by Spencer Howard
Before the days of international air travel, when passenger liners ruled the oceans and crossings were measured in days instead of hours, two passenger liners were named in honor of President Hoover. On December 9, 1930, the first SS President Hoover was christened by First Lady Lou Henry Hoover in Newport News, Virginia. At the time of their construction, SS President Hoover and her twin sister SS President Coolidge were the largest passenger ships ever built in the United States, though they were small compared with some of the great liners operated by European companies.
SS President Hoover was 654 feet 3 inches long, 81 feet wide, 34 feet deep and displaced 30,924 tons with a gross tonnage (volume) of 21,936 tons. In addition to passenger accommodations (214 to 307 First Class, 133 Special Class, 170 Third Class, 380 Steerage Class plus 324 crew giving 1,312 people), the ship had seven cargo holds totaling 608,850 cubic feet, of which about 70,000 cubic feet was refrigerated. Included in this cargo space was room for 100 cars. SS President Hoover was powered by an oil-fired turbo-electric system driving two props, providing a cruising speed of over 20 knots and maximum speed of at least 22.2 knots.
SS President Hoover and SS President Coolidge were built as trans-Pacific ships by the Dollar Steamship Line to serve routes between Asia and the West Coast. The line prospered through the early Depression years due to an increased mail subsidy, but by the late 1930s the company was operating at a loss. The year 1937 proved to be a fateful year for both the Dollar Steamship Line and SS President Hoover. Throughout the summer, tensions increased throughout the Far East as the Japanese prepared to invade Manchuria. In late August, Chinese planes accidentally bombed SS President Hoover near Shanghai, resulting in one death and several wounded. SS President Hoover returned to service, but as hostilities escalated, trade and travel in the Far East declined considerably, and Dollar Line’s precarious finances worsened. Then, on 11 December 1937, off the island of Taiwan, SS President Hoover ran aground. After many attempts to rescue the vessel, she was declared a total loss. The wreck was sold to the Kitagawa Ship Salvage Company for $500,000 and was salvaged over the next three years.
By 1938, the Dollar Line fleet was worth $11 million, but the company’s liability was $17 million, and interest on the debt was accumulating at a rate of $80,000 per month. The newly formed U.S. Maritime Commission, headed by Joseph P. Kennedy, judged Dollar Line to be insolvent. Despite a characteristically tenacious effort on the part of R. Stanley Dollar, the government assumed control of Dollar Line and renamed the company American President Lines, Ltd.