire history of the the Los Angeles Steamship Company was published by Glencannon Press and the Steamship Historical Society in 2009: Hollywood to Honolulu, the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company by Gordon Ghareeb and Martin Cox
Selected LASSCO ships:
YALE, HARVARD, CITY OF LOS ANGELES, CITY OF HONOLULU (I), WAIMEA, CALAWAII, DIAMOND HEAD, CITY OF HONOLULU (II)
MARTIN COX - Founder and publisher of MaritimeMatters, inspired by maritime culture and technology growing up in the port of Southampton. He works as a photographer in Los Angeles, and his works has been exhibited in LA, San Francisco, New York, London and Iceland. Martin is the co-writer of the book “Hollywood to Honolulu; the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company” published by the Steam Ship Historical Society of America. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has commissioned artworks and collected his photographs.