The History of Hawaiian Cruises

It is indisputable that Hawaii is an incredibly popular vacation destination. In fact, in 2019 alone, the Hawaiian Tourism Authority announced that over 10 million people visited Hawaii! So how did a group of small islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean become not only popular, but accessible? By the man below- Captain William Matson.

(Capt. William Matson, 1849-1917)

In 1882, Capt. William Matson founded the Matson Navigation Company. While he started out using his ships to transport goods from California to Hawaii, eventually Matson became one of the forerunners of Hawaiian Travel Tourism. 

In 1908, Matson launched the first oil-burning steamer in the Pacific Ocean. He named it, Lurline, after his daughter, and included room for 51 passengers, as well as the usual cargo. Before this, steamers were run on coal, but Matson converted his ship to oil, to take advantage of increased speeds. 

Just two years later, Matson launched the Wilhelmina, a luxury vessel boasting large lounges, electric lights, and bath/showers for passengers to enjoy. Despite Captain Matson's death in 1917, the company continued to thrive under the leadership of his son-in-law, William P. Roth. The same year, a new ship, Maui launched, and it didn't take long for it to gain recognition as 'the finest ship in the Pacific Ocean.' Rapid growth continued in the mid twenties, starting with the purchase of the Ocean Steamship Company and its three ocean liners. The following year, in 1927, the Matson Navigation Company completed the S.S. Malolo, which was the largest luxury cruise liner in the US. The popularity of the S.S. Malolo led the company to build three more ships, S.S. Lurline, Mariposa and Monterey. Together, the four cruise liners were known as Matson's "White Ships”.

In addition to providing accessibility, Matson Navigation Company built up more tourism by building hotels. Construction began in 1927 of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. As a result, once the hotel was open, passengers not only had a comfortable way to travel to Hawaii, but had luxurious lodging as well.

( The S.S. Lurline in Honolulu, 1930's)

During WWII, most of Matson's ships were commandeered by the US government, leaving the company with only 14 of its fleet by the end of the war. The introduction of Trans-Pacific flights also hurt the company’s cruise line business. As a result, they switched focus from luxury tourism to shipping container innovation. The company started a research department in the mid 50s, after realizing that most of the cost associated with cargo transportation was due to inefficient loading and unloading systems. Matson's development of cranes for lifting and lowering shipping containers onto the deck of ships eventually were adopted world wide. While Matson Navigation Company no longer transports passengers to the wonders of a Hawaii vacation, their founder is still responsible for getting Hawaii "on the map" as a popular tourist destination.