They called them the “White Flyers of the Pacific.” Overnight by sea between Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco…
USC rooters heading north from Los Angels to San Francisco on the SS Yale for the Stanford/USC football game.
The sister ships Yale and Harvard were the fastest steamships on the California coast. Between 1911 and 1936—with a few years lost to World War I–the way to travel in style from San Diego to Los Angeles to San Francisco was by coastal steamship on the white liners.
The SS YALE at sea…
The ships began their careers on the East Coast in 1907. Built for the Metropolitan Steamship Company of New York, in the shipyards of Chester, Pennsylvania, the identical twins were both 407 feet long and 62 feet in the beam. Coal-fired, triple-screw steam engines powered the ships to top speeds of 23 knots. They were among the first ships built in this country with steam turbine engines.
Yale and Harvard boasted plush interiors with staterooms on the lower decks for 275 people. Outside cabins opened to promenade decks, with inside cabins accessed from passage ways.
The ships were built to carry as many as 800 passengers. “In the matter of interior decoration and fittings the ships strike a new note,” announced one published account.
SS YALE in San Diego
The new ships were painted white but trimmed in the colors of their namesake universities: Harvard crimson and Yale blue. The number of private parlors and bathrooms put the ships “in a class by themselves,” remarked the New York Times as the Yale was launched in December 1906, adding, the ships were “the fastest and most luxurious vessels in the American coasting trade.
SS YALE entering Los Angeles (San Pedro Harbor)… 1913..
Yale and Harvard spent three years making fast runs between New York and Boston before they were acquired by the Pacific Steam Navigation Company for service on the West Coast. The two ships made the long voyage to California via the Straits of Magellan, arriving in Los Angeles on December 16, 1910. They were immediately put into service on the Los Angeles to San Francisco route. San Diego was added to the schedule the next year.
Carrying freight and hundreds of passengers, the swift steamers outclassed the West Coast competition. They could make the Los Angeles to San Francisco run in nineteen hours—four to six hours faster than rival steamers. Los Angeles to San Diego took five hours.
The speedy service came to an abrupt halt toward the end of World War I. The U.S. Navy purchased both ships for one million each and refitted them in San Francisco for use as troop transports. The steamers ended up in Southampton, England in July 1918. In the next few months they made over one hundred crossings of the English Channel, carrying soldiers and supplies to the French ports of Le Havre and Brest.
The ships were decommissioned in June 1920 and offered for sale. In Los Angeles, where the twin steamers were well-remembered from before the war, a group of businessmen formed the “Yale-Harvard Syndicate” and bought the ships from the Navy. The Yale and Harvard returned to California and underwent extensive reconditioning. The engines were converted from coal to oil burning. The interiors were refurbished and ballrooms added to create more cruise-like experience.
The L.A. syndicate, which became the Los Angeles Steamship Company (LASSCO) would dominate California’s coastal travel for the next decade. An advertisement in the San Diego Union boasted:
To San Francisco without changing liners! Twenty-three hours sailing time . . . a fast, delightful trip in luxurious comfort on the super express liners, Yale and Harvard. Broad, airy decks, delightful dance music, marvelous food. Everything in the way of diversion at sea that helps you to enjoy every moment.
The ships departed from San Diego’s Broadway Pier four times weekly at 9:00 a.m. Arrivals from Los Angeles would enter port the evening before at 8:00 p.m. Round-trip fares were less than $30 to San Francisco, but sometimes half that price, depending on the season. A standard fare bought a stateroom with a closet, washbasin, and two berths. Meals—reportedly excellent—were included, along with live entertainment.
In November 1930, the Yale marked her 1000th voyage between Los Angeles and San Francisco by flying a 60-foot pennant. The Harvard, attempting voyage number 972, would have less to celebrate. Traveling southbound in a thick fog in the early morning of May 30, 1931, the white liner hit the rocks off Point Arguello, the feared “Graveyard of the Pacific.” Fortunately, the seas were calm. An SOS from the ship was answered by the Navy cruiser Louisville, and all 530 passengers and crew were rescued from lifeboats.
The Harvard was left to break up on the rocks.
The Yale continued its coastal runs without its running mate. But the tough economic times of the Great Depression meant fewer passengers and declining profits for the ship’s operators.
Maritime strikes in 1934 and 1936 hurt even more and the Yale was withdrawn from service in July 1936.
In 1940, the Yale was sent to Alaska for service as a dormitory for construction workers in Sitka.
The Navy bought the Yale in 1943 for a second stint of wartime service. Renamed the USS
Greyhound, the steamer became a floating barracks for Navy personnel in Puget Sound. The end came in 1949 when the old steamer was towed to a Stockton scrap yard. The salvaged hull was sent to a steel mill in Pittsburg.
After World War 2, there were attempts to bring back the coastal steamship service. American President Lines, Matson Lines and Delta Lines offered coastal service in connection with their sailings to the Orient, Hawaii and South America. But it was limited.
Today, all of the major cruise lines offer coastal service between Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco and Canada. These are repositioning Alaska cruises. But it is impossible for these foreign flag vessels to sail between Los Angeles and San Francisco because of the Jones Act.
THE YALE AND THE HARVARD were founded by the LOS ANGELES TIMES…
The LA Times Harry Chandler and competitor William Randolph Hearst in 1930.
Cruise History: Great book published by the Steamship Historical Society of America features company founded by Harry Chandler, Los Angeles Times publisher, during the 1920s. Hollywood to Honolulu, the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company by Martin Cox and Gordon Ghareeb.
The authors spent 14 years researching the company – aka LASSCO – that offered cruises and liner service to the Hawaiian Islands during the 1920s. They have produced a very informative book on the steamship line along with a good deal of social history and politics of the time. This provides a terrific and very readable context to the ships’ lives. The book has many rare photos contributing to a top notch maritime history.
For over a decade during the “Roaring Twenties,” a great white ocean liner would sail from berth 156 in Los Angeles every Saturday. The pier was packed with waving and cheering people looking up at the happy passengers crowding the railings. The vessel’s band on deck played jazz tunes and popular favorites. The captain stood forward on the bridge wing watching the lowering of the gangway amid a hail of colored streamers and confetti. The liner’s whistle would blow at noon, raising the cheering to a higher pitch as the Royal Hawaiian band played “Aloha Oe.” Slowly the great mass of the liner inched away from the dock.
These magnificent ocean liners provided not only a regular connection between the mainland and the islands, but were a high-profile means of proclaiming that Los Angeles was becoming a world class harbor, financial center and artistic metropolis. And the Los Angeles Steamship Company, “LASSCO,” became known across the country.
Hollywood to Honolulu, the Story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company. Published by the Steamship Historical Society of America. Printed by Glenncannon Maritime Press 2009. www.glencannon.com. Order copies by clicking here.
(above) 1920s advertisement in a LASSCO folder featuring the California coast wise and Hawaii sailings. (below) Ad from November 1927 appearing in Travel Magazine (Grace collection).
The Roaring 20s saw many institutions fall by the way side. Flappers, the Charleston and bathtub gin all arrived on the scene and, almost as quickly as they appeared, they dropped out of history. So it was with the shipping line that hailed from Southern California: the Los Angeles Steamship Company. This once magnificent ocean going operation put its namesake harbor on the map, brought the idea of a glamorous ocean passage into the price range of the newly forming tourist population, and once and for all time branded the vision of a stately white cruise ship gliding effortlessly into a tropical Hawaiian paradise into the mind of the nation.
Cox and Ghareeb have joined forces and together told a story of glamour, high finance, movie stars and gossip. It’s all here in this 282 page compendium of a world that once was and never will be again.
Operated under the aegis of the Chandler publishing family of Los Angeles and the rest of their contemporary Chamber of Commerce associates, the Los Angeles Steamship Company (or LASSCO as it came to be known across the nation) brought to the world the realization that fledgling Los Angeles was coming into its own as a financial, industrial and culturally cosmopolitan crossroads of the country.
Scouring microfilm of virtually every page in the LA Times from 1921 to 1935, Ghareeb and Cox recreate a lost world of a nation riding high on the crest of a military victory from World War I juxtaposed against labor problems, political unrest and an economy gone mad. The entertaining 70,000-word text is augmented by an armada of photographs (largely from private collections) and color reproductions of LASSCO’s elaborate advertisements. This hard-covered time machine brings to life the people, the dreams, and the celebrities of the era all paraded against a backdrop of global, local and cinema-graphic history.
It took the authors fourteen years to piece the story together, configure it into a readable prose, and polish it to perfection. It is a tale as alive today as it was when it happened ninety years ago, due largely to the contribution of family members of the maritime participants depicted for the reader. Piece by piece, the story solidified and is brought to life for those fascinated by LA history, steamship lore and moviedom. This story almost vanished into the footnotes of literature because LASSCO was slowly absorbed by the juggernaut of SF-based Matson Navigation Company.
In less than ten years LASSCO managed to sink half of its passenger fleet. But public confidence continued to propel the entity forward, even to the point of surpassing the number of passengers sailing to the Hawaiian Islands by any other shipping line. Had not the Great Depression overtaken the world, LASSCO might have very well continued on. This is a great book about a great corporate excursion into uncharted waters. The big gamble to make the Port of Los Angeles a world-class harbor (it worked, the Port of LA is the largest port in the nation today) is a fascinating blend of speculation, hope, determination and undaunted romance. Get it. Read it. And relive a world long gone…
LASSCO’s City of Honolulu and City of Honolulu (Maritime Matters).
Gordon Ghareeb – Born and raised in the Wilmington district of the Los Angeles Harbor complex, Mr. Ghareeb grew up around and aboard the great postwar Pacific liners. His affinity for ships and the sea was instilled in him at a very early age by his father who had been a bosun’s mate in the South Pacific during World War II. Mr. Ghareeb holds a degree in English Literature and is the co-author of “The Dictionary of Nautical Literacy” published by McGraw Hill in 2001. In addition to being a contributing editor for Nautical World and Ship Aficionado magazines, his maritime work has also appeared in Nautical Collector, Professional Mariner, Ships Monthly, Maritime Matters, Steamboat Bill, and Titanic Commutator. One of the original tour guides aboard the QUEEN MARY when she opened in Long Beach, he joined the SSHSA in 1972 and has been a member of the American Petroleum Institute since 1991. He is currently Vice President of the Port of Long Beach Port Ambassadors Association. Mr. Ghareeb also actively serves aboard the s/s LANE VICTORY as a deck hand and tour guide for the Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II. With co-author Martin Cox, Mr. Ghareeb produced a multi-media exhibit at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in 2004 extolling the history of the Los Angeles Steamship Company and aptly entitled Hollywood to Honolulu. When time permits he can be found lecturing about LASSCO and narrating guided tours of the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors.
Martin Cox – Growing up in Southampton, England he witness the final departure of the QUEEN MARY which left an indelible mark on the young observer. His fascination with liners grew when his former seaman Uncle handed on a large collection of ocean liner photographs. Cox grew up viewing the last gasp of the great British liners entering Southampton in the mid-70s. He completed his Fine Art Bachelor’s degree with honors at Exeter College of Art and Design in Devon before moving to London where Mr. Cox exhibited his black and white photographs. Following exhibitions in San Francisco and New York he moved to Los Angeles in 1990 and began to explore LA’s local passenger ship history. A member of the Steamship Historical Society of America since 1995 – his brief but authoritative history of LASSCO appeared in the Southern California chapter’s “Ocean Times”. Mr. Cox served as president of the Los Angeles Maritime Museum Research Society from 1997 to 1998 and maintains his own website known worldwide as “MaritimeMatters.com”. For a two year stint, Mr. Cox authored the West Coast News for SSHSA’s Steamboat Bill. Working with co-author Gordon Ghareeb, Mr. Cox produced a multi-media exhibition at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in 2004 on the history of the Los Angeles Steamship Company, aptly entitled Hollywood to Honolulu. Mr. Cox works as a freelance photographer and maintains a commercial studio while exhibits his images in galleries in Los Angeles and elsewhere.