History of Matson Steamship Line



Matson's History

Matson Navigation Company's long association with Hawaii began in 1882, when Captain William Matson sailed his three-masted schooner Emma Claudina from San Francisco to Hilo, Hawaii, carrying 300 tons of food, plantation supplies and general merchandise. That voyage launched a company that has been involved in such diversified interests as oil exploration, hotels and tourism, military service during two world wars and even briefly, the airline business. Matson's primary interest throughout, however, has been carrying freight between the Pacific Coast and Hawaii.
In 1887, Captain Matson sold the Emma Claudina and acquired the brigantine Lurline, which more than doubled the former vessel's carrying capacity. As the Matson fleet expanded, new vessels introduced some dramatic maritime innovations. The bark Rhoderick Dhu was the first ship to have a cold storage plant and electric lights. The first Matson steamship, the Enterprise, was the first offshore ship in the Pacific to burn oil instead of coal.
Development of Tourism
Increased commerce brought a corresponding interest in Hawaii as a tourist attraction. The second Lurline, with accommodations for 51 passengers, joined the fleet in 1908. The 146-passenger ship S.S. Wilhelmina followed in 1910, rivaling the finest passenger ships serving the Atlantic routes. More steamships continued to join the fleet. When Captain Matson died in 1917 at 67, the Matson fleet comprised 14 of the largest, fastest and most modern ships in the Pacific passenger-freight service. When World War I broke out, most of the Matson fleet was requisitioned by the government as troopships and military cargo carriers. Other Matson vessels continued to serve Hawaii's needs throughout the war. After the war, Matson ships reverted to civilian duty and the steamers SSs Manulani and Manukai were added to the fleet - the largest freighters in the Pacific at that time.
The decade from the mid-20s to mid-30s marked a significant period of Matson expansion. In 1925, the Company established Matson Terminals, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary, to perform stevedoring and terminal services for its fleet. With increasing passenger traffic to Hawaii, Matson added the S.S. Malolo in 1927. The Malolo was the fastest ship in the Pacific, cruising at 22 knots. Its success led to the construction of the liners Mariposa, Monterey and Lurline between 1930 and 1932.

Wartime Service
Immediately after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the passenger liners Lurline, Matsonia, Mariposa and Monterey, and 33 Matson freighters were called to military service. The four passenger liners completed a wartime total of 119 voyages, covered 1 1/2 million miles and carried a total of 736,000 troops. The post-war period for Matson was somewhat difficult. The expense of restoration work proved to be very costly and necessitated the sale of the Mariposa and Monterey, still in wartime gray. In 1948, the Lurline returned to service after a $20 million reconversion. Two new Matson hotels were built on Waikiki in the 1950s, the SurfRider in 1951 and the Princess Kaiulani in 1955. In 1955, Matson undertook a $60 million shipbuilding program which produced the South Pacific liners Mariposa and Monterey, and the rebuilt wartime Monterey was renamed Matsonia and entered the Pacific Coast - Hawaii service.

Introducing Containerization in the Pacific
In 1956, a research department was established and its first major assignment was to develop the most modern, efficient and economical means of transporting cargo to and from Hawaii. The result was Matson's freight containerization program, which revolutionized Pacific cargo carrying. In 1958, Matson’s S.S. Hawaiian Merchant departed San Francisco Bay carrying 20 containers on deck, inaugurating containerization in the Pacific. When the Hawaiian Citizen entered service in April 1960, with a capacity for 436 24-foot containers, it was the first all-container carrier in the Pacific service. The fleet improvement program continued, with Matson freighters converted to combination container and bulk sugar or to container and automobile carriers.
With the focus on containerization growing, Matson divested itself of all non-shipping assets, including its Waikiki hotels, which were sold to the Sheraton Corporation in 1959.
A major ship construction program was undertaken in the late 1960s. When the S.S. Hawaiian Enterprise (later named Manukai) entered service in March 1970, it carried a record load of 1,165 containers and clipped more than a day from the regular 5 1/2 day run from the mainland to Hawaii. Also in 1970, in line with the decision to concentrate on its Pacific Coast-Hawaii freight service, Matson sold its passenger vessels and suspended its Far East service.
In 1969, Matson became a wholly owned subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin, Inc., strengthening the business ties that formally date back to 1908, when A&B invested $200,000 to acquire a minority interest in Captain Matson’s company.

Building a Service Designed to Meet a Growing Hawaii Economy
With the focus sharpened, Matson concentrated its efforts on developing a fleet of the finest containerships in the Pacific Coast - Hawaii service and on modernizing and otherwise improving terminal operations. This effort resulted in the construction of the containerships Manulani, Manukai, Maui, Kauai, and the ro-ro vessels Lurline and Matsonia. In 1985, two unique container barges, the Haleakala and Mauna Loa, were introduced to Matson's Neighbor Island fleet. In 1991, the ro-ro Neighbor Island barge, Waialeale, was constructed and added to Matson's Neighbor Island Service and in 1992, the diesel-powered containership MV R. J. Pfeiffer was added to the fleet.
Equally important, Matson focused on developing an industry-leading Customer Support Center in the 1990s, providing customers with “one call does it all†customer service. That effort resulted in the creation of a Customer Support Center in Phoenix in 1995. The philosophy behind centralized customer service was extended to the Internet in subsequent years, allowing customers to have the same “ease of use†in doing business with Matson online as they had with dedicated customer service teams.
In February 1996, Matson and APL inaugurated a 10-year alliance agreement which allowed both carriers to cost effectively serve their respective markets; for Matson, this involved the domestic trade of Guam - Micronesia and for APL, international ports in the Far East. The most prominent aspect of the agreement for Matson involved the purchase of six APL container ships and certain APL-owned assets in Guam for $164 million. The agreement was revised in January 1998; for Matson, the primary benefit of the revised agreement involved the establishment of a direct service from the U.S. Mainland to Guam, reducing transit time from 13 to 10 days.
Two new diesel-powered containerships, MVs Manukai and Maunawili, were introduced to the fleet in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

In 1987, Matson formed Matson Intermodal System, Inc. as an intermodal marketing company (IMC) arranging North American rail and truck transportation for shippers and carriers. The company grew steadily through the ‘90s and gained industry recognition as one of the nation’s leading IMCs. In 2003, the company was renamed Matson Integrated Logistics in recognition of its continued growth and expanded service offerings.
In 1999, Matson and Stevedoring Services of America, Inc. (SSA) appointed SSA Terminals as the manager of terminal and stevedore operations at Matson Terminals, Inc.'s facilities on the West Coast. MTI continues to operate Matson's container stevedoring and terminal services in Honolulu.
In 2000, Matson Terminals, Inc. in Honolulu commenced with a $36 million terminal improvement project, which involved converting the facility to a wheeled facility and adding new computer technology, such as Digital Global Positioning Systems (DGPS), to improve overall operating efficiencies.

So there you have it....enjoy


red stripe

Thanks Hal,
pretty interesting read.
Quite a history there, with over 100 years behind them. :thumb


Thanks, Halcruzer. Most interesting. As some may know, my first two ocean voyages - in 1950 - were on the Lurline. (Lisa63 can give a very intricate history of "the Lurlines"). I visited the Matsonia in Honolulu in 1960 - hardly a new ship, she was nevertheless in pristine condition.

Having sailed other U.S. flagged ships back in their day, Matson had, by far, the best service of any U.S. crew IMHO.

Lady Jag

Very interesting & timely. I kept seeing SO many Matson containers at the ports we were at in Hawaii a couple weeks ago. I remember asking, "What's Matson?". Now I know! :lol Thanks!

connie seabee

Thank you for the history of the Matson line. Very interesting.


Wonderful history, Halcruizer. Thank you for the share. The line truly has an amazing history.


Like you, Shipmaven, my earliest "cruise" memories were our family's annual trip back to the mainland on the Matsonia or the Lurline. We'd take the ship out, and fly back on Pan Am's double-decker stratocruiser airplanes--at least until about the early 60's, when we got to go on the "big jets (707s). It was very sad when Maston pulled out of the passenger racket, but by then we''d moved from the islands.