Steamship Sunday – Matson Lines’ Lurline

Steamship Sunday


Launched in 1932, this was the third Matson ship to bear the name Lurline.

“The Lurline IS Hawaii”

In yesterday’s post about the Battle of Midway, we read that when Pearl Harbor was attacked on 7 December, 1941, Navy Lt. Cdr. Wade McCluskey’s wife and son were aboard the S.S. Lurline en route to Honolulu. Lurline is one of the storied names used on ships of the Matson Lines, based in San Francisco. Today, we will learn the history of Matson’s Lurlines.

William Matson

William Matson

The Matson Navigation Company was founded by Captain William Matson. Born Wilhelm Mattson on 18 October 1849 in Lysekil, Sweden, Matson came to New York in 1863 as a cabin boy at age 14. Working his way up in the maritime world, he arrived in San Francisco after a trip around Cape Horn in 1867. His first job in the San Francisco Bay Area was on a two-masted coal scow. He sailed and later piloted ships up and down the West Coast.

In 1882 Matson bought his first ship, the Emma Claudina, which had been owned by sugar baron Claus Spreckles and named for Spreckles’ daughter. Spreckles’ company grew sugar cane in Hawaii. Matson, who had anglicized his name and was now a Master Mariner, was hired by Spreckles to bring sugar from Hawaii to California on the Emma Claudina.


The original Lurline

Matson built his first ship in 1887, a 400-ton brigantine he named Lurline. The name comes from Lorelei, a mythical siren who lured sailors to their deaths on the Rhine River, and sailed it as a supply ship between San Francisco and Hilo, Hawaii.

In 1888 Lillie Low, traveling to Hilo to teach in the missionary school, sailed on the Lurline and met Matson. After teaching a year in Hawaii, Lillie married Captain Matson in Hawaii in May, 1889. In September, 1890, Lurline Berenice, named for her father’s ship, was born in San Francisco.

Matson built the first steam powered Lurline in 1908. This Lurline was intended as a freighter but could hold 51 passengers along with 65 crew. This steamer served Matson for twenty years, including a stint with United States Shipping Board during World War I. It is likely that Matson’s choice of yellow and blue on the funnels of its ships derives from William Matson’s Swedish origins.

In 1914, Lurline Matson married William Roth. Roth became president of Matson Lines in 1927, his father-in-law having died in 1917. In 1928, Roth sold the 1908-vintage Lurline to the Alaska Packers’ Association. That ship served various duties including immigration and freight under the Yugoslavian flag (renamed Radnik) and was finally broken up in 1953.

Increased commerce brought a corresponding interest in Hawaii as a tourist attraction. Following the second Lurline was the 146-passenger ship Wilhelmina in 1910. Wilhelmina rivaled the finest passenger ships serving the Atlantic routes. More steamships continued to join the Matson fleet. At the time of  Captain Matson’s death in 1917, the Matson fleet comprised 14 of the largest, fastest and most modern ships in the Pacific passenger-freight service.

Mason was the first to employ a refrigerated cargo ship for transporting food and the first to use an oil-burning (rather than coal-burning) ship in the Pacific.

The decade from the mid-20s to mid-30s marked a significant period of Matson expansion. With increasing passenger traffic to Hawaii, Matson built a world-class luxury liner, the Malolo, in 1927. At the time, the Malolo was the fastest ship in the Pacific, cruising at 22 knots. Its success led to the construction of the luxury liners Mariposa, Monterey and Lurline between 1930 and 1932. This was the third Lurline in the Matson fleet. This trio of Matson ships were painted white, in contrast to the black traditionally used on the hulls of ships plying the Atlantic.

Lurline - sm


Matson’s famed “White Ships” were instrumental in the development of tourism in Hawaii. In addition, beginning in 1927, with the construction of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Matson’s Waikiki hotels provided tourists with luxury accommodations both ashore and afloat.


In order to generate excitement and allure for Hawaii as a world class tourist destination, Matson developed an ambitious and enduring advertising campaign that involved the creative efforts of famous photographers such as Edward Steichen and Anton Bruehl. In addition, Matson commissioned artists to design memorable keepsake menus for the voyages, as well as during their stay at the Royal Hawaiian. The Matson artwork created by Frank McIntosh, Eugene Savage, John Kelly and Louis Macouillard continues to be popular today.Matson-polynesian



The new Lurline was christened on 12 July 1932 in Quincy, Massachusetts at the Bethlehem Shipbuilding yard by Lurline Matson Roth who had also christened her father’s 1908 steamship Lurline as a young woman of 18. On 12 January 1933, the new Lurline left New York City bound for San Francisco via the Panama Canal on her maiden voyage. From San Francisco, the new Lurline sailed to Sydney, Australia and the South Seas, returning to San Francisco on 24 April 1933. She then served on the express San Francisco to Honolulu service.


Famous aviator Amelia Earhart rode Lurline from Los Angeles to Honolulu with her Lockheed Vega airplane secured on deck during 22–27 December, 1934. Earhart had sailed to Hawaii for the record-breaking Honolulu-to-Oakland solo flight she made in January 1935.

With the U.S. engaging in the war against Japan in the Pacific, Lurline and her Matson sisters Mariposa and Monterey were converted to troop ships, carrying troops and supplies between the West Coast and Hawaii.

Lurline also often voyaged to Australia as a troop and supply ship and once transported Australian Prime Minister John Curtin to America to confer with President Roosevelt.

Wartime events put Lurline at risk. Royal Australian Air Force trainee pilot Arthur Harrison had been put on watch without adequate training. “A straight line of bubbles extending from away out on the starboard side of the ship to across the bow. I had never seen anything quite like it, but it reminded me of bubbles behind a motorboat. I called to the lad on watch on the next gun forward. A few seconds later the ship went into a hard 90 degree turn to port. We RAAF trainees received a severe reprimand from the captain for not reporting the torpedo. Anyway, it was a bad miss.”

At wars’ end, Lurline was returned to Matson Lines in mid-1946 and extensively refitted at Bethlehem-Alameda Shipyard in Alameda, California in 1947 at the then-huge cost of $20 million. She resumed her San Francisco to Honolulu service from 15 April 1948 and regained her pre-war status as the Pacific Ocean’s top liner.

Her high occupancy rates during the early 1950s caused Matson to also refit her sister ship Monterey (renaming her Matsonia) and the two liners provided First Class-only service between Hawaii and the American mainland from June 1957 to September 1962, mixed with the occasional Pacific cruise. Pre-war, the Matson liners offered two classes of service. Serious competition from jet airliners caused passenger loads to fall in the early 1960s and Matsonia was laid up in late 1962.

Only a few months later, Lurline arrived in Los Angeles with serious engine trouble in her port turbine and was laid up because Matson felt that the required repairs were too expensive for the ship to operate profitably in face of the competition from the jetliners. Matson instead brought the Watsonia out of retirement and, characteristically, changed her name to Lurline. The original Lurline was sold to the Greek-owned Chandris Lines in 1963 who renamed her Ellinis. Chandris also bought Matsonia, renaming her Britanis. Chandris remodeled the sister ships and used them into the 1970s carrying passengers to Australia and New Zealand, though Chandris did retain the Hawaiian-themed Matson interior furnishings.

As one of the pioneers of the containerized cargo method of shipping, Matson abandoned the cruise ship business to concentrate on freight. But just as the U.S. Navy has had a Hornet in its fleet almost since the Navy’s inception, Matson must have a Lurline. Matson’s current Lurline is a 25,350 ton (displacement) roll-on, roll-off freighter built in 1973.

Let’s all go to Hawaii aboard the Lurline!
(Click on the word “Lurline” above to play.)


The White Ships 
(Click on “White Ships” to play.)

White Ships


World War II-era Posters and Post Cards

No “Political Correctness” here!
(Hat tip: “Cousin Mary”)

Do it right-Make it bite

Ours to fight for

This is the enemy

War Bonds


Add yours →

  1. jack darnell 05/06/2016 — 14:44

    Amazing story. Loved the torpedo ‘miss’ story. Mighty calm to watch death cross your bow path…
    Good story


  2. I traveled on the Lurline winter of ’52-53 with my parents and we stayed at the Royal Hawaiian. As a five year old Chicagoan, I can say little more than the trip opened my young gray Midwestern eyes to beauty in music and dress and new culture. Specifically though, I recall board game “horse races” daily in one room of the ship and my Aunt who was with us was ecstatic to be a bettor.


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