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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How a seasick Echo Park resident took a cruise into L.A. maritime history

Echo Park resident Martin Cox grew up in the south of England, half a world away from Los Angeles. But as a teenager he read about an obscure L.A. institution and a bit history that for some reason he was never able to forget: The Los Angeles Steamship Company. The LASSCO steamships began to ferry passengers between Los Angeles and Honolulu during the roaring 1920 in smaller and less refined vessels than today's massive cruise ships. But Cox was surprised when, after moving to Los Angeles as an adult, no one seemed to know what he was talking about when he mentioned the steamship company and its fleet of ships, some of which had a habit of getting into trouble or appearing in Hollywood films.

So, Cox, a 40-something commercial photographer, set out to find out more about the shipping line, a years long adventure that resulted in a book he co-authored with Gordon Ghareeb, "Hollywood to Honolulu - The Story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company." Cox will be reading about the book during an appearance this Sunday at Skylight Books in Los Feliz.

Cox's obsession with defunct steamship company has also lead him to start a shipping website and to collect more than a 1,00o photos and hundreds of pieces of LASSC memorabilia, from passenger lists to the ship's china adorned with the poppy and hibiscus blooms, the state flowers of California and Hawaii. But for all his interest in nautical history, Cox rarely travels by water. He gets terribly seasick.

Here's a Q&A with Cox:

Why are you so interested interested in steamships and LASSCO in particular?

I first read about the Los Angeles Steamship Company when I was about 16 and living in the UK, it was a half page on the company that for some reason stuck in my head. The idea that they sailed ex German transatlantic liners to Hawaii intrigued me. I was not until I moved to LA that I decided to look in to the history of LA's namesake shipping line, but the more I looked, the less I could find. Despite not being a writer, nor a researcher, I was determined to get the story out.

How did you get started researching the past of LASSCO?

I wandered down to the LA Maritime Museum in 1995 thinking I would look at some exhibition items and perhaps read about the Steamship line, but there was little to be found, and after I talked with the librarian told me that no articles or books had ever been done on this 1920s mode of transport in our harbour. It quickly became my self appointed job to look in to this. It seemed odd to me that a city so famous, had it's own shipping line and yet no one seems to know this.

Immediately, I found that LASSCO had lost one of their ships on its maiden voyage, with no loss of life, that they were in feverish competition with San Francisco's dominance on the Pacific trade, that they used all kinds of second hand vessels, and that they has great graphic artists churning out stunning 20s designs to lure passengers out to visit the tropical paradise. That LASSCO was a vision of the LA Chamber of commerce. Accounts of silent era Hollywood movies being filmed about the company's ships came to light. It was all very appealing to me.

I met a man who became co-author, Gordon Ghareeb, he was the only person I had met who had ever heard of the company. The project was quickly becoming a very large research undertaking, with filing cabinets packed with information, but with no existing reference to use to sketch out the narrative, it meant raw research. Gordon and I worked well together and his language skills really polished the final version of the story.

When did you start MaritimeMatters.com? Did the book grow out of that?

I began MaritimeMatters.com Ocean liners history and cruise ships news, about the same time, mid 1990s. I was interested in the web as a means of sharing information, and in a way, ships used to represent the flow of information as well as goods and people around the planet, shipping as an early internet makes sense to me.

The internet also allowed our research for the book to grow and expand. A big moment came when the grand daughter of a former Captain of the company's flagship found me online and offered a huge collection of photographs that he either took or collected during his time on the SS CITY OF LOS ANGELES. Suddenly, beyond the facts and dates, we had the human elements, what it looked like to travel then, to attend costume parties on the high seas, to see stowaways transferred from one ship to another. That's when we knew it was not just a project, but a definitely a book.

How many LASSCO items do you own? Can you give me details about some of your favorites?

I started collecting paperwork, passenger lists and travel folders from the Line at swap meets but as Ebay took off, suddenly there was greater choice, though the line was not long lived, nor did it have many ships. So items are still scarce.

I love the crockery the best, the plate and cups with intertwined Hibiscus and Poppy flowers to represent State flowers of Hawaii and California. Another favourite is a huge cabin key from the coastal liner HARVARD that crashed on to the rocks in 1931 in yet another LASSCO ship wreck. I have no idea how many items I have, perhaps 200, and over 1500 photographs.

In addition to collecting LASSCO items, how else does your interest in steam ships manifest itself?

As a photographer, particularly of places and landscapes, and even more particularly of forgotten of abandoned places, ships began to intrigue me visually, not just as research and history projects, old vessels started turning up in my photography. In 2004 I travelled to India with a Shipping writer friend to see where ships go to die. Rammed up on the beach, they are taken apart by men with hand tools in an almost pre-industrial method, conditions are harsh and our presence was not always welcomed, but images from this experience found their way in to several exhibitions, one at Metro Gallery on Hyperion.

Have you traveled on an old steam ship? How did it turn out versus your expectations?
When ships were built to get from A to B in an era before planes, they were tough, built to take any weather. Craftsmen built them, they bear little resemblance with the modern cruise ship. I searched out all the older vessels that were built in 50s and 60s that had somehow survived to the modern era and sailed on as many as I could. I knew they would not last long and now all of the ships I took have been scrapped, laid up or turned in to QUEEN MARY type hotel ships.

What do you think of modern day cruise ships versus steam ship travel?
Traveling on older ships was wonderful, like an architectural dig going through the ship witnessing the changes and alterations each phase of their life has sea had wrought.

I have not been moved to sail on a any current ships, cruising itself has not gripped me. I also suffer horribly from sea sickness. Contemporary ships are built very differently to older ships. They are have very standardized spaces and proportions. They are constructed in modular fashion, fitted together and they seem to be built to carry a staggering number of people. The notion of getting away from it all at sea seems lost if you take 3,000 people with you. Modern ships are intense feats of engineering. I love to visit them, but to be a guest among thousands has not appealed to me.Besides fans of all things nautical, why would other people be interested in the history of LASSCO?

What I loved about learning about LASSCO was also learning about the history of LA. It was a very small place in the 20s. The story of LASSCO is the story of vision and boosterism and risk that LA made famous. We wrote this book as a definitive history of this city's missing maritime past, but hopefully with enough human element for one to image ones self on the deck of a great ocean liner steaming out from the orange groves and oil fields of a city yet to come, in a relaxed five day trip to Hawaii.

LASSCO also saw much filming on it's ships and we covered what we could finds of Hollywood's movie's, many lost, that were shot on the ships. Chunks of the "Black Camel" with Bela Lugosi (later resigned to the cutting room floor) were shot on CITY OF LOS ANGELES, A survivor of the edit was "Dangerous Innocence" 1925 with Laura Le Plante and Eugene O'Brien and "We're In The Navy Now" 1926 Paramount big budget comedy.

So, now what do you? Do you have another steam ship line in mind that you want to document?

I'm not sure that the LASSCO story has let me go yet, I am drawn to the idea of a documentary before all the docks and buildings in the story are gone, and there are still some wonderful people whom we met along the way who remember LASSCO, and then there's the fictional spin off... but as for writing another book that takes 12 years of research? Not so much. It's more likely that I will be exhibiting my photography again before another book.

Top photo from Hollywood to Honolulu - The story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company; bottom photo by Paul Antico; all others by Martin Cox.

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