Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

What Ever Happened to States Line?

Jim Shaw


June 1, 2017

The white-hulled Colorado-class cargo ships of States Line were magnificent looking vessels but doomed to a short commercial life because of their limited container capacity and uneconomical steam propulsion machinery.

Outside of refrigerator ships few owners have been willing to paint a cargo ship white, but one west coast company chose that color for a fleet of fast cargo liners that were doomed by the arrival of containerization in the 1970s. States Line was founded by lumber merchant Charles Dant as Columbia Pacific Steamship Company in 1919 to handle lumber exports from the Columbia River to Asia and Europe. At the time, a number of sailing schooners were still employed in this trade but Dant decided to lease a small fleet of World War I-built steamers from the US Shipping Board to make his start-up line commercially viable.

In the late 1920s, as loading ports were expanded beyond the Columbia River, the name of the line was changed to States Steamship Company, later to become better known as "States Line."

Short-Lived Passenger Service

In the early 1930s, with trade strengthening to Asia, Dant decided to start a trans-Pacific passenger service and chartered three 5,000-gt combination ships from the United Fruit Company that could accommodate about 80 passengers each. Under States management they traded as General Lee (ex-Cartago), General Pershing (ex-Heredia), and General Sherman (ex-Parismina) between the US west coast and Japan, China, Hong Kong and Manila. However, when the passenger service proved unprofitable they were returned to United Fruit and retook their original names, Heredia and Parismina being later lost in World War II while Cartago survived hostilities only to be scrapped at Tacoma in 1947.


After the Second World War, and the loss of most of its early steamers, States Line rebuilt its fleet using surplus Liberties, Victories and war-built C3s until a series of new cargo liners could be contracted for. The new ships were delivered in three batches known as the California-class, the Colorado-class, and the Maine-class, the latter being ro/o vessels that had to be sold almost immediately because of States' plunging financial situation. Four of the 12,700-gt California-class; California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, were built by Virginia's Newport News Shipbuilding while two, M.M. Dant and C.E. Dant, where completed by the NASSCO yard at San Diego. All entered service in the early 1960s with accommodation for 12 passengers in eight well furnished cabins while six cargo holds were served by standard working gear.

A relatively high service speed of 18 knots was provided by steam turbine machinery of 11,822-SHP output driving a single propeller.

Shifting Ships

When oil prices skyrocketed in 1973, and the Vietnam War began to wind down, States elected to bare-boat charter two of its California class, California and C.E. Dant, to Prudential-Grace Lines as Santa Rita and Santa Ana. Three years later, the remaining ships of the class, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and M.M. Dant, were traded to Moore-McCormack Lines in exchange for six older vessels, the ex-States Line freighters then taking up the new names of Mormacwave, Mormactide, Mormacsea and Mormacsaga while the older Moore-McCormack ships were returned to the government. At about this same time Prudential-Grace was forced to lay up Santa Rita and Santa Ana as trade between the US and Venezuela slackened, the ships eventually entering the Ready Reserve Force fleet as and Cape John.

The Moore-McCormack ships soon followed after United States Lines acquired Moore-McCormack in 1983. Mormactide moved into the MarAd fleet as Cape Junction in 1986 but was given a new lease on life in 1988 when she was chosen for conversion into the training ship Empire State VI for the State University of New York's Maritime College. Not so fortunate was Mormacwave, ex-Washington, which was held as a "spare parts" vessel until sold for demolition in 2003.

The Colorado Class

The Colorado class, composed of Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Michigan, were completed in the late 1960s, well after the advent of containerization, by the Avondale Shipyard near New Orleans. Among the largest general cargo vessels in the world when built, and known as "Super-Mariners," they measured 605 feet by 82 feet and had a bale capacity of 855,000 cubic feet in seven holds. Their two General Electric-geared turbines provided 21,600 shaft horsepower, giving a service speed of 21 knots.

Because States Line had requested certain design changes during their construction beyond the traditional MarAd C4 configuration these ships became known as C4-S-69b types and featured automated boilers, advanced pilot house controls and bow thrusters. As originally built they were extremely versatile cargo carriers, capable of handling breakbulk and refrigerated cargoes as well as liquid and bulk commodities along with more than 400 20-foot containers. They also carried a 60-ton capacity Stuelcken type mast for heavy-lift work.

Armco high-strength, low-alloy steel was specified in much of the hull and deck construction and, because of its strength – 70,000 psi min tensile, 50,000 psi min yield – thinner plates could be used, thus reducing overall ship weight. Alloy steel was also used in the main deck, kingposts and shear strake trimming topside scantlings.

Doomed Ships

While equipped with a fully automated engine room fitted with bridge control, the Colorado class still carried an expensive US crew of more than 40 and, once at sea, it was found that the ships were not all their owners and designers had hoped for.

On several of the early trans-Pacific crossings propellers were lost. It was also found that, despite being the first US-flag vessels in the Pacific to be fitted with Flume Stabilization Systems to minimize roll, they rolled. Within a few years the lack of container capacity on the cargo liners made them "white elephants" in the Pacific trade and it was only because of the Vietnam War and its many government freight contracts that they were able to soldier on as long as they did.

Accidents claimed two vessels after States Line went bankrupt in the late 1970s and MarAd took over their ownership. Montana suffered extensive engine room flooding at Diego Garcia Island in 1982 and was towed to Kaohsiung, Taiwan for dismantlement a year later. In 1989 Michigan was heavily damaged by fire and sold to become Santa Victoria for a short period of time before being broken up for scrap at Alang, India in 1991.The remaining three Colorado class were towed across the Pacific by the Dutch tug Smit London that same year under the names American Titan, American Spitfire and American Monarch, all for dismantlement, their potential on the second-hand market doomed by their high-tensile steel construction, which is difficult to weld, and their fuel-consuming steam turbine powerplants.

Maine Class

States recognized that it had built the Colorado class much too late in the container era and attempted to remedy the situation by ordering a series of C7 Lancer type ro/ro ships from Bath Iron Works of Bath, Maine in mid-1972. The 684-foot by 102-foot Maine, Nevada, Arizona and Illinois, all delivered by 1977, were designed to provide considerable cargo-carrying flexibility in the trans-Pacific trades and were capable of moving containers, automobiles, heavy equipment and palletized freight. A speed of 23 knots was furnished by two General Electric steam turbines of 37,000-SHP output driving twin propellers. As the State's ships differed from earlier C7 container carriers in that they had an aft cargo ramp they became MarAd's C7-S-95a types and featured a 33,900-ton displacement at full load.

Like the company's earlier conventional vessels they were given first class accommodation for 12 passengers and proved to be highly popular. Nevertheless, State's late decision to enter the container age, plus the loss of US government contracts after the end of the Vietnam War, and high fuel prices thereafter, threw the company into a financial tail spin that had it bankrupt by December 1978.

Still wearing the white hull of States Line but now dressed in the name and funnel colors of Lykes Lines, the former Nevada departs the Pacific Coast for the Orient in 1982 as Charles Lykes.

Of the four ro/ros, Maine, Arizona and Nevada were taken over by New Orleans-based Lykes Lines and re-employed in the Pacific trades as Tyson Lykes, Lipscome Lykes and Charles Lykes while Illinois entered US government service as USNS Mercury. However, the Lykes venture in the Pacific was not much more successful than the States undertaking and within a decade all three ro/ros were moved into the Ready Reserve Force fleet as Cape Inscription, Cape Intrepid and Cape Isabel, with USNS Mercury transferring in as Cape Island.

Today, these gray-hulled ships, plus a few of the conventional cargo liners also dressed in military gray, are all that remain of the once proud States Line fleet.


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