When she was 26, Ursula and her long-time friend Elizabeth Everhardy embarked on a trip to Hawaii aboard the S.S. City of Honolulu on January 14, 1928. I learned this from the California, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1959 that I accessed on Ancestry.com. For some reason, the ship’s manifest lists Ursula’s age as 20 and birth date as June 4, 1908 instead of June 9, 1902. Perhaps it was a mistake, or perhaps Ursula was trying to pass herself off as a younger woman!
Unfortunately, the antique photo albums have yielded no pictures of Ursula’s Hawaiian holiday, nor have I found any information online about her time there. However, the ships she traveled on to and from Honolulu have fascinating histories. In this post, we learn about the ship she sailed on to Hawaii.
Built in Germany in 1899 for a German shipping company called Hamburg America Line, the ship Ursula and Elizabeth sailed on was originally named the S.S. Kiautschou, after a German colony in China. It initially traveled between Hamburg, Germany and East Asia. In 1904, the ship was traded for five freighters to another German company. Renamed the S.S. Prinzess Alice, it spent the next 10 years traveling between Bremen, Germany; Suez Canal; East Asia; New York; and Cherbourg, France.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the S.S. Prinzess Alice was interned in the Philippines. The United States seized it three years later and renamed it the U.S.S. Princess Matoika—a variation on the spelling of the birth name of Pocahontas, and meaning “flower between two streams.” According to a book by Wikipedia, the German crew did not sabotage the ship before its seizure, “unlike most other German ships interned by the US.”
As a transport ship for the US Navy during WWI, it carried more than 50,000 US troops to and from France from 1918 to 1919. It was decommissioned in September 1919, then operated as a US Army transport, continuing to return healthy and wounded troops and repatriating the remains of Americans killed overseas during the war. The following year, it carried much of the US team to the 1920 summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.
But wait—there’s more! The ship was chartered to the U.S. Mail Steamship Company, and in 1921 began service for civilians between New York and Italy. More adventures ensued. While carrying about 2,000 Italian immigrants to the United States on its first return trip from Italy, Princess Matoika reportedly hit an iceberg off Newfoundland, but was not seriously damaged. On the ship’s third and final return voyage from Italy, the Wikipedia book notes:
“U.S. Customs Service agents at New York seized $150,000 worth of cocaine—along with valuable silks and jewels—being smuggled into the United States. Officials speculated that because of a maritime strike, members of a smuggling ring were able to infiltrate the crew of the ship.”
The ship changed hands a couple more times, was renamed the S.S. President Arthur, and purchased in 1924 by American Palestine Line, reportedly the first Jewish-owned and operated steamship company. After being refurbished, the ship sailed on its maiden voyage to Palestine in 1925. President Arthur was claimed to have been the first ocean liner to fly the Zionist flag at sea and the first to have female officers.
Finally, the Los Angeles Steamship Company acquired the ship in August 1926 for future service between Los Angeles and Hawaii. The vessel was docked in LA and underwent a $2,500,000 rebuild over the next eight months. Renamed the S.S. City of Honolulu, it set sail on its maiden voyage June 4, 1927, just two days after Ursula’s 26th birthday and seven months before she and Elizabeth stepped aboard.
City of Honolulu could accommodate around 450 first-class passengers (which the young women were) and 50 third-class. This is the luxurious setting in which Ursula and Elizabeth spent six days at sea, arriving at the Port of Honolulu January 20, 1928 (text from Wikipedia: Featured Articles, “Voyage: Inspired by Jules Verne”):
“[City of Honolulu’s] hull was painted all white…, and she sported period designs in her common areas. The dining room, large enough to seat 300 in a single sitting, was decorated in a Grecian theme, and featured 18 stained glass windows designed by San Diego architect Carleton M. Winslow. The smoking room was done up in a Tudor style; the music room was decorated in a combined French and Italian Renaissance manner; and the writing room was in Adam style. The suites were all done in either Adam, Queen Anne, or Louis XVI styles. The ship featured six passenger elevators, and a swimming pool patterned on a Pompeian design. One of the few remaining traces of her pre-war German decoration was the rosewood railing on her grand staircase.”
During its brief, three-year career as a tropical ocean liner, City of Honolulu carried a number of notable passengers, including movie stars, sports figures, an arctic explorer, a chewing gum magnate, Stradivarius instrument dealer (and three Stradivarius violins), government officials, Hull House founder and settlement house pioneer Jane Addams, and singer Al Jolson.
But to me, the SS City of Honolulu’s most notable guest was Ursula Claire Cheshire. I imagine her floating down the grand staircase in an elegant evening gown, sipping cocktails and trading bon mots with Elizabeth and some young gentlemen admirers, and even playing the piano and singing in the music room, sharing her lovely voice with fellow passengers on their way to a tropical paradise.