Snapshot in time: Magnolia; The S.S. Minnesota's maiden voyage in history

    On Jan. 23, 1905, the S.S. Minnesota set sail in its first voyage to the Orient from Smith Cove.

 The largest ship to sail under the American flag, it had the cargo capacity of 2,500 train cars. It boasted 9 decks and measured 622 feet long. It weighed nearly 21,000 tons and could travel at speeds of almost 15 knots under full steam power.

      The New York Times described the ship in the following terms: “The accommodations for the first class or saloon passengers are in a large deckhouse situated amidships. The great dining saloon, which can seat 200 passengers, is at the forward end of the deck house and is furnished in mahogany.”

“Just above the dining saloon is the library on one side and the ladies’ boudoir on the other. While on the bridge deck is the smoking room, furnished in leather and Flemish oak. There is also an airy nursery and children’s play rooms on the promenade deck. The number of passengers provided for is 218 first and 68 third class, while below deck accommodations are provided for 1,300 troops (one regiment) or 2,400 steerage passengers. A unique feature is the opium den astern for the use of Orientals.” 

    There were 66 American officers to oversee a crew of 216 Chinese nationals, who worked for wages far lower than those acceptable to Americans.

    The ship was built for James J. Hill, the Minnesota-based Great Northern Railroad magnate. His intent was to make the ship part of the his Great Northern Steamship Company. It would serve as competition to the Japanese as part of his dream to transport passengers and highly prized commodities, such as Asian silk, between Asia and America. It was a financial gamble that ended in disaster.

    A new business arrangement in 1896 with the Japanese Nippon Yusen Kaisha Line, which supplied its ships to extend the Great Northern Railroad & Pacific Railways transportation network to Japan and numerous other Asian ports did not meet Hill’s expectations for more capital. Hill had established a ship-to-rail system, which became known as the Silk Trains. He was not satisfied that the Japanese ships were big enough to really capitalize on the markets available.  

    Four ships were commissioned by Hill, the Minnesota and its sister ship the S.S. Dakota, were the only two completed. Hill’s plan was to move grain from St. Paul, Minn., to the Smith Cove Terminal. From there, his ships would carry the cargo to Singapore and return with Asian silks that would be delivered by his rail line to American markets. 

    Hill was a regarded as a great railroad man. However, his knowledge and expectations for ships were not a match for his entrepreneurial vision and success with trains. 

   According to the website for the Atlantic Transport Line, “Hill contracted with a trusted shipbuilder, who had built excellent ships that plied the Great Lakes…In hindsight, Hill made numerous mistakes in the design and building of these two giants. The Dakota and Minnesota may have suffered from Hill’s desire to make them the largest in the Pacific. 

    The Minnesota was completed Aug. 17, 1904, and the Dakota on Mar. 3, 1905. Both were plagued by long delays during construction: The expected two-year building time took twice that long. Once the Minnesota was built, Hill chose to hasten things by taking delivery without sea trials by the builder. This meant any problems with the Minnesota had to be taken on by his company. The line’s two ships cost a total of $7.8 million.” 

    However, the ships never made a cent. After more than 40 voyages undertaken by the Great Northern Steamship Company left Hill with a deficit of about $2.9 million. The Dakota was only a year and a half in service and had completed only seven voyages when it sank off the coast of Japan. 

   Hill’s response to the demise of the Dakota was outrage at the American trade regulations imposed on his ships. The regulations on both his train and ship system were so onerous that Hill decided to abandon his dreams of exporting. 

   In an ironic twist, he pointed out the Japanese could do the work much cheaper than Americans and regarded this as a severe detriment to American business.

   In reality, the cost of running the ships far exceeded the amount of money they brought in trade.  The boats were said to be “…too big for the volume of business.” The Minnesota made 40 round trip voyages and then was sold in 1917 to the Atlantic Transport Company for new purposes.

   In 1919, the U.S. Navy called the ship into service as a troop vessel, and the Minnesota was renamed the Troy. In November 1923, she was sold to Germany for scrapping.

  Today, Piers 90 and 91, the two remaining from four piers at Smith Cove, are the berths for the American Seafood Company processors and draggers in the off-season and the terminus of the Port of Seattle’s Alaskan Cruise operations from May to September. 

   Ironically, the current cruise ships sailing from the two sister docks are much larger than the famed S.S. Minnesota. 

   A typical cruise ship in comparison weighs 92,000 tons, has 16 decks, is almost 1,000 feet long, and travels between 18 and 22 knots on diesel or marine gas fuel oil. And, these boats are almost always filled to capacity with around 1,200 passengers and 900 crewmembers.

 Sources for this article: Magnolia: Memories & Milestones,” Early Railroad Days”, Hal Will, 2007. “Giant Minnesota Here To-Day on Maiden Trip,” New York Times, August 21, 1904, 9., John Kinghorn, January 2012;, January 2012; January 2012; Coral Princess Fact January 2012. “Hill won’t build any more liners”. New York Times. March 8, 1907,, January 2012. 





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