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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 Americans Adopt the Auto Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s People on the Move Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction The Container System At Work on the Waterfront Negotiating Change Transforming the Landscape
17: Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960–1970

The Container System

By itself, the container would not have launched a revolution in international commerce. Hauling goods in sturdy, standardized boxes had been tried with some success on land and at sea. But the idea of an integrated, mechanized system in which the same container could travel on rail, truck, and ship transformed global trade. The system reduced cargo handling to a minimum.

Linking Sea and Land

Malcom McLean, a trucking entrepreneur from North Carolina, acquired a steamship company in 1955 with the idea of using its ships to transport cargo-laden truck trailers. McLean’s experiment resulted in the world’s first container ship, the Ideal-X. It made its inaugural voyage from New Jersey to Texas in 1956 with 58 trailers (containers) on its deck. McLean’s enterprise became Sea-Land Services, an international shipping company.

Lift-on, lift-off, 1966
Lift-on, lift-off, 1966
This photograph from a Sea-Land brochure illustrated the transfer of a trailer (cargo container) from truck to ship.
Container ship, 1969
The Newark was built as a C-4 troop transport in 1945. The Sea-Land Corporation converted it to carry containers in 1968. It could carry 272 containers in its hold and on deck.
Container ship, 1969

The Matson Navigation Company: Serving All Hawaii

The Matson Navigation Company, established in 1882, inaugurated containerization on the West Coast. In the 1950s, the company researched ways to control rising costs, and discovered that loading and unloading cargo—moving goods a few feet between ship and pier—accounted for almost half of transportation costs. Aware of container technology, the company decided to invest in it.

Matson’s first container ship left San Francisco for Honolulu in August 1958 with 20 containers on deck. Within two years, the company’s Hawaiian Citizen, carrying 436 containers in the hold, became the first all-container ship to enter Pacific service.

Parts of 24-foot Matson aluminum shipping container, about 1970
Parts of 24-foot Matson aluminum shipping container, about 1970
How big should a shipping container be? Setting industry standards was crucial to developing a system that would work on ships, trucks, and trains and be interchangeable among shipping companies. Eventually, 20- and 40-foot-long containers became the industry standard. But the Matson Company determined that 24-foot containers best suited their trade between the West Coast and Hawaii.
The Hawaiian Progress begins its maiden voyage, Oakland to Hawaii, 1970
Matson’s first container ships were general cargo vessels converted to carry containers. In 1970, the company launched two ships specially built for container service. At the time they were the largest such ships in existence, each able to carry more than 1,000 containers.
The Hawaiian Progress begins its maiden voyage, Oakland to Hawaii, 1970
The intermodal system
The intermodal system
This graphic was made for America on the Move to illustrate how containers are used interchangably among all surface modes of transport—water, roads, and rail. It is a greatly simplified rendering of a complex system.
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