Steamship Sunday – The Matson Twins: Mariposa and Monterey

Steamship Sunday

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In the early post-World War II years, Matson Lines struggled to regain its equilibrium as it converted from a war time logistics operation back to its traditional role as a carrier of freight and passengers to Hawaii and the Pacific. Then came Korea. After the Korean “conflict” wound down, Matson at last was able to hit its stride once again. The Matson flagship Lurline was busy taking passengers to and from Hawaii and other Pacific destinations, shuttling weekly between San Francisco or Los Angeles to Honolulu.

“The Grand Manner of Matson” was the Company slogan. The company had done much to cultivate tourist travel to Hawaii. Matson opened the Royal Hawaiian hotel on Waikiki Beach in 1927. 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. The ’30’s-vintage  Monterey, sister to the flagship Lurline, was renamed Matsonia and worked the Pacific Coast – Hawaii service with Lurline. The new twins, Mariposa and Monterey, were built for the South Pacific routes. Thus in the 1950s, Matson’s efforts bore fruit and the company was the preferred carrier to Pacific ports of call.

“We didn’t know how good we were,” remembered Roger Hall, then working in Matson’s sales department. “We never put our people on other ships. There were no comparisons. We were very good. Simply, we were the Cunard of the Pacific!”

Matson was well known for its loyalist passengers, fine accommodations and superb cuisine and service. One of the great marks in travel in the 1950s until the early ‘60s was to “sail Matson”.

“The midnight buffets, for example, were true extravaganzas complete with lavish ice carvings,” added Hall. “Knives were sharpened before a chef made each sandwich. There were hors d’oeuvre at every bar. Passengers were remembered by name and by preference. Expectedly, many guests came year after year voyage after voyage.”

As we have previously seen, Lurline was one of a total of four Matson “White Ships”  built between 1927 and the early 1930s for the company’s Pacific passenger trade. Included in the ’30s-vintage ships were the previously mentioned Monterey and Mariposa. The fourth ship was Matsonia. which had entered service in 1927 as the Malolo.

Post-war, Lurline was refitted and modernized. The older Mariposa and Matsonia were retired and (in a somewhat confusing name shuffling), Monterey was refitted, modernized and re-named Matsonia.

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Above: The new Monterey leaves San Francisco on her maiden voyage in 1956.
Below: She has cleared the Golden Gate Bridge and heads into the Pacific.

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To take advantage of its growing tourist business, Matson purchased two C4-S-1a Mariner-class freighters from the Maritime Administration. The Mariner class was a traditional house/engine-room center vessel, with 4 hatches forward and 2 aft.  In the early 1950s, at 563 feet in length and with a speed of 20 knots, the high speed single screw Mariner-class freighters were the size and speed of moderate size passenger liners. Matson was one of the first to realize this and saw the economy of converting the two freighters to passenger service rather than building two ships from the keel up. The two freighters had been used during the Korean war for logistical support. Monterey was built by Bethlehem Steel of Quincy, Massachusetts in 1952 as Free State Mariner. She was completely rebuilt at Willamette Steel in Portland, Oregon in 1956 for Matson Line’s South Seas service. She and her twin sister Mariposa (ex PineTree Mariner) were designed with a streamlined profile and outfitted with Mid Century tiki-inspired furnisings that were perfect for their Pacific service. Known for excellent service and cuisine and carrying only 365 first-class passengers, Monterey and Mariposa quickly developed a following.

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Mid Century Modern furnishings in the staterooms of Monterey and Mariposa

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But with the advent of jet airliner travel times were changing for Matson and all other passenger ship lines. The 31-year-old Lurline was sold in 1963, raising the Greek colors as the Ellinis for Chandris Lines. Placed in low-fare around-the-world immigrant and tourist service, her capacity was more than doubled, from 760 to 1,642. When Lurline was sold after developing engine problems Matson decided they couldn’t economically repair, the 1930s Monterey/Matsonia was renamed Lurline as she was a twin to Lurline and, because just as the U.S. Navy has almost always had a Hornet in the fleet, Matson had almost always had a Lurline.

“By 1967, this Lurline (formerly Monterey/Matsonia), then 35 years old, was having mechanical problems,” noted Roger Hall. “Even with her big refit and modernization of 1956-57, she was still a ship of the 1930s. She still had a writing room, for example. She was aging, becoming more difficult to run and maintain. And the Hawaiian trade itself was changing.”

“Inter-island trade in Hawaii was growing in popularity,” he said. “We began offering more 3-week trips, touching on the other islands. We also began noting that more passengers wanted to go west than east. More and more of them wanted to fly back to the mainland. After the outbound voyage, they wanted to get home in a hurry! We actually tried different passage rates, as set for westbound and a different set for eastbound. We even tried to lure the Japanese onboard the Lurline and went so far as to offer Japanese food. The Mariposa and Monterey were still popular, however. They were intimate and very luxurious, and offered an outstanding 42-day cruise with great ports of call. But there were additional, mounting problems. There were no less than 11 unions involved for each ship and the gap was widening between management and labor.”

By the late ‘60s, Matson was struggling again, faced with aging ships and neither the money nor the interest in replacing them.

“We began offering more diverse cruises, such as 14 days from San Francisco up to Alaska or down along the Mexican Riviera,” concluded Roger Hall. “We even did some long cruises, such as around South America. We had the first big liner to go into the Galapagos and with which Prince Philip, then heavily involved in the International Wildlife Foundation, helped with the final authorization to land. Hall added, “By 1970, the desperately needed operating subsidies from Washington for our passenger ships expired. Nineteen cents of every dollar had been subsidized. Management was pushed against the wall. The Lurline (ex Monterey/Matsonia) was soon sold to Chandris as well, becoming the Britanis in 1970, while the twins Mariposa and Monterey went to Pacific Far East Line, PFEL as it was called, for another seven or so years’ of service as US-flag liners. Thereafter, Matson looked only to its freight operations. They had been a wonderful passenger liner company.”

The Mariposa was subsequently sold, then reactivated in 1983 as the Chinese-owned Jinjiang and later Queen of Jing Jiang and finally Heng Li. She was scrapped in 1996. The Monterey was sold to the short-lived Aloha Pacific Cruises in 1986, but survived for only another four years in Hawaiian cruising before being sold, in 1990, to Star Lauro Cruises (and later Mediterranean Shipping Co) of Italy, but using the Panamanian flag and all while retaining her original Matson name. Outdated, she was finally scrapped (as the provisionally renamed Monte) in late 2006.

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Monterey off Waikiki

The scrapping of Monterey was the end of a remarkable chapter in America’s once-proud ship-building industry, and the last reminder of a vibrant and glamorous era of luxury trans-oceanic travel, now replaced by airlines and cruises.

The Monterey and her sister ship Mariposa was like family to the thousands of mostly American passengers. The ships kept afloat the tradition of the “Grand Manner of Matson” that four older vessels had started back in 1927 on their weekly sailings to Hawaii –  voyages that opened up the Islands and the South Seas to mainstream tourism from the United States.

In their prime, Monterey and Mariposa embarked every six weeks on roundtrip voyages from San Francisco to Sydney, via Los Angeles, Honolulu, Pape’ete, Auckland, Suva and Pago Pago. These liners provided a travel experience that was everything the brochures promised and more, combining high American standards of service with a casual Polynesian style that complemented the tropical ports of call. The twins cruised at a swift 20 knots, a speed needed to make their schedule between remote and distant islands.

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Above: This Matson ad appeared in newspapers and magazines in Australia and New Zealand. You’ll recognize the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline depicted here. Below: The same image but with different text touted the Matson twins for South Pacific destinations.

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For maritime historian and journalist Peter Knego of Moorpark, Calif., the retirement of the Monterey was especially poignant. “Her end closed a brilliant chapter in Matson Line history,” Knego said.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area when Monterey and Mariposa were in their prime, Knego remembers watching them sail to and from the historic Matson pier on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. This, like Pier 10 beneath the Aloha Tower in Honolulu, was the site of countless stirring Matson White Ship alohas – the whistle blasting, the orchestra playing, streamers flying between the ship and the gallery along the pier.

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Monterey and Lurline under the Aloha Tower at Honolulu’s Pier 10

Fulfilling a childhood dream to sail on a cruise ship, Knego booked passage aboard the Monterey, not knowing when he booked it that it was her last passenger-carrying cruise –  on the Mediterranean, where she operated in relative obscurity for an Italian cruise line. He was pleased to see that while refurbished and modernized, the ship still featured many of its original Polynesian-style fittings.

In fact, it was an aging boiler that finally did the Monterey in, dooming her to the scrap yard – the ship was otherwise in good condition. Knego pointed out that unlike so many vintage liners, the Monterey‘s end came without the suffering and decay that usually precedes a ship’s end. “She ended her career on a high note,” he said.

The heyday of the Monterey and  Mariposa was the twilight of Matson’s passenger-ship era, which had its origins in the 1880s. Originally intended as an offshoot of Matson’s sugar and freight-carrying business, passengers became profitable for Matson as Hawaii’s population and economy expanded. Matson launched its first great liner, the Malolo (later known as the first Matsonia) in 1927, to coincide with the opening of Matson’s then-new Royal Hawaiian hotel.

As pointed out previously, three similar “White Ships” followed in the early 1930s: the first Mariposa and Monterey, and the Lurline. The White Ships’ momentum continued until World War II, when all four liners became troop transports, carrying tens of thousands, their lanai suites and posh ballrooms completely gutted.

After the war, the ships needed overhauls. But high costs forced Matson to sell two of them, keeping the Lurline to resume the California-Hawaii trade. The South Pacific had no regular American ship service for a decade until Matson commissioned the new Monterey and Mariposa in 1956.

Everything about the new ships was first-class. Some of America’s finest artists and designers were hired to create a Polynesian motif for their interiors – everything from the artwork in the staterooms and on menus to the main public rooms, the Southern Cross Lounge and the Polynesian Club.

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The Southern Cross Lounge

The spiffy new ships featured the latest technology (air conditioning!), and were proud to be the first ships on any ocean to offer an all-female wait staff in the dining room. President Dwight Eisenhower even sent a telegram of congratulations, which was read at the Monterey‘s christening.

Over the years, Hawaii was the primary beneficiary of the White Ships’ service. Not only did their regular visits provide substantial tourist revenue to the Islands, they also provided a direct, reliable link to the Mainland for Island residents.

Before the advent of jet airliners in the late 1950s, Matson liners were the luxurious way to go. Dazzling color ads appeared in national magazines. Hollywood stars were regular customers. The Honolulu newspaper Hawaiian Advertiser wrote that:

“The Honolulu media of the day covered White Ship arrivals and departures, even printing full passenger lists in the early years.

The first arrival of the Monterey in Honolulu in 1956 was no exception. Bill Sewell was aboard ship that morning as senior assistant purser, and fondly remembered the welcome passengers and crew received after the five-day crossing from San Francisco, their first of many “Boat Day” arrivals at Aloha Tower.

“All the Honolulu newspapers and radio stations turned out for the occasion. It was front-page news,” he recalled in an interview shortly before his death at the age of 80 in California. “There were coin divers near the pier begging for coins … fire boats shooting water high in the sky, and flower girls came aboard with leis for everyone. It was a very exciting time.”

Sewell retired from Matson in the 1960s, having worked on all of Matson’s White Ships. Like many of his colleagues (and former passengers), Sewell had a deep loyalty to the ships. Many crew members stayed aboard the ships for their entire careers at sea, forging lifelong friendships with each other and with passengers. There were always plenty of repeat customers aboard each voyage, the old friendships adding to the perfect weather, fantastic food and happy times that accompanied each voyage.”

The Monterey and Mariposa remained popular through the 1960s, but the tide was beginning to turn. Fuel and labor costs, union rules, competition from new cruise lines and increasing trans-Pacific air service were among many new challenges. Matson also knew that the ships’ 25-year U.S. government subsidy (corporate welfare!) would be ending in 1978 (a federal law), and the company decided to exit the passenger ship business for good in 1970.

The Monterey and Mariposa were sold to the Pacific Far East Line in 1971. For seven years, they continued sailing on their old South Pacific routes with mostly the same crews and many of the same, loyal passengers. New cruises to Alaska, Europe and Asia were added, and the ships operated the first regular inter-island Hawaiian cruises in the mid 1970s. The Monterey even appeared in an episode of the “Hawaii Five-O” television series. The ships were as popular as ever.

But Pacific Far East Line faced the same challenges as Matson, and when Congress decided not to extend the ships’ subsidy, their service as U.S. flag liners effectively came to an end, as did the U.S. passenger-ship industry. The Monterey and Mariposa left Honolulu for San Francisco for the last time in 1978. The White Ship era was over.

Above: menu covers from Monterey and Mariposa

Below: Matson ads for the twin ships

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