- Early History of Oldest Continuously Operating U.S. Steamship Company.
- The Pacific Mail Steamship Company, predecessor of the American President Companies Ltd., was founded in 1848, two years before the transcontinental railroad was completed; its founding at this time provides American President Companies its claim as the oldest continuously operated steamship company in the United States.
- The Pacific Mail Steamship Company set out to carry mail from the Isthmus of Panama to the Oregon Territory.
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.
Wartime Government Contracts and Big Changes Through the 1980s
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.