top of page

A Brief History

A synopsis of The White Ships and The Grand Manner of Matson


S.S. LURLINE  and S.S. MALOLO, San Francisco, 1933.

"The White Ships" refers to the six white-hulled steamships built and operated by Matson Navigation Company of San Francisco, beginning in 1926 with the S.S. MALOLO, and concluding in 1978 when the S.S. MARIPOSA made her last voyage flying the American flag. While the sister ships are best known for their luxury voyages between California and Hawaiʻi, they also served the islands of Polynesia, New Zealand and Australia, connecting the remote Pacific ports with modern, first class service. The influence of these ships across the region is still strong to this day.  

The beautiful and beloved white ships were not Matson's first passenger vessels. The company began carrying people aboard its sailing ships starting in 1882, when Captain William Matson began his oceanic transportation empire carrying cargo to Hawaiʻi and returning to the mainland with sugar and pineapples.

Matson's first vessel, the EMMA CLAUDINA, 1882, 

The rapid development of trade between the west coast, the Hawaiian Islands and the South Pacific soon led to the beginnings of tourism and migration around the region. Innovation in shipbuilding, Matson's shipping expertise and their geopolitical influence, led by Captain Matson and his loyal officers and crew, allowed the company to become the most prominent cargo and passenger service.

 The first LURLINE in Matsonʻs fleet, built in 1887. 

Roderick Dhu, the first ship on the Pacific with electric lights and cold storage. 

S.S. Wilhelmina operated by Matson from 1910-1917 and 1919-1932.

Matsonʻs expanding fleet of ships in the late 1800s and early 1900s - powered by sail, coal, oil and eventually steam -  grew bigger, faster and more accessible. American expansion saw the annexation of Hawaiʻi and strategic growth across the Pacific. The distinctive 'M' on Matson ship stacks became a familiar and frequent sight, from San Francisco to Hilo, and south to Oceania. 

Meanwhile, on the east coast of the USA and in Europe, massive new trans-Atlantic passenger liners began appearing. Ships were no longer simply a means of transport, they had become grand, luxury hotels at sea. Matson was the first company to bring this new level of service to the Pacific. Their first "white" ship, designed by famed W.F. Gibbs, was the brown-hulled S.S. MALOLO, Hawaiian for flying fish. The new "Queen of the Pacific" carried 620 passengers (plus mail & cargo) and cruised at 21 knots on her five day crossings between San Francisco and Honolulu. 

The keel of the S.S. MALOLO at Cramp Shipyard in Philadelphia, 1926. 

MALOLO was re-named MATSONIA in 1937. 

The LURLINE in 1933 on her maiden voyage from New York-San Francisco.  A "South Seas & Oriental" cruise followed. 

MARIPOSA, MONTEREY and LURLINE followed the MALOLO in 1932-33, operating deluxe service between California, Hawaiʻi and the South Seas on regular round trip schedules, carrying thousands across the Pacific in unprecedented style and comfort, that came to be known as the "Grand Manner" of Matson. The modern era of migration, tourism and trade was in full swing. The MALOLO and LURLINEʻs regular ports of call included San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu, while the MONTEREY and MARIPOSA continued to Suva, Pago Pago, Auckland and Sydney under Matsonʻs subsidiary, Oceanic Steamship.

Boat Day

The arrival and departure of a white ship in Honolulu became known as "Boat Day" - a gala ceremony that welcomed arriving passengers in the morning, and bid farewell to those sailing away in the afternoon.  The festivities began as the ship rounded Diamond Head. Outrigger canoes, sailboats and motor launches accompanied the liner past Waikiki Beach, to her berth at Pier 10 beneath the Aloha Tower. Arriving passengers were welcomed with Hawaiian music and a warm aloha greeting. For malahini (newcomers) the events marked the beginning of a Hawaiian vacation. Many would stay at the famed Moana and Royal Hawaiian hotels, which Matson owned. For Hawaiian residents, or kamaʻaina, Boat Day was a wonderful "welcome home!"  Later in the day, as the ships sailed on to the South Pacific or back to California, the departure ceremony was a poignant farewell attended by large crowds of well-wishers on the pier. As the Royal Hawaiian Band played "Aloha Oe", passengers threw colorful streamers and lei from the shipʻs decks, symbolic of a promise to return to Hawaiʻi again. 

On Boat Day in Honolulu arriving  passengers were greeted at the Aloha Tower by lei makers

Boat Day Matson Hawaii

As the white ships sailed, passengers threw streamers from the decks of the ship to friends and family bidding "aloha" on the pier below. 

A portion of a Matson menu featuring the art of Eugene Savage. 

In the 1930s, developments in color printing, and the magic of radio and film allowed Matson to share fantastic images and glowing reviews of its services to a worldwide audience. A voyage aboard a Matson liner quickly became one of the world’s most sought-after travel experiences, attracting Hollywood celebrities and heads of state along with ordinary citizens to experience "Matsonʻs Pacific Playgrounds".  Newspapers around North America often featured images of local citizens aboard Matson ships. Whether on a honeymoon, business trip or migration overseas, a trip aboard a Matson Liner was an exotic adventure to a faraway place amid "the gaiety of smart, pleasure-bound people." It was an experience without parallel.

The white ships also carried cargo between their ports, some passengers even bringing their car with them. For residents of Australia and New Zealand, the fabulous new American liners offered a new option for travel to the UK or Europe, via the USA and Atlantic, rather than the long route around Africa on much less luxurious ships.  The combination of Matsonʻs expertise and high standard of service, the beautiful Pacific ports of call and the comforts aboard the magnificent white ships made a trip across the South Seas one of the worldʻs finest travel experiences. 

White Ships go to War

MARIPOSA in Brisbane, 1946. 

Australian war bride in San Francisco,1946. 

The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brought the U.S. into World War 2, and an abrupt end to tourism on the Pacific. All four white ships were converted into troop carriers and served the Allies admirably around the world for the balance of the War. Matson captains and officers, among the best in the world, remained in command of the ships, which were valued for their size and speed, carrying thousands of personnel and military equipment wherever they were needed.  When the War ended, the liners brought thousands of war brides from across the Pacific to their new homes in the United States. 

The War took its toll on the white ships. The extensive cost of restoring them, combined with innovations in transportation and changing patterns of trans-oceanic travel, resulted in Matson reducing their passenger fleet. After returning to interim service for Matson in 1946, MALOLO (re-named MATSONIA in 1933) was sold to Home Lines and continued operating in Europe as ATLANTIC and later QUEEN FREDERICA until 1977. In 1953 Home Lines also purchased the mothballed MARIPOSA, renaming her HOMERIC. LURLINE sailed alone for Matson from California to Honolulu from 1948 until 1957, when the original MONTEREY was finally rebuilt and returned to service as the new MATSONIA

1946 ad announcing MATSONIAʻs interim post-war service between the US and Hawaiʻi. 

The LURLINE sails from San Francisco in 1951. 

As tourism and migration returned to the Pacific in the 1950s, the demand for first class travel also increased, and Matson embarked on a new approach to servicing their old routes. In 1956 they converted two relatively small cargo ships - built as Pine Tree Mariner and Free State Mariner - into modern incarnations of the MARIPOSA and MONTEREY. The twins carried on the Oceanic Steamship service beyond Hawaiʻi to the South Seas, offering round trips from San Francisco to Sydney, with new stops added at exotic island ports like Bora Bora, Moorea, Wellington, Rarotonga and Nouméa.  At the time there was a lack of modern hotels in Honolulu to support the arrival of so many visitors, so Matson refurbished the Moana and Royal Hawaiian and built the Surfrider and Princess Kaiulani. Matson's "Grand Manner" was back!

The MARIPOSA arrives in Honolulu on her maiden voyage, 1956. 

The MONTEREY anchored at Noumea, New Caledonia in 1968. Photo contributed by Stephen Fleay 

With their two remaining older sisters, the younger white ships continued carrying passengers over the same Pacific routes (and eventually on world cruises) into the 1960s. The popularity of Matson liners and the loyalty of their passengers were without equal. But this trend would soon see a major shift.  

The new MATSONIA as photographed by Ansel Adems in Honolulu, 1957. 

707's + Shipping Containers

By the 1950s, airlines became a less expensive, faster option to reach distant Pacific islands.  

In 1959, Matsonʻs role as the primary mode of passenger transportation across the Pacific was confronted with a new rival. Sleek, modern Boeing 707ʻs could now travel to the remote islands of Hawaiʻi and Polynesia in hours instead of days. Many tourists opted for vacations on the beach rather than aboard ship. At the same time, Matsonʻs world-leading innovations in container shipping were a great success. Trans-oceanic liners, despite their continued popularity, began to lose their competitive edge, and were no longer a priority for shipping companies. Matson sold its four Waikiki hotels to Sheraton in 1959.  

Hawaiian Merchant  was the first container ship to sail from the west coast  to Hawaiʻi Iin 1958. 

As Matson shifted its shipping business focus back to its origins in cargo, airline travel became more widely available, and new foreign-flagged cruise ships began appearing around the world. The old "ocean liner" steamship standard of luxury travel aboard smaller vessels was becoming obsolete. The original LURLINE, following engine issues, was sold in 1963 to Chandris Lines of Greece to become the ELLINIS.  The former MONTEREY - MATSONIA assumed the legendary LURLINE name to become Matsonʻs flagship and continue Caifornia-Hawaiʻi service alongside MONTEREY and MARIPOSA, which continued their South Pacific trips, along with seasonal and special cruises to Alaska, Mexico and South America. 

In 1969, Matson became a wholly owned subsidiary of longtime Hawaiian business partner Alexander & Baldwin, setting the stage for what would become a change in corporate direction, and the final few years of the white ships as American-flagged liners. In 1970 the LURLINE was sold to Chandris, becoming the BRITANIS. She would continue sailing on different worldwide cruise itineraries until 1994.  In 2000 she sunk near the coast of South Africa while under tow to breakers in India. 

After being sold to Chandris in 1970,  BRITANIS was refit and modified to carry 1,655 passengers. She operated as a cruise ship in Europe and the Caribbean, and later between New York and Bermuda, until 1994. 

The sale of the MARIPOSA and MONTEREY followed soon after, although they remained in their home port of San Francisco. Pacific Far East Line purchased the twins in 1970 and operated them on their old Matson routes, with many of their original American crews remaining aboard. The ships continued sailing to Hawaiʻi and the South Pacific for PFEL. Special world cruises in the mid 1970s were fully booked. However, a 25-year subsidy from the US government that had been available since their construction was due to expire. Combined with the high cost of fuel and American crew wages, PFEL could no longer continue operating the liners. The white ship era ended on April 7, 1978, as the MARIPOSA sailed under the Golden Gate bridge for the last time. 

The MONTEREY  in Honolulu, 1972. Pacific Far East Lineʻs golden bear replaced Matsonʻs M on the funnel. 

The MARIPOSA was sold and refit as JIN JIANG, offering cruises in China in the 1980s. 

The MARIPOSA was eventually purchased by a Chinese shipping company, operating as a cruise ship / ferry between Shanghai and Hong Kong during the 1980s. The MONTEREY was laid up for nearly 10 years, when American investors acquired her from the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots. In 1988, following a $50 million refit, she returned to Hawaiʻi to briefly restore her American-flag luxury service under the Aloha Pacific Cruises banner. But after just a year, the MONTEREY was again laid up due to financial problems. She found new life in Europe for Star Lauro and MSC, until engine troubles finally laid her up for good in 2006. 

The White Ships author Duncan OʻBrien took a Mediterranean cruise on the MSC MONTEREY  in 2001. The ship retained many of her Matson fittings and decor, including the American bicentennial banner that was added to bow in 1976. is the home port for online content related to the Matson passenger ship era. It was created by Duncan OʻBrien, whose parents met on the MONTEREY in 1962. The site features images, films, artwork and memorabilia, acquired during two decades of research for his three books: The White Ships (2009), Matson the Mouse (2012), and The Grand Manner of Matson (2014). Unless otherwise attributed, all images and content on this website are copyright and reproduction is not permitted without authorization. 



$45 incl. Shipping (North America)

PayPal ButtonPayPal Button



bottom of page