Rick Helin, SS Malolo, The California Pioneers

The California Pioneers Screening of the Documentary of the 1929 Millionaires Cruise

On March 3, 2018 “The California Pioneers Of Santa Clara”, a nonprofit organization focused on the preservation of Californian history, held a screening of the documentary on the Millionaires Cruise of 1929. Rick Helin, an archivist for the Santa Clara California Pioneers, had worked on producing the documentary for three years.

When I spoke with Rick, he said the documentary would not have been possible 15 to 20 years ago before websites such as Ancestry.com existed. Many essential documents, such as the complete passenger list with the names and birthdays of every passenger of the SS Malolo, film footage of what the passengers had seen overseas, and journal entries during the trip, would not have been obtained by Rick, if he was unable to email the descendants of the known passengers of the cruise through the Ancestry website. The archives within historical interest sites, such as Ancestry, has allowed historians to contact individuals with original records in ways that were not possible before.

The documentary covered the passengers leaving the port of San Francisco to Tokyo, Japan, them touring the Great Wall Of China, then seeing the beautiful isolated lands of New Zealand. What made the trip more extraordinary was how one of the passengers ended up being imprisoned in China. However, when he was freed by American military forces, instead of returning to America he stayed in China collecting artifacts from the country. Many of those artifacts were given to the Hoover Insitute, in Stanford University, which is currently stored within the archives of the Hoover Tower.

There were several other stories of passengers within the documentary, such as one of a teenager who had leukemia who’s parents knew that he had it but didn’t disclose it to him so that they could take him around the world before died. That teenager did survive to see the entire cruise, but he died shortly after the SS Malolo’s return to San Francisco.

Donald McPhail, author of the novel, “The Millionaires Cruise” was present at the event. He first wrote a family history based on the ship’s 1931 sailing, because he had family photos and articles about his father’s participation on that cruise, working as an American Express trip director for the SS Malolo. In fact, this 1931 cruise is where his father and mother actually met, as she sailed as the ship’s nurse.

On the advice of another author, McPhail decided to fictionalize the story, placing characters who were very much like his parents, on the ill-fated 1929 sailing, where the passengers were all millionaires whose fortunes were threatened or destroyed by the stock market crash while they were at sea.

Unknown to the author, his father was also a trip director for the 1929 cruise. More surprisingly, the author’s grandmother had traveled all the way from her home in Johannesburg, to join the cruise as a special guest of her son. So in this case, thanks to historian Rick Helin, the truth of his family’s story became very much like the fiction he formulated.

Even though Donald’s book on the 1931 cruise was fictional, after Rick read the novel it compelled him to build on the research Donald had conducted, to unveil more of the stories behind the passengers of the Millionaires Cruise of 1929. But rather than writing a book, Rick choose to make a documentary. Indeed, that was a compelling story behind how a novelist and a documentarian crossed paths.

After the screening was complete he announced to the audience that the California Pioneers Of Santa Clara has copies of the oldest known color film taken in both China and in Japan. He is working to have the entirety of those films converted to digital, but the film is so old that only two facilities in the world currently have the capability to convert it.

Rick mentioned his relationship with a university in Hawaii which sends him footage of California to convert to digital. It’s a reciprocal relationship, since he sends them footage of Hawaii that he finds. Rick mentioned the importance of relationships as an archivist and the duty one has to preserve history, if one is able to.

This Los Altos Town Crier article goes in depth about how documentarian Rick Helin and novelist Donald McPhail crossed paths:


More information about the cruise may be found at:


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