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. That voyage launched a company that has been involved in such diversified interests as oil exploration, hotels and tourism, military service during two world wars and even briefly, the airline business. Matson's primary interest throughout, however, has been carrying freight between the Pacific Coast and Hawaii.

In 1887, Captain Matson sold the 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.

Development of Tourism

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. When World War I broke out, most of the Matson fleet was requisitioned by the government as troopships and military cargo carriers. Other Matson vessels continued to serve Hawaii's needs throughout the war. After the war, Matson ships reverted to civilian duty and the steamers SSs Manulani and Manukai were added to the fleet - the largest freighters in the Pacific at that time.

The decade from the mid-20s to mid-30s marked a significant period of Matson expansion. In 1925, the company established Matson Terminals, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary, to perform stevedoring and terminal services for its fleet. 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. In addition, 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. Reproductions of the some of the more famous and memorable ads and art can be purchased through Matson’s ArteHouse website.

Wartime Service

Immediately after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the passenger liners Lurline, Matsonia, Mariposa and Monterey, and 33 Matson freighters were called to military service. Matson, as General Agent for the War Shipping Administration, was given the responsibility for manning, provisioning, maintaining and servicing an important part of the government’s rapidly expanding fleet of cargo vessels. Matson was soon operating a fleet of more than one hundred vessels. Matson’s four passenger liners completed a wartime total of 119 voyages, covered 1 1/2 million miles and carried a total of 736,000 troops. As 1945 ended, the roster of 35 Matson freighters in 1940 had been reduced to 14 by wartime losses or sale to the Government. The post-war period for Matson was somewhat difficult. The expense of restoration work proved to be very costly and necessitated the sale of the Mariposa and Monterey, still in wartime gray. In 1948, the Lurline returned to service after a $20 million reconversion. Two new Matson hotels were built on Waikiki in the 1950s, the SurfRider in 1951 and the Princess Kaiulani in 1955. In 1955, Matson undertook a $60 million shipbuilding program which produced the South Pacific liners Mariposa and Monterey, and the rebuilt wartime Monterey was renamed Matsonia and entered the Pacific Coast - Hawaii service.

Introducing Containerization in the Pacific

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. The company’s historic contribution to the maritime industry is prominently featured in an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., entitled “Transforming the Waterfront.” The display includes authentic 1970-era Matson containers, with a backdrop mural of Matson’s Oakland container yard at night. The exhibition also addresses the impact of containerization on West Coast waterfront operations, including the historic Mechanization and Modernization Agreement of 1960. To learn more about the exhibit, please click here.

Containerization brought the greatest changes to water transportation since steamships replaced sailing vessels. And it came just in time to save the American Merchant Marine from going down with all hands under the burden of rapidly-rising costs and foreign flag competition. Matson's containerization program for Hawaii was the product of its in-house research department, which was established in 1956 and was the first of its kind in the industry. It was a tremendous program, perhaps one of the most significant ever undertaken by an ocean carrier.

The transformation of the Matson fleet from break bulk to container vessels began in 1960, when the S.S. Hawaiian Citizen became the first vessel in the Pacific to be converted to a full containership. It was also the first vessel to incorporate a large-scale reefer container capacity into the company's regular container service. While other vessels were converted in the early 1960s, construction of the first containership in the world to be built from the keel up commenced in 1967, from a design developed by Matson's own naval architects. That vessel, the S.S. Hawaiian Enterprise (renamed Manukai), and its sistership, the S.S. Hawaiian Progress (renamed Manulani), entered service in 1970 and marked the beginning of a new generation of containerships. The gains in productivity and efficiency were remarkable. In 1950, an average commercial vessel could carry 10,000 tons at a speed of 16 knots. Following the development of containerization, the average commercial vessel carried 40,000 tons at a speed of 23 knots.

Concurrently, shoreside innovations were introduced, including the world's first A-frame gantry crane, which was erected in 1959 in Alameda, California and became the prototype for container cranes. In addition, Matson introduced the first transtainer by Paceco and the first straddle carrier in the world by Clark Ross - both developed to meet Matson specifications.

Building a Service Designed to Meet a Growing Hawaii Economy

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 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. In 1970, in line with the decision to concentrate on its Pacific Coast-Hawaii freight service, the company sold its passenger vessels and suspended its Far East service, which had commenced a few years earlier.

A major ship construction program was undertaken during the 1970s, modernizing the company’s vessels to a fully containerized fleet, as well as adding roll on/roll off (ro-ro) capacity. In the 1980s, three specially designed barges were constructed for Matson’s Neighbor Island service, including two container barges and one ro-ro barge. In 1992, the diesel-powered containership MV R. J. Pfeiffer was constructed and joined the Matson fleet.

Equally important, Matson focused on developing an industry-leading Customer Support Center in the 1990s, providing customers with “one call does it all” customer service. That effort resulted in the creation of a Customer Support Center in Phoenix in 1995. The philosophy behind centralized customer service was extended to the Internet in subsequent years, allowing customers to have the same “ease of use” in doing business with Matson online as they have with dedicated customer service teams.


In 1987, Matson formed Matson Intermodal System, Inc. as an intermodal marketing company (IMC) arranging North American rail and truck transportation for shippers and carriers. The company grew steadily through the ‘90s and gained industry recognition as one of the nation’s leading IMCs. In 2003, the company was renamed Matson Logistics in recognition of its continued growth and expanded service offerings. In 2011, the company rebranded itself as Matson Logistics. The company is a leading provider of multimodal transportation services to the North American market, including domestic and international rail intermodal service, long haul and regional highway brokerage, supply chain services and LTL transportation services, as well as third-party logistics services that encompass warehousing, distribution, and international freight forwarding.

In 1999, Matson and Stevedoring Services of America, Inc. (SSA) appointed SSA Terminals as the manager of terminal and stevedore operations at Matson Terminals, Inc.'s facilities on the West Coast. MTI continues to operate Matson's container stevedoring and terminal services in Honolulu.

Beginning in 2002, Matson embarked on an ambitious four ship construction program, which involved investing over $500 million in new containerships that significantly modernized the company’s fleet. With the new ships, the company developed a successor service for its Guam service, which was operated as a joint alliance service with APL from 1996 – 2006. The new service included stops in Honolulu and Guam, as well as expanding Matson’s geographic reach in the Pacific to include China. The China – Long Beach Express was inaugurated in 2006, with service from Ningbo and Shanghai to Long Beach. In 2009, Xiamen was added as a port call.