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APL – American President Lines – San Francisco’s Gateway to the Orient

APL – American President Lines – San Francisco’s Gateway to the Orient

  • American President Lines was a leader in providing passenger liner services between California, the Far East and Around The World.
  • San Francisco was the company’s headquarters for years, and Bay Area residents, from San Jose to San Raphael, would see their great ships as they headed to work on ferry boats or crossed the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges.
  • APL liners would depart from San Francisco and then head to Los Angeles, sailing via Hawaii to Japan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.

Menu – Farewell Dinner – SS PRESIDENT CLEVELAND – 1949
Beluga-Molossol Caviar was served for the SS President Cleveland’s “Farewell Dinner” on October 5, 1949 prior to arriving in Yokohama, Japan. The SS President Cleveland’s had just completing her trans-Pacific liner crossing from San Francisco and Los Angeles via Honolulu, Hawaii.

The sleek 1940s modern lobby of the SS PRESIDENT CLEVELAND

This was during the height of American passenger ship service. American President Lines was not alone. Grace Line, the US Lines, American Export Line, Alaska Steamship Line, Matson Line, Delta Line, Moore-McCormick Line, Bull Line, Eastern Steamship Line were all operating services with American flag ships.


SS PRESIDENT CLEVELAND – Off coast of California


Deck-side luncheon aboard the SS PRESIDENT CLEVELAND


Pool, Promenade Deck and arrival in Los Angeles, California

With the launching of the Presidents Cleveland and Wilson in 1947, American President Lines reestablished its preeminence in the passenger trade following World War 2. Designed to carry 550 passengers and a crew of 352, the ships were advertised as “your American hotel abroad.”

  • They carried passengers from the West Coast of the USA to the Orient. This included China during the late 1940s until services were curtailed because of the Korean War. In the 1970s, with the end of the Viet Nam War and USA shipping subsidies American flag passenger service was ending.
  • Finally in 1973 the trans-Pacific liner service ended. The President Cleveland was sold to C. Y. Tung and renamed Oriental President. The President Wilson completed her last round-the-world voyage. Her retirement marked the end of the trans-Pacific passenger service that APL and its forebears had offered since 1867. The ships lasted briefly under C. T. Tung’s Panamanian flag company and were scrapped in 1974.



1960s composite publicity photo showing three of American President Lines’ handsome trans-Pacific passenger liners. SS President Cleveland, SS President Wilson and SS President Hoover.

  • These modern liners provided regular scheduled service from California to the Orient via Honolulu, Hawaii. When the President Wilson completed her last voyage in 1973, that marked the end of the trans-Pacific passenger service that American President Lines and its forebears had offered since 1867.

APL – Passenger Liner Service History 1867 to 1974

In 1867 it began the first regular shipping service between the United States and Asia, carrying passengers, cargo, and mail between the western United States, China, and Japan.

  • The company’s wooden ships, weighing 2,500 gross tons, used steam power to drive paddle wheels set amidships; the paddle wheels were augmented by twin square-rigged masts.

In 1921, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company was acquired by Dollar Steamship Lines, a company founded in the early 1900s by lumberman Robert Dollar, who established a fleet of steam schooners to carry his lumber from mills in northern California and Oregon to cities and railheads in southern and central California.

  • Dollar Steamship Lines established around-the-world shipping services in 1925 and expanded those services up until 1938 when, staggering under the combined effects of the Great Depression and debts incurred through building its fleet, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy.
  • In 1938 the Federal Maritime Commission arranged a subsidy to keep the company solvent; later that year, the Commission released the company from its debt in return for 90 percent of the Dollar Steamship Lines’ common stock.
  • The services of the Dollar Steamship Lines were considered vital to the United States in light of the rise of fascism in Europe and the Sino-Japanese war in the Far East.

American President Lines 

On November 1, 1938, Dollar Steamship Lines’ new board of directors changed its name to American President Lines Ltd.; the name change was due in part to the company’s practice of naming its ships after American presidents.

  • American President Lines’ fleet saw service activity during World War II, as several ships were sold to the U.S. Navy for troop transports and others operated as “Liberty Ships” to transport materiel for the war effort.

  • After the war the company was involved in a costly and bitter seven-year court battle that resulted in its acquisition in 1952 by Ralph K. Davies, a former executive of Standard Oil of California, who had begun buying shares in American President Lines in 1944.

  • By 1952, Davies owned 11 percent of the outstanding shares of the company, becoming its largest minority shareholder.
  • On October 29, 1952, a group of investors led by Davies outbid two other investor groups, including one led by R. Stanley, a son of Robert Dollar, and paid $18.3 million for the Federal Maritime Commission’s controlling interest in the company.
  • Davies became chairman of American President Lines, a position he held until 1971, and he merged the APL Associates with Natomas Company, a gold-dredging firm that grew to become an oil and gas exploration company and, in 1965, the parent organization of American President Lines.

  • When Davies took control of the company, APL was a leader in providing cargo and passenger services between the Pacific Northwest of the United States and the Far East and offered around-the-world services for cargo and passengers.
  • The company had recently launched its efforts in intermodal shipping, when it acquired more than 1,000 small shipping containers in 1951. In intermodal shipping, large containers are packed with cargo at its source and moved–by truck, train, or oceangoing vessel–to the cargo’s destination without being unpacked.
  • APL purchased its first partially containerized ships in 1961; 12 years later, fully containerized vessels were entering its fleet.
  • In a retrenchment in the mid-1970s, under the leadership of Chandler Ide–who became head of Natomas Company by succeeding Davies in 1971–APL discontinued its around-the-world freight services and passenger services to concentrate on its Pacific and Indian Ocean lines.


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