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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Hawaii-Bound Ships Put the City on Maritime Map

Launched in 1922, the stylish steamer City of Los Angeles initiated passenger service to Honolulu. Celebrities helped promote voyages.

February 29, 2004|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

In the roaring '20s, its gleaming decks carried more than 80,000 passengers to an island hideaway 2,217 nautical miles distant, shuttling politicians, tourists and Hollywood's elite to exotic Honolulu.

The fabled steamship City of Los Angeles is now but a memory of Southern California's playful past. But it helped to establish Los Angeles as a major passenger-ship destination, while creating an ambience of glamour and adventure.

Through the 20th century, at least six other craft bore Los Angeles' name: a 1916 oil tanker, a 1918 cargo ship, a 1924 Zeppelin airship, a 1945 heavy cruiser built with war-bond money, a 1948 Swedish motor ship and, finally, a 1976 nuclear submarine.

But it was the City of Los Angeles and its sister ship, the City of Honolulu, both launched in 1922, that inaugurated passenger service between Los Angeles and Hawaii. Before then, Hawaii-bound passengers had to depart from San Francisco.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 06, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Then and Now -- The Then and Now column in Sunday's California section misspelled "Uncle John" Daggett's name as Dagget. Also, one of the actors who portrayed Charlie Chan in the movies was Warner Oland; it was Oland, not the Charlie Chan character, who was one of the famous passengers on the City of Los Angeles cruise ship.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Then and Now -- The Then and Now column in the Feb. 29 California section misspelled "Uncle John" Daggett's name as Dagget. Also, one of the actors who portrayed Charlie Chan in the movies was Warner Oland; it was Oland, not Charlie Chan, who was one of the famous passengers on the City of Los Angeles cruise ship.

The story of the Los Angeles Steamship Co.'s stylish vessels and celebrity passengers is documented in the exhibit "Hollywood to Honolulu" at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro. Steamship historians Martin Cox and Gordon R. Ghareeb are guest curators, contributing their personal collections of steamship company artifacts, photos with deck scenes and graphics. The exhibit runs through July.

Cox and Ghareeb's research uncovered shipboard romances, both famous and obscure, and the names of star passengers who helped promote the ship. Legendary athlete-actor Johnny Weissmuller and fabled surfer Duke Kahanamoku entertained guests with their water skills, while future-Gen. George S. Patton Jr. watched shipboard antics in 1926 en route home to Los Angeles after being captain of the Army's championship polo team. In 1920, the Los Angeles Steamship Co., known as LASSCO, was Southern California's largest shipbuilder and repair facility. It bought two German liners, the Aeolus and the Huron, and refurbished them as state-of-the-art cruise ships.

The company's owners included City Councilman Fred Baker and the Chandler family, which also owned the Los Angeles Times. They envisioned the L.A.-Hawaii route as an opportunity for city growth.

During Prohibition, travelers had a strong reason to board a ship that made a monthly voyage. Although liquor was supposedly banned from the ship, the City of Los Angeles held nightly cocktail parties in a library devoid of books.

Its inaugural voyage began on Sept. 10, 1922. The whistle sounded, the crew of 230 cast off with 264 passengers aboard, and the sleek white 580-foot vessel slipped between the battleships Connecticut and Tennessee, bound for Honolulu. Its sister ship, Honolulu, followed two weeks later.

The vessels had nearly 400 first-class cabins and 100 steerage accommodations, but the "cheap seats" were kept vacant at first. A first-class 20-day round trip cost $336, including six days at sea, a week around the islands and the return.

For the maiden voyage, the steamship company ponied up the dough for Mayor George Cryer and City Council President Boyle Workman to lead a city delegation to promote trade. They took along some of the Southland's oranges, lemons and produce, as well as more than 100 Chamber of Commerce leaders and wealthy members.

The ship was greeted at the Honolulu pier by a band playing "Aloha Oe" in fast tempo. Boys dived for coins tossed by passengers as hula girls swayed, and every traveler was welcomed with kisses and leis.

The Los Angeles' gala return voyage was uneventful. Not so the Honolulu, which caught fire and sank on Oct. 12, 1922, during its journey home.

This was a decade after the Titanic; everyone aboard must have remembered the tragedy. Yet they remained calm. As the ship's band played "Alexander's Ragtime Band," all 260 passengers and crew members boarded lifeboats in an orderly fashion. Even the ship's cat and two canaries survived.

The freighter West Faralon picked everyone up and transferred them to the Army transport ship Thomas, which headed for San Francisco.

Times Publisher Harry Chandler didn't like the sound of that. He didn't want anyone else -- especially Hearst reporters -- to interview passengers: What if they blamed Chandler's steamship line for the fire? So he pulled strings to divert the rescue ship to Los Angeles.

As a further guarantee against negative publicity, and to buy some time, Chandler made sure that the ship weighed anchor just outside the harbor when it arrived around midnight. Then he ensured that the passengers were kept aboard all night while he spared no expense, supplying them with cigarettes, cigars, food, clothing and underwear. Not until they were all happy campers were they allowed to leave. A film crew recorded their smiling faces as they disembarked and climbed into automobiles waiting to whisk them home. The fire's cause was never found.

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