Liners of luxury


POSTED: Sunday, June 28, 2009

There was a time when the great steamships ruled the ocean, and it was actually quite brief, only about four decades or so. The ships that come to mind immediately are Titanic and Lusitania, both lost in tragic circumstance, but that's why they're remembered. There were dozens more that blazed new paths of commerce and travel across the seas, creating not just new industries, but the popular-culture image of the luxurious life aboard the “;ocean liner,”; where passengers were cared for as if they were in a great hotel.




        ”;Hollywood to Honolulu—The Story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company”;

By Martin Cox and Gordon Ghareeb


(Glenncannon Maritime Press, $35)




The Los Angeles Steamship Co. was just such a venture. Created to serve the then-small port of Los Angeles—LASSCO, as it was called—lasted just a little more than a decade, but it made an indelible impression, as Hollywood moviemakers often called upon the line to create an oceangoing romance or thriller.

When Navy transports were offered up as surplus after the Great War, a hui of Los Angeles businessmen bought and refurbished them from stem to stern, forming LASSCO in 1920. Known as the “;white flyers”; because of their bright paint, two of the ships were German-built war prizes. Renamed City of Los Angeles and City of Honolulu, these ships—then the largest in the Pacific—were ideal for a California-to-Hawaii run.

The LASSCO liners were a direct challenge to San Francisco's long-established Matson line, and the history of the two companies are intertwined. They began service in 1922, and on the maiden run, City of Honolulu ran into a disaster that became a public-relations bonanza. On her return voyage, the liner caught fire 600 miles short of Los Angeles. The ship was abandoned as the orchestra played and crews provided passengers with roast chicken, booze and cigarettes in the lifeboats.

Although City of Honolulu burned and sank, everyone was rescued safely. Only 10 years after the Titanic tragedy, the smooth rescue made headlines. The LASSCO owners, including the publishing Chandler family, made sure that the rescue ships were diverted to Los Angeles, where they could control the publicity.

Another German war prize was quickly purchased and renamed City of Honolulu II. Other ships were added to the LASSCO line, including Calawaii and Diamond Head. The competition spurred Matson to build luxurious liners like Malolo and Lurline, and the 1920s became a dreamy time of ocean travel, helped by the many Hollywood movies filmed aboard the LASSCO ships. More passengers preferred the LASSCO ships to Matson's.

The stock market crash was a rough awakening for LASSCO, which was in the midst of leveraging assets to build new ships, and Matson absorbed the company in 1931. And then City of Honolulu turned out to be an unlucky name. The replacement liner caught fire while tied up next to Aloha Tower and spectacularly sank at its berth.

The LASSCO coast liner Harvard then slammed into the rocks off of Point Arguello and had to be abandoned. Although all passengers were rescued—during its brief existence, LASSCO never lost a passenger—that was the beginning of the end for the line, which had a brief bit of travel glory as the “;white flyers”; ruled the Pacific. One measure of the line's success was that it virtually created the trade link between Honolulu and Los Angeles.

All this comes to life in the new book “;Hollywood to Honolulu—The Story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company.”; Authors Martin Cox and Gordon Ghareeb are obviously steamship buffs and spent years examining newspaper microfilm for every nugget they could find on the vanished line.

It's a fascinating volume, well-illustrated, not just for ocean liner fans but for anyone interested in how Honolulu came to be the crossroads of the Pacific. As every route begins with a starting point, why not Los Angeles? The gamble by Los Angeles businessmen worked—today, Los Angeles has the busiest port in the nation.