Matson Navigation Company’s long association with Hawaii began in 1882, when Captain William Matson sailed his three-masted schooner Emma Claudina from San Francisco to Hilo, Hawaii, carrying 300 tons of food, plantation supplies and general merchandise.
In 1887, Captain Matson sold Emma Claudina and acquired the brigantine Lurline, which more than doubled the former vessel’s carrying capacity. As the Matson fleet expanded, new vessels introduced some dramatic maritime innovations. The bark Rhoderick Dhu was the first ship to have a cold storage plant and electric lights. The first Matson steamship, the Enterprise, was the first offshore ship in the Pacific to burn oil instead of coal.
Increased commerce brought a corresponding interest in Hawaii as a tourist attraction. The second Lurline, with accommodations for 51 passengers, joined the fleet in 1908. The 146-passenger ship S.S. Wilhelmina followed in 1910, rivaling the finest passenger ships serving the Atlantic routes. More steamships continued to join the fleet. When Captain Matson died in 1917 at 67, the Matson fleet comprised 14 of the largest, fastest and most modern ships in the Pacific passenger-freight service.
With increasing passenger traffic to Hawaii, Matson built a world-class luxury liner, the S.S. 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.
Matson’s famed “White Ships” were instrumental in the development of tourism in Hawaii and the South Pacific. 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.
On August 31, 1958, Matson’s S.S. Hawaiian Merchant departed San Francisco Bay carrying 20 24-foot containers on deck. The historic voyage marked the beginning of an ambitious containerization program that achieved tremendous gains in productivity and efficiency from the age-old methods of break-bulk cargo handling. The container freight system that Matson introduced to Hawaii in 1958 was a product of years of careful research and resulted in the development of a number of industry innovations that became models worldwide.
With the focus on containerization growing, Matson divested itself of all non-shipping assets, including its Waikiki hotels, which were sold to the Sheraton Corporation in 1959. In 1969, Matson became a wholly owned subsidiary of Honolulu-based Alexander & Baldwin, Inc., strengthening the business ties that formally date back to 1908, when A&B invested $200,000 to acquire a minority interest in Captain Matson’s company.