Learn about American President Lines and the people who played a role in the development of maritime passenger and cargo transport.
Robert Dollar was born in Falkirk, Scotland, in 1844, but at the age of 11, Robert Dollar was working in a lumber camp in Canada. By 1893, Dollar had established a lucrative lumber business along the Pacific Coast. Two years later, he purchased a ship to transport his lumber from the Pacific Northwest to markets farther south. The success of this endeavor led Dollar to start a formal shipping line under his own name. On August 15, 1900, the Dollar Steamship Company (a.k.a. the Dollar Line) was formally incorporated. The official headquarters of the Dollar Line were located in San Francisco for the entire life of the company.
Robert Dollar also launched one of the first business ventures bringing West Coast lumber to Asian markets. Dollar's ships frequented Asian ports during the early 1900s, bringing lumber and returning to the United States with Asian goods and passengers.
Passengers Crossing Berth 155 Ramp to Ship
Dollar's shipping business slowed after World War I broke out. The Dollar fleet shrunk to only two vessels operating along the California coast and only four steamers making regular trips between San Francisco and Asian ports. Despite the setback, Robert Dollar saw opportunities in China and began expanding his business in the Chinese market toward the end of the war.
Shortly after World War I, Dollar invested heavily in the Pacific Steamship Company, an established line based at the Port of Los Angeles. He invested in the company's expansion into lucrative Pacific trade routes and its acquisition of combination passenger/freight ships. At first, Dollar's investment was shaky: the American shipping industry, especially trans-Pacific trade, was in a perilous state during the 1920s. Although shipping increased dramatically in time, British and Japanese lines provided intense competition, as did East Coast companies that shipped raw industrial goods (coal, oil, metals) to the West Coast. The Dollar Steamship Company and other West Coast shipping companies had to concentrate on transporting higher-value cargo, including passengers and finished industrial products, to become competitive in the industry.
Workers Loading Freight
Robert Dollar and his son R. Stanley altered their business plan during the 1920s: they began focusing on acquiring established shipping enterprises for Pacific and long-range shipping. By the mid-1920s, the Dollar Line nearly monopolized U.S. shipping in the Pacific. The departure of the Dollar Line ship, the President Harrison, on January 5, 1924, introduced "around-the-world" passenger and cargo service. The around-the-world route was a profitable venture, allowing the Dollars to ship freight from the Far East to the East Coast, then to travel though the Panama Canal to the booming ports of Los Angeles and San Francisco. By 1927, the Dollar Line had initiated a trans-Pacific "horseshoe" route that linked San Francisco and Seattle ports to ports across the Pacific. Shortly after setting up this route, Dollar constructed newer and larger port facilities at Hunt's Point in New York and in Shanghai. Dollar's son was handed the company reins in the late 1920s.
Click on the image to view the Pacific Routes map
The success of the Dollar Steamship Company was ultimately undermined by the economic depression of the 1930s. In 1930, oceangoing passenger business declined, and it dropped even more sharply in 1931. Financial hardships at the company, including the repercussions of outdated and flawed management policies, were exacerbated by the economic downturn. On May 16, 1932, Robert Dollar died at age 88. His legacy is as a businessman who played a vital role in establishing passenger travel and long-range shipping from the West Coast. These activities helped make the Port of Los Angeles a harbor of international importance.