Pacific Steam Navigation Liners:

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Known as the “White Flyers of the Pacific.” The sister ships SS Yale and SS Harvard were the fastest steamships on the California coast, during the early twentieth century.  The hulls were painted bright white with either red or blue trim representing the school colors of Harvard and Yale respectively.   Between 1911 and 1936, with a few years lost to World War I, the way to sail in style was by coastal steamship on these sleek white liners.

Carrying freight and up to 800 passengers, the swift steamers outclassed all West Coast competition. They could sail the Los Angeles to San Francisco run in nineteen hours -- four to six hours faster than rival steamers.  Los Angeles on to San Diego took only five hours.

These ships had luxurious interiors with opulent staterooms on the lower decks.   Higher up, outside cabins opened to promenade decks, with economy cabins accessed from interior passages.

Yale was launched first in 1906 with Harvard following in 1907; both at Chester, Pennsylvania, south of Philadelphia on the Delaware River.  These were identical 3,731 ton steamships powered by three coal fired turbines, to a top speed of 23 knots.   This was faster than the Titanic class and only a bit slower than the Cunard’s record holding Lusitania and Mauritania.

The ships began their careers on the East Coast in 1907. Built for the Metropolitan Steamship Company of New York, the identical twins were 407 feet long with a 62 foot beam and 19 foot draft. These were among the first US ships built with steam turbine engines.

Yale and Harvard spent three years making fast runs between New York and Boston before they were acquired by the Pacific Steam Navigation Company for service on the West Coast. The two ships made the long voyage to California via the Straits of Magellan, arriving in Los Angeles in December 1910. They were immediately put into service on the Los Angeles to San Francisco route. San Diego was added to the schedule the next year.

In March 1918, the ships were bought by the US Navy for one million dollars each.  They were quickly converted for military transport use at Mare Island, and by May they were commissioned as USS Charles and USS Yale.  In June 1918, the ships transited the Panama Canal en route to Hampton Roads, Virginia.  After embarking troops, the ships crossed the Atlantic offloading in Brest, France.  They commenced cross-channel service, ferrying troops from Southampton.  Between late July 1918 and early May 1919 the ships made over a hundred trips from England to France.

After returning to Philadelphia in June 1920, the ships were decommissioned and offered for sale.  In Los Angeles, where the twin steamers were well-remembered, a group of businessmen formed the “Yale-Harvard Syndicate” and bought the ships from the Navy.  The ships were returned to California for extensive reconditioning and conversion to oil burning boilers. The interiors were refurbished and ballrooms added to create a cruise-like experience.

The ships were renamed S.S. Harvard and S.S, Yale, and sailed together for a decade as west coast liners.   In November 1930, the Yale made her 1000th west coast voyage.  The Harvard, attempting voyage number 972, would have less to celebrate. As dawn broke on May 30, 1931 just north of Santa Barbara, the SS Harvard ran aground at high speed in heavy fog about a mile from shore.  

Passengers from the stranded vessel agreed that the wreck had been the calmest they had heard of. There was no confusion, either among passengers or crew, although the shock woke nearly everyone on board.   “Shipwreck deluxe is what it was,” said Mrs. Elizabeth Stoddard, a gray-haired woman form Oakland, as she came ashore. “Nobody hurt, all our baggage saved, a ride on the Navy’s newest cruiser, and a turkey dinner to top it off…”

Lifeboats were swung overboard, loaded and lowered to a calm sea, standing by the ship until the arrival of the freighter S.S. Anselmo, which took many aboard.   Those passengers would later be transferred to the high-speed cruiser U.S.S. Louisville, which had raced north from its anchorage in Los Angeles harbor.

There were few injuries and no deaths.  Later that day, the Louisville landed over 500 passengers and crew at Los Angeles Harbor.

That same day, the tug Tamaroa attempted to refloat the ship.  In preparation of pulling her from the rocks at Point Arguello, it was discovered that damage to the ship was greater than first estimated.  According to the salvage crew the vessel had apparently dragged its entire keel over a reef.  Soon the bow section separated in the heavy surf and salvage efforts were abandoned.

The Yale continued its coastal runs without its running mate. But the tough economic times of the Great Depression meant fewer passengers and declining profits for the ship’s operators. Maritime strikes in 1934 and 1936 hurt even more.  After four more years of service, the Yale was laid up in 1935, soon after being acquired by Matson Lines.  But in 1940 the Navy requisitioned her once again in anticipation of war.   She was renamed USS Greyound, and served as a transport until March 1944, when she began duty as a floating barracks.  Personnel at various Puget Sound training schools were housed on the ship until she was retired from service in March 1948.   After being assigned to the Mothball Fleet at Olympia, Washington for a year, she was brought to Stockton to be scrapped in 1949.

The wreck of the SS Harvard remains moderately intact off the California coast as a popular shallow water attraction for scuba divers and a healthy population of fish.

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