“THE GREAT WHITE STEAMER”
Shawn J. Drake
She was the million dollar steamship, in the days when a million dollars was a lot of money. She was built with chewing gum, or more correctly of steel, bought with the profits from a chewing gum empire created by Mr. William Wrigley, Jr., who happened to own an island about 24 miles off the coast of Southern California called Santa Catalina. The only major town on the island was Avalon, an almost Mediterranean-like setting, far removed from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, on the other side of the San Pedro Channel. By the 1920’s, tourism to the island was booming, thanks in part to a strong economy and Mr. Wrigley’s various enterprises on the island, including a training camp for his Chicago Cubs baseball team, and his own steamship line known as the Wilmington Transportation Company.
The new steamship CATALINA, was built in 1924 to provide additional capacity and more elegant transportation to the island. William Wrigley Jr., himself laid the keel on December 26, 1923 at the yards of the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. Situated in the heart of Los Angeles harbor, this location later became the Todd Shipyard. The new ship was designated hull number 42. After a quick construction period the new vessel was ready to take to the water for the first time. Named for the island which she would serve, the S.S.CATALINA was launched on May 3, 1924, by Miss Marcia A. Patrick, the daughter of Joseph Patrick, president of the Santa Catalina Island Company. The Mayor of Los Angeles, along with 3,000 other people were on hand to witness the event. A little over eight weeks later the ship commenced her maiden voyage from Wilmington, California to Avalon on June 30th, under the command of Captain A. A. Morris. Few on that first voyage could have envisioned that 25 million people would follow them onto those same decks, enjoying a 2 hour cruise to Catalina Island during an active career of 51 years!
To fully understand the story of the S.S.CATALINA, some background information is helpful. The first European navigators arrived, at what would become Santa Catalina Island, aboard the caravels VICTORIA and SAN SALVADOR with Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo in 1542, to find it already inhabited by native California Indians who obviously had “discovered” it earlier. Sebastian Vizcaino followed with his 3 ships SAN DIEGO, SANTO TOMAS and TRES REYES, giving the island it’s name in 1602. But it wasn’t until the 1860’s that the first steamboat carrying passengers would arrive. Phineas Banning, a well known name in Southern California history, began a charter service with the tiny steamer CRICKET. In 1880, he added the second-hand sidewheel steamboat AMELIA, which came complete with a restaurant on board. The Banning family created the Wilmington Transportation Company in 1884 to operate ships to Catalina Island and by 1892 they had purchased the island. Their fleet consisted of the steamers HATTIE, LA PALOMA, OLEANDER, FALCON, WARRIOR and HERMOSA. New ships were needed after the turn of the century and the HERMOSA (ii) was added in 1902, followed by the CABRILLO in 1904.
The CABRILLO was the most luxurious ship of the fleet at the time and boasted a beautiful rosewood staircase, mahogany paneling and a bar. The year 1919 would bring a significant change to the Wilmington Transportation Company and Catalina Island, as both were purchased by William Wrigley Jr. The same year he purchased the 1,985 gross ton steamer VIRGINIA from the Goodrich Transportation Company. This ship had been built 28 years earlier in 1891, by the Globe Ironworks, at Cleveland, Ohio, for service on the Great Lakes.
During the first World War, the VIRGINIA was requisitioned and taken to the Boston Navy Yard to be converted into a troop transport and renamed U.S.S.BLUE RIDGE. By the time she was ready for service the war was over and she was taken to the Moore Dry Dock at Brooklyn, New York. It was there, on August 18, 1919, that she was purchased by Wilmington Transportation Company. The ship was brought around to Los Angeles, through the Panama Canal. A major refit transformed her into the S.S.AVALON, a vessel that would be the S.S.CATALINA’s fleetmate for much of her career. The rebuilding of the AVALON took place at the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Drydock Company during the winter of 1919-20. The ship was powered by two triple expansion steam engines. A 1923 refit gave her four new Babcock & Wilcox watertube boilers. The AVALON originally carried 1,625 passengers, however this was soon increased to 1,900. The ship was 265 feet in length with a beam of 38 feet and a depth of 22 feet. Her raked funnel was oddly placed just slightly aft of mid-ship, and her high bow and low stern gave the impression she was heavily laden aft. Along with her fleetmates, HERMOSA (ii) and CABRILLO, she was painted with a black hull in her early years. The ship was ready in time for the summer tourist season, and made her inaugural voyage to the island April 20, 1920. The Wilmington Transportation Company fleet of the “roaring 20’s” was nearly complete. But William Wrigley had even grander plans in mind, for another ship, to be newly built for the channel crossing.
Pleased with the success of the converted S.S.AVALON, Wrigley returned to the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Drydock Company and consulted with their chief engineer L.E. Coverly, who would design the new ship. Plans were drawn up in 1923, and by the end of the year the keel had been laid. Total construction took only six months but the result was spectacular. The S.S.CATALINA emerged with a white hull, with red boot topping at the waterline. Her upper decks and bridge also were all in white. A single tall buff colored funnel with a black top crowned the new ship. The Wrigley emblem of a white “W” against a blue background in the form of a flag, was painted on both sides of the stack. Eight large ventilators sprouted from her top deck, two forward of the stack and six clustered just aft of it. Two masts were carried, one just aft of the bridge and the other midway between the funnel and stern. With a straight stem and a rounded stern, the new CATALINA presented a very handsome profile. One unusual feature was the placement of her lifeboats. In a break from traditional appearances, these were placed low in the ship in davits along the Main Deck. This arrangement allowed more space for passengers along her open Promenade Deck up top and were designed to be launched more easily and safely than those carried on the upper decks of other steamers. Entering service just 12 years after the TITANIC disaster, her “Ludin” lifeboats were nested one on top of the other, with five pairs of boats along each side of the ship; twenty boats all together. Each lifeboat had a capacity of 76 persons. Additional life-rafts were provided and the ship carried enough life-preservers for 3,000 passengers. An extra boat was later added which was carried awkwardly off her stern on the starboard side.
The maiden voyage of the S.S.CATALINA was a huge social event for the people of Catalina Island. The ship would be an enormous boost to their economy. Mr. Wrigley’s activities on the island seemed to find favor, as evidenced by this quote from a local resident, “we’ve got the water from Middle Ranch and the new steamship CATALINA, what’s next on the program? Avalon is fortunate in having a rich dad!” At the keel-laying, William Wrigley had said he wanted the ship built at “war-time speed” and sailing by July 1, 1924. He got his wish, a day ahead of schedule. Monday, June 30th at 10:55 A.M., the brand new S.S.CATALINA cast off her mooring lines and entered service. Her passenger list on this day numbered 600 invited guests; a “who’s who” of dignitaries, politicians from Long Beach, Los Angeles and Avalon, and top officials of the Wilmington Transportation Company and Santa Catalina Island Company.
Mr. and Mrs. Wrigley could not be present, but sent two wireless messages of “Bon Voyage” to the ship, and “Regret exceedingly that we could not be present with you and the guests on the trial trip. Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. delivered the boat in record time and right. Heartiest congratulations and best wishes for many happy trips to and from our beautiful Island.” Signed, “William Wrigley, Jr.” As the ship pulled away from her Wilmington berth, music played across her decks and steam whistles blared from other ships in the harbor. Steaming away under her own power, the new vessel was accompanied through the harbor as far as the breakwater by the Wilmington Transportation Co. tugs, DAVID M. RENTON and DAVID P. FLEMING, which had also been on hand to assist during her launching the previous month.
During the crossing, cabin boys served punch and passed around cigars and of course, chewing gum. In mid-channel a Pacific Marine Airways, bi-wing, flying boat passed overhead. On board, someone described the ship as “A million-dollar ferryship to fairyland” and that slogan would be picked up by the newspapers, providing much positive publicity. Two miles from her destination, the ship was met by a flotilla of boats, one even carrying the Whittier Band on board. Whistles and horns sounded from the boats, until they ran out of compressed air. Exactly two hours after departure, the S.S.CATALINA tied up on the south side of Avalon’s steamer pier, with fleetmate AVALON on the opposite side. The entire town was decorated for the occasion. The Catalina Marine Band played a loud welcome, Avalon Boy Scouts stood at attention, and flower bouquets were presented to company President Patrick as he stepped off the gangplank. Guests filed off the ship and went directly to the famous Hotel St. Catherine where a special luncheon was held. By 3:15 P.M., with a blast from her steam whistle, tuned to the key of “B”, the S.S.CATALINA backed away from the steamer pier and began the return leg of her maiden voyage. The day had been an enormous success; the auspicious start of a fabulous career.
The principal dimensions of the ship can not begin to describe the care and quality that were built into her, but are of course an important part of her story. The S.S.CATALINA entered service with a gross registered tonnage of 1,766; Net tonnage of 1,161. Her overall length is 301 feet 7 inches. Length between perpendiculars is 285 feet 2 inches. Breadth is 52 feet 1 inch. Depth is 21 feet 1 inch, with a normal draft of 16 feet 1 inch. Her official number was #223907.
The main engines for the S.S.CATALINA were built by the Hooven-Owens-Rentschler Co. of Hamilton, Ohio. They consisted of two, 3-cylinder triple expansion steam engines. The ship had a lovely, oval-shaped builder’s plate in the engine room, that read “Main Engines 20 1/2″ – 35″ – 60″ X 36″ S.S.CATALINA – 1924 -,” indicating her cylinder diameters with a 36″ stroke. Triple expansion engines had largely been replaced with steam turbines by the mid-1920’s, but were still being used on smaller passenger vessels like the CATALINA. A triple expansion engine utilizes the steam in a three stage system consisting of a small High Pressure cylinder, then an Intermediate Pressure cylinder, and finally a large Low Pressure cylinder, the diameters increasing as the steam expands. The three cylinders are of cast iron and designed to produce nearly equal amounts of power. The CATALINA maintained a cruising speed of 15.5 knots at 110 rpm, and produced over 2,000 horsepower per engine. An engine specifications log from the 1920’s revealed slightly higher figures of 125 rpm’s, indicated horsepower of 4,500, and steam pressure at the throttle of 210 pounds. The boilers were very similar to those installed aboard the AVALON. The CATALINA had four Babcock & Wilcox watertube boilers that were oil fired. A twin-screw ship, she had straight shafts with no gearing, driving her large three-blade bronze propellers. (Much more in depth information on the ship’s machinery can be found in the article “The Steamer CATALINA & Her Engines” by William D. Sawyer in the Winter 1975 issue of STEAMBOAT BILL #136.)
The arrangement of the decks aboard the CATALINA were certainly more utilitarian than luxurious. Still, she provided a level of comfort to her passengers not usually found on vessels that essentially were providing a ferry service. There were five decks, three of which were given over for passenger use. The uppermost deck was Bridge Deck. Forward was the wooden pilot house with open bridge wings on both sides. Just aft and connecting to the bridge was the Captain’s Room, with a desk, bed, closet and door exiting to the deck aft. Past the first two ventilators, the funnel rose from it’s mid-ship position. Further aft, two hatches with eight portholes on each side, provided light and ventilation down the engine casing. They could be opened and closed by means of long crank handles from the engine room several decks below. The next deck down was Promenade Deck, also known as “A” Deck or top deck to passengers. Most of this deck provided open air seating on hundreds of oak benches along both sides of the ship and along the center beside the boiler and engine casings and further aft. All the way forward, a stairway descended to the bow. The Owner’s Stateroom (also called the Wrigley cabin), was forward, which connected to private restroom facilities. As built, there were 4 small rooms immediately aft of this cabin, a radio room and 3 private staterooms. Public toilets with 4 stalls each were provided for both ladies and gentlemen. Two more staircases, one forward and one aft of the casings, made the descent to the Saloon Deck.
This middle deck was also known as “B” Deck during the ship’s career. Except for a small section aft, this deck was entirely glass enclosed, adding much to her good looks. The windows could be opened on hot summer days. This deck extended all the way from bow to stern. On the enclosed portion forward was a refreshment counter. Cushioned bench seating was provided for passengers who preferred to stay indoors. Like the deck above, public toilets were provided. Moving aft, would bring you to the most popular feature on the ship, the Ball Room. The room had a large wooden dance floor with a bandstand at the after end. All the way at the stern, more bench seating was provided in the open air, but sheltered by the deck above. This area was later enclosed and rebuilt to include a cocktail bar with red naugahyde bar stools and built in seats around the sides. The lowest passenger level was Main or “C” Deck.
Forward were deck machinery spaces including steam powered anchor winches and capstans. Also forward was the baggage room with large shell doors in the hull on both sides. In the passenger area, the purser’s office and mail room were forward. Just aft of the lobby and stairs was a large men’s toilet. Along the sides narrow walkways passed between the lifeboats and the structure. The entire midships area was given over to boiler and engine casings. From this deck passengers could get a fascinating view into the workings of the engine room. The Chief Engineer’s cabin was between the aft staircase and engine casing on the starboard side. To port was an engineers toilet and washroom. The ladies “Rest Room” was separate from their toilet area, aft of the stairs. Beyond, 10 small staterooms, 5 on each side, provided private accommodations in the early years. At the stern was a steering gear room and docking machinery. The bottom deck was given over to crew quarters forward and machinery spaces aft. The fore peak held fresh water tanks. The crew quarters contained lockers, toilets and a mess room. Midships the 4 boilers were placed in pairs port and starboard, while further aft the 2 engines were also arranged one on each side with the twin propeller shafts exiting through the hull. The after peak tank was also used for fresh water storage. A gracefully curved, balanced rudder completed her underwater profile.
The actual decks of the CATALINA were constructed of wood on the two highest passenger levels. Hemlock over 1″ thick covered by stretched canvas was used and proved itself extremely durable. The bottom, Main Deck was made of steel coated with a cement-like surface. A bumper strip, or fender, circled most of the ship at Main Deck level and was reinforced with iron wood. The hull itself was constructed of 1″ thick steel.
No ship is perfect, and the CATALINA entered service in 1924 with one small design flaw. Originally, her anchor wells were set very low to the water. As the ship sped across the channel, water would be scooped up the hawse pipes and pour into the forecastle. This was quickly corrected in the first dry-docking with the anchor being repositioned up to the main deck level.
A crossing to Catalina Island in the 1920’s was an event to be looked forward to. Passengers in those days dressed for the occasion; gentlemen in jackets and ties, escorting ladies in dresses and coats, some carrying umbrellas to protect them from the sun. The ship would depart from Banning’s Landing at the foot of Avalon Boulevard in the port city of Wilmington. If you were going to Avalon you could simply drive your automobile down the boulevard of the same name, or take the Pacific Electric’s “Big Red (trolley) Cars” to the Catalina terminal at Berth 185. The ship would steam slowly out of Los Angeles Harbor, past the city of San Pedro and through “Angels Gate” into the San Pedro channel. From there, two hours of open water separated the mainland from the city of Avalon. The cares of the city were quickly left behind. This was a real sea voyage. Along the way passengers would frequently marvel at the sight of dolphins playing or flying fish skimming across the water. One of the other Wilmington Transportation Company steamers would pass by in the opposite direction and steam whistle salutes would be exchanged. Snacks, drinks, magazines and souvenirs were available on board. Before long, the mountains of Catalina Island would come into view through the haze, and first-time visitors would line the railings to watch as the ship approached. The “Miss Catalina” speedboats, capable of racing at 60 knots, would zip past the approaching steamer. Perhaps one of the early bi-winged seaplanes would be seen in the harbor. Bands greeted the ship on arrival and local residents lined the pier welcoming guests to the Island with a friendly greeting of, “hi, neighbor”. Local kids would dive for coins tossed from the steamer by passengers. As the gangplanks were pulled into the ship guests would troop into town for the day, or perhaps stay longer at the elegant Hotel St. Catherine. The old steamer pier led directly into the center of Avalon, and the big ships could dock on either side of it. Next to it was the Pleasure Pier where the world’s largest sidewheel glass-bottom boat, PHOENIX, would be waiting to take passengers on an excursion over the submarine gardens. On departure, passengers would be serenaded by the sounds of the song “Avalon”. This scene would be played out thousands of times over the years, with only a few minor adjustments, until that day in 1975, when no more steamships would exist to bring happy visitors to the shores of Catalina Island.
For the S.S.CATALINA and her running mates business in the 1920’s could not have been better. Tourist traffic to the island was increasing at the rate of 20% annually. The old steamer HERMOSA (ii) could not match the quality of her fleetmates and was sold in 1928. In July, August and September of 1929, the CABRILLO, AVALON and CATALINA carried approximately 500,000 passengers. The ships offered a combined total of five sailings daily each way. Among the passengers were film stars and well known athletes who laughed, danced and drank their way to the island for a brief vacation. Even President Calvin Coolidge, and later President Herbert Hoover, made the voyage. By November 9, 1929, the “Los Angeles Times” newspaper reported that Mr. Joseph Patrick had announced plans for a new passenger liner to be built for Wilmington Transportation Company. Separate designs were being considered from two naval architects, Mr. William Lambie and G. Bruce Newby. The new ship would be 350 feet long, with a 65 foot beam and carry 3,000 passengers. Both Diesel-Electric propulsion and Diesel direct drive were being considered for the vessel. The new ship would cost an astounding $1,500,000 to build. All that was needed was the approval of designs by William Wrigley Jr., who was expected to arrive in California in January. That approval never came. With the onslaught of the Great Depression, plans for the new ship, along with a $2 million hotel on the island were shelved. The existing ships would have to suffice, and never again would they carry the volume of traffic that was seen at the end of the 1920’s.
The 1930’s were hard times for the S.S.CATALINA. Few people had spare money available for a tourist trip to Catalina and traffic slowed considerably. In 1932, William Wrigley Jr. died. The ship and the company were passed on to Philip K. Wrigley. There were no significant operational changes. In the hope of stimulating business, by the mid-1930’s the company adopted the advertising slogan “The price you won’t remember – but the trip you can’t forget.” Slowly, as the decade progressed, the economy began to pick up, and so did patronage on the ships. But in 1936, another dark image passed in front of the S.S.CATALINA’s bows. On a foggy night about mid way through her crossing the CATALINA rammed into the 76 foot long yacht ARBUTUS, cutting her in two. Amazingly, none of the 7 passengers aboard the yacht were injured, but the owner was in the mood to sue. Court testimony indicated that both vessels were sounding fog horns, but neither heard the other. The yacht’s owner said “The CATALINA came on like a knife” impaling his boat on her prow. The judge ruled that the CATALINA was guilty of travelling at excessive speed through fog and that her signals were of insufficient length. The passengers of the yacht were awarded a combined total of $36,561.11.
The clouds of World War II affected even the peaceful crossing to Catalina. The island was closed to the public and used as a training center for merchant seamen by the U.S. military. The S.S.AVALON was painted gray and pressed into duty ferrying trainees, troops and local residents to and from Catalina Island under the auspices of the Maritime Training Service. Her war service would last from October, 1942 to October, 1945. The CATALINA left her home waters for the first time sailing up the California coast to San Francisco Bay. On August 25, 1942, she became a U.S. Army troop transport, was painted gray and given the designation FS-99. Her duties included ferrying troops between military installations at various locations around the Bay area, and taking them to the big transports heading out to the war in the Pacific. She was joined in San Francisco by her veteran fleetmate, CABRILLO. During her years of military service, the CATALINA carried 820,199 troops; a larger number than any other U.S. Army transport. Along with the troops, military prisoners were carried in a brig on the bottom deck near the bow. Some of them left inscriptions on the bulkheads – their names and camps at which they had been based – and that wartime graffiti remained with the ship throughout it’s career. On April 15, 1946, the CATALINA was released from her wartime service and returned to her owners. After a refurbishment, the ship resumed regular voyages to Avalon on July 3, 1946. Her double layers of lifeboats were reduced to 11 boats carried in a single level, with additional life rafts. She had also gained one prize from the war, a new radar mast atop her pilot house.
In January of 1948, the Wilmington Transportation Company changed it’s name to the Catalina Island Steamship Line. It was a different world after the war and many other changes were soon to come. While the CATALINA and the AVALON continued to ply the waters of the channel in the late 1940’s, the aged CABRILLO’s days were numbered. Old and no longer needed, she was sold in 1950 for use as a restaurant vessel in Northern California. As so often happens, those plans did not materialize and she was left to rot away on the shores of the Napa River. The old AVALON did not have much time left either. She was retired from service to the island in February, 1951. After nine long years laid up at Wilmington, she was sold in early January, 1960 for scrap to an individual named Everett J. Stotts. He intended to cut the ship down himself and took her to the outer reaches of Long Beach harbor off Terminal Island. The task proved rather daunting, and late on the night of July 18th, whether by accident, or design, the 69 year old ship caught fire. But the remains of the AVALON still had one more voyage to make. Cut down to a barge, the hull was towed up to Point San Vicente, California to assist in off-loading another barge that was in peril of sinking. In heavy weather, both barges ended up going to the bottom.
The S.S.CATALINA was left alone to ferry tourists to the “Island of Romance.” A brochure for the service dated June 11, 1956, shows departures from Wilmington daily at 10:00 A.M., arriving in Avalon at 12:10 P.M. Return trips departed the island at 4:30 P.M. with arrival at the Wilmington pier scheduled for 6:30 P.M. The fare was $2.96 each way, plus a Federal tax of .30 cents bringing the complete round trip to $6.52. Children under 12 were half price, and kids under 5 sailed for free with adults. Passenger capacity was listed as 1,950 persons. The brochure cover featured an exaggerated drawing of a gigantic S.S.CATALINA with tiny little people waving from her decks, while the text inside read in part: “Small in cost, this trip is nevertheless a genuine big-ship, big-ocean voyage. The S.S.Catalina operates under the same U.S. regulations that govern trans-oceanic liners. And its passengers enjoy a thrilling experience shared by voyagers to the Hawaiian Islands: the strange exhilaration of leaving the continent and heading out into the vast, mysterious Pacific. For such reasons, Catalina has been likened to ‘a world cruise in a day.'” A lot of hyperbole to live up to for a ship making a two hour run just “twenty-six miles across the sea.”
Physically, the appearance of the CATALINA did not change much during her first 35 years of service. The letter “W” in the flag painted on her funnel changed to a “C” sometime in 1950. The first of six strikes idled the vessel for a week in August, 1955. The CATALINA continued sailing under Wrigley ownership through the 1959 season. With maritime unions becoming more demanding in staffing requirements and pay, the ship suffered another strike.
Fed up with union problems and having little use for the passenger ship business anymore, the Wrigley’s sold the S.S.CATALINA to Charlie Stillwell, the colorful owner of a local harbor sightseeing business who placed the vessel under the banner of his M. G. R. S. Company, Inc. The ship too, soon became more colorful as the covers along the sides of her Promenade Deck changed to turquoise, trimmed with a yellow railing, and a pink stripe was added encircling the ship below the Saloon Deck, now simply called “B” Deck. The classic ventilators atop the ship also became pink. The funnel was repainted white with a black top and a very thin pink stripe separating the two colors. The single house-flag motif became a series of four pennants, each a different color and bearing a letter of the company name: “M” in dark blue, “G” on a yellow field, “R” on red and “S” on light blue. The letters represented the last names of the four principle shareholders in the ship. The aft end of “B” Deck was enclosed with glass and a bar area was added in 1960. Surprisingly, all these changes did not spoil the good looks of the ship, a real tribute to her original designer.
Captain Lloyd Fredgren was the ship’s master, and he would remain with the S.S.CATALINA for the rest of her active career. Besides her regular daylight crossings to the island, nighttime voyages were also reinstated. An advertisement from 1963 says “Take a moonlight cruise to Catalina on the Big White Steamship.” Round trip fare was only $7.16 and departures were every Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 P.M. during the summer. Would be passengers were enticed by the ad copy inviting them to “enjoy cocktails and dancing aboard the ship plus an evening of dancing to Russ Morgan and his Music in the Morgan Manner at the World Famous Casino Ballroom in Avalon.”
During the winter lay up of 1964-65 the 40 year old ship received some extensive remodeling. All of the remaining lifeboats along the Main Deck were removed and replaced with inflatable life raft canisters. Where the boats once occupied the deck, additional seating intended for up to 400 more passengers was installed. The greatest outward change to the ship came with the removal of both of her masts.
Through all the events of the long, hot summer of 1965, two involving the S.S.CATALINA made the papers, and epitomized the extremes of those changing times. The motion picture “The Glass Bottom Boat” was being filmed in Avalon, and it’s star Doris Day, arrived aboard the ship and was greeted by the Mayor and Miss Catalina along with a mariachi band. Although the excursion boat PHOENIX was the featured player, the CATALINA made a cameo appearance in the end credits of the film. Late in the summer, the Coast Guard received a message from the CATALINA that teenagers were jumping overboard. Ten wet passengers were plucked from the water. The ship had long been a popular escape for local high school students. Over the years it had become a favorite venue for senior ditch day. Now a new tradition developed of celebrating Labor Day and marking the end of summer by diving into Los Angeles Harbor from the ship. The most infamous of student problems was the 1966 riot on the decks. Up to 800 youths took over the aft end of the steamer squirting beer and shaving cream and dousing passengers with fire fighting equipment. Brawling and ripping up benches, the situation got out of control. Police and the Coast Guard were called, and as the ship neared her L.A. berth, 22 of the teenagers jumped overboard hoping to avoid capture. All were soon rounded up, but on future Labor Day weekends, police were assigned to sail aboard the steamer. A criminal of a different type decided to take a cruise to Catalina after robbing a local grocery store. Unfortunately for him, the manager he had robbed the night before just happened to be aboard the same sailing. The thief was easily recognized, the Captain was notified, and police were waiting to nab the robber as he stepped ashore in Avalon.
Perky movie stars and rowdy students were the least of the worries facing the owners of the S.S.CATALINA in 1968. The demands of no less than eight different maritime unions caused the vessel to sit idle for the entire season. At least two local newspapers ran headlines putting the ship in a premature grave. It was an understandable mistake since Charlie Stillwell actually had the CATALINA towed to a local scrap yard. With a flair for the dramatic, he declared with tears in his eyes and his voice cracking, “Today, reluctantly, I ordered the S.S.CATALINA taken to the yards of the National Metal and Steel Co. We will remove approximately $4,500 in new radar gear, some other electronic equipment and salvageable furniture… As scrap steel she will bring about a penny and a half a pound. Maybe a little more for the bronze propellers. It should total out to about $38,000.” The frustration of the company to reach agreements with the unions was understandable. Stillwell claimed losses during the 1967 season were $28,000, and $111,000 since he began operations eight years earlier. Featherbedding by the unions required a crew of 64 men, while the Coast Guard only demanded 46 staff. One agreement reportedly allowed longshoremen to load the ship in San Pedro, then fly to the island to unload her. Also at issue was a desire by management to shorten the season from four months to three months during the summer. As both sides fought it out, tourist traffic to Avalon dropped by 125,000 arrivals compared to 300,000 in a normal year. Finally, the following April, a new contract valid for one year, was ratified giving the unions a $25.00 monthly across-the-board pay hike, a 10% pay raise, with crew size to remain at 64 men, but with a shortened season. In 1969, the ship would sail from June 15th to September 15th. The CATALINA had escaped her first brush with a scrap yard, although it may not have been a close call at all. An official at the scrap dock, where the ship had sat idle revealed that Charlie Stillwell had not even discussed the possibility of scrapping her.
The docking facilities for the “Great White Steamer” were also changed in the late 1960’s. Her original home in Wilmington was abandoned, in favor of a new Catalina Terminal, constructed in 1967, at Berth 95 in San Pedro directly under the Vincent Thomas Bridge. In Avalon, the quaint old steamer pier was demolished to create more space for private yachts, and a new mole was constructed just outside the east end of the main harbor. The CATALINA used this dock from the summer of 1969, but it was much less suitable as it was subject to wave action which frequently banged the old ship against the concrete.
Labor disputes were again plaguing Charlie Stillwell and M. G. R. S. in 1970. He sold the line that year to Carolyn Stanalan of Bellflower, California, who placed it under the ownership name of Catalina Transportation Company. She controlled 82% of the shares, with the remaining 18% held by her nephew Anthony Gregory and her two sons Tom and Jack Stanalan, the company’s President. M.G.R.S. Inc., was still the name of the operating company. Also in 1970, the 164 foot, gas turbine vessel AVALON (ii) was built as a possible replacement for the CATALINA. The aluminum hull vessel could carry 500 passengers but was soon found to be expensive and unsuitable for the Catalina Island service, and was withdrawn.
The CATALINA continued her daily runs between San Pedro and Avalon throughout the 1970 and 1971 season, sailing only during the summer months. But her happiest days were behind her. No longer would kids dive for coins as the ship arrived. Most kids by that time wouldn’t pick up a coin from the sidewalk let alone dive for one, and besides, those in charge felt it was too dangerous. Nobody dressed up for a crossing anymore. Even the bands that had played in her ballroom, had shrunken to small combos. In 1972, labor disputes again forced the cancellation of her entire season.
The ship received an enthusiastic welcome in Avalon on June 16, 1973, when service resumed. Her daily arrivals filled with tourists had been badly missed. Her schedule called for departures from San Pedro at 9:30 A.M. arriving in Avalon at 11:30 A.M. The return was at 3:45 P.M. arriving in San Pedro at 5:45 P.M. As an added incentive for families, the cartoon characters, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Sylvester the Cat rode along to entertain children. The ship’s color scheme was modified slightly before the season began, with the topside Promenade Deck covers being repainted white, and the ventilators becoming a turquoise-blue with yellow in the cowls. The funnel colors remained the same, except that the M. G. R. S. initials were removed from the four painted pennants. The total number of passengers carried remained excellent. Unfortunately, the season did not go by without a mishap. In August, the company severely over booked the ship for a return voyage, leaving 194 people with confirmed reservations stranded in Avalon. One man was arrested in the resulting protests. The ship’s Coast Guard certificate allowed for 2,197 passengers.
The fiftieth anniversary of the S.S.CATALINA’s entry into service should have been a year of celebration. Instead, it was a year of controversy. While Avalon officials celebrated the anniversary, and openly welcomed the return of the steamer, some of their decisions caused grumbling within the company management. Competition had never been a major problem for the S.S.CATALINA, but by 1974 it was. The Crowley Maritime owned Long Beach – Catalina Cruise Line was running several vessels with departures from both San Pedro and Long Beach. The ships were much smaller, carrying 500 – 700 passengers, but made frequent departures as opposed to the one daily sailing of the CATALINA. To compete more effectively, Catalina Transportation Co. purchased the modern, 132 foot, CARIB STAR and outfitted her to carry 700 passengers. Once again, the CATALINA had a running mate; or was it a replacement? On October 10th, shortly after the 1974 season ended, the owners of the CATALINA announced that she had been sold to the oil-rich sheikdom of Kuwait. It was assumed that the ship would see service in the Persian Gulf. Kuwait had also recently acquired Kiawah Island located 20 miles off Charleston, South Carolina and service in that area was also rumored. The selling price for the vessel was an astounding $5 million. “But of course, one never knows until you get the check” stated Jack Stanaland. How right he was. The announcement of the sale immediately put Avalon officials into a panic. The Catalina Transportation Company, still having minor labor disputes, felt their biggest problems were with both Avalon and Los Angeles harbors. Recognizing the threat that the ship might leave, the Los Angeles Harbor Commission voted to cut dockage fees and the City of Avalon backed away from some of their demands. In exchange, the company said they would postpone the transaction until after the 1975 season. Stanaland had stated that he could not divulge the name of the individual negotiating on behalf of Kuwait, but in any case nothing more was ever heard from the sheikdom. Whether it was all an elaborate ruse to gain concessions, or a legitimate offer remains a mystery.
The promised 1975 season almost didn’t happen. On March 3rd, Federal Marshals seized the CATALINA at her berth and had her arrested on behalf of the Los Angeles Harbor Department, after they had filed suit to recover $32,000 in unpaid docking fees and penalties. Under Admiralty law a vessel is considered a person, and so for 17 days the ship remained in “custody”, manned by two guards. The dispute was settled when Catalina Transportation Co. agreed to repay the funds later in the year. In April, the ship was chartered to a movie crew for a role in the film “Farewell My Lovely” starring Robert Mitchum. The S.S.CATALINA was transformed into the off-shore gambling ship LIDO for the production. While away from her berth on this duty, her new fleetmate CARIB STAR was bombed and partially sunk on the night of April 10th. Worries that the CATALINA may have been the real target were well founded, when a bomb threat to her was called in on June 11th. Sometime later that night, the ship was sabotaged by someone who poured sand in the bearings and smashed electrical cables in the engine room with a hammer. No arrests were made. Speculation was these incidents may have been instigated by competitors or perhaps were a protest against the CATALINA’s supposed sale to the Arabs. The crew of the CATALINA worked feverishly to repair the damaged machinery, and have her ready in time for the first voyage of the summer season. Repair costs were estimated to be between $4,000 – $6,000, mostly in overtime pay, but the ship was ready and began sailing again on June 14, 1975. On June 22nd, Lester Arrellanes organized a trip aboard the vessel for about 100 members of the Steamship Historical Society of America during a National convention being held in Southern California. He wanted them to enjoy what he called “the last honest to goodness steamship of her kind under United States registry.”
A voyage aboard the S.S.CATALINA in those final days of her career was an experience to be remembered. This writer sailed round trip on July 2, 1975. The fare was $11.00 return. Boarding the ship was still an adventure, 51 years after her maiden voyage. Baggage carts were loaded through the shell doors on Main Deck forward. Passengers would explore through her three decks then find a seat before sailing time. As the steam whistle blew signalling departure, all eyes would look up at the funnel, and beyond to the green Vincent Thomas Bridge towering over the ship. The morning crossings were normally pretty smooth sailing, although the ship would pitch a fair amount in the swells. Coffee, snacks and island tours could be purchased. But the real pleasure was in enjoying the leisurely pace and sea air as the ship steamed along, with smoke pouring from the stack. Just like those that came before, tourists would rush ashore at Avalon for a day of sunshine and swimming, or patronizing the shops and restaurants. Faster, less elegant boats, operated by competitors would come and go all day, while the S.S.CATALINA remained tied up, scraping against the outer harbor mole.
After a day of fun on the island, passengers were in a more festive mood on the return crossing. Once past the 3-mile limit, music would start in the ballroom, and the bar would do good business. If you liked ships, and asked politely, you might be invited into the engine room for a look around. Sometime during the trip you were sure to hear an announcement over the public address system to “stop by the souvenir photo booth on the left hand side of B-Deck” to collect pictures taken on the voyage. All too soon, the ship was heading up the main channel of Los Angeles Harbor, then ten minutes later nudging gently into her home berth. After collecting your belongings and stepping ashore, you were returned to the “real” world. It was pretty well known by everyone that this would most likely be the ship’s last season. While the glamour of earlier days had long since worn off, any crossing on the S.S.CATALINA was still an experience to be enjoyed and treasured in memories for years to come.
The steamer made another splash in the headlines of August 25, 1975. While preparing to sail from Avalon, two baggage carts loaded with 129 pieces of luggage broke loose on the loading ramp and rolled into the harbor. Except for a few airtight suitcases, most of the bags sank and had to be retrieved by divers. Needing to maintain her schedule, the CATALINA departed leaving the soggy luggage behind. It was returned later that night to its unhappy owners.
On September 14, 1975 the S.S.CATALINA reversed engines and backed into the Los Angeles Harbor channel at 9:45 A.M. On board were 1,476 passengers. She would be making her 9,807th crossing, and the last one of the season. About mid way through the trip a couple were married on the aft Promenade Deck behind the smokestack. Other than that, there was nothing out of the ordinary. After a day at the island, the ship cast off her lines at 5:32 P.M. Only a few Island residents came out to the dock to wave goodbye. Music could be heard, as “Avalon” was played one last time as the ship turned towards the sea and the mainland ahead. After a very calm crossing, the Angels Gate lighthouse at the end of the L.A. breakwater was passed. At 7:30 P.M., the S.S.CATALINA tied up to her dock and Captain Fredgren rang down “Finished With Engines” from the bridge telegraph to her engine room. The seagoing career of the “Great White Steamer” was over.
During the winter lay up the owners of the CATALINA had hoped to make money using the ship as a floating classroom until she needed to be readied for the next season. But throughout the winter she languished at her San Pedro berth. The November 15th deadline for paying the delinquent dockage fees to the L.A. Harbor Department passed. During the spring, hope remained alive that the ship might sail in her 52nd season, but it was not to be. On July 14, 1976, she was seized by U.S. Marshals for the second time, and towed to berth 232 in Los Angeles Harbor. During this time, her beautiful wooden wheel, inlaid with her name and building year, was removed and given to the Catalina Island Museum. The red and white ships of rival Catalina Cruises took over the Catalina Terminal in San Pedro. The ship remained laid up the rest of the year as debts and claims against her continued to mount. The initial sum owed to the Harbor Department had increased to $60,000 in back dockage fees. The City of Avalon put a lien against the ship for $34,647.50 plus penalties of $23,474 for unpaid wharfage. The Seafarers Unions of North America claimed they were owed $200,000 in unpaid pension contributions. Farmers and Merchants Bank of Long Beach was owed $170,000 plus $74,000 in interest on the CATALINA’s mortgage. All together, a staggering total of $562,121.50 in debts were owed. Other estimates of the debt vary widely.
In an attempt to satisfy her creditors U.S. District Court Judge Harry Pregerson ordered the CATALINA be sold at auction. On February 16, 1977, about 125 persons gathered on the dock beside the ship. Among the media, creditors, and the curious were twelve individuals who had registered as bidders. The auction started at $1,000 and by the time it reached $25,000 there were only two serious contenders left. Joe Goren representing the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union – who said they hoped to return the vessel to service – placed the highest bid he was authorized to of $65,000. Moments later Hymie Singer, a Beverly Hills real estate developer placed the winning bid and bought the ship for $70,000. He said it was a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife Ruth, who had been urging him to buy a bigger boat. It was an impulsive decision, made after seeing a newspaper story about the auction only two days before. The Singer’s admitted they had no idea what they would do with a 2,000 passenger ship, only that they would preserve it and not sell it for scrap. A week later, the Singer’s were in a courtroom hearing the judge confirm their purchase after the sale was contested by creditors and a scrap dealer who suggested the bid was “grossly inadequate,” then made an offer of $110,000. Hymie Singer himself had stated that he was prepared to go as high as $250,000 to obtain the ship. The sale was ruled properly conducted and valid, and Hymie Singer had a ship. The creditors walked away with practically nothing as the first $13,000 would go to pay the U.S. Marshals who had seized and guarded the ship.
Hymie and Ruth Singer had good intentions for the ship, but absolutely no business plan. In the first month of ownership, the ship was going to be docked at Ports O’ Call Village in Los Angeles Harbor; or maybe Avalon, Marina del Rey, Santa Monica or Venice, California. A consistent theme was possible use as a restaurant and museum vessel. Also proposed was an entertainment complex in Santa Barbara, a “mini-QUEEN MARY” at Ensenada, Mexico, a day cruiser between San Diego and Ensenada or an offshore nudist camp. In April, an apparently serious option was for the ship to operate in the Bahamas as a ferry between Nassau and Florida in a 50-50 partnership with the Bahamian government. The Prime Minister’s office confirmed that they were very interested in obtaining the ship, which would be registered in Nassau with an all Bahamian crew. The deal fell apart, probably due to the accommodations on the ship being unsuitable for long-haul voyages and never being designed for service on the high seas. Still looking for a home for their ship, the Singer’s asked the L.A. Harbor Department if they could recommend a good place to moor her. The Long Beach Boat Works on Terminal Island seemed to be suitable and the ship was towed there. The Singer’s supposedly paid dockage fees up to December 10th, but while there, the Boat Works ceased operations. Wharf fees accumulated at the daily rate of $1.00 per foot, which equalled $301.00 per day. The Singers’s sued the Harbor Department and they in turn threatened to sell the ship to satisfy unpaid dockage fees of $17,794.00. November 30th, the CATALINA was towed from Terminal Island back to her original home, berth 185 in Wilmington, and nested together with the old Navy LST DORCHESTER.
For a retired ship in lay up, the S.S.CATALINA certainly got around. On April 25, 1978 the ship was being towed to Newport Beach, California to be the centerpiece of a pleasure boat show at Lido Isle. She ran aground on a sandbar upon entering the harbor, but was freed on the high tide that evening. The night of May 3rd, San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson held a campaign function on board in his first, unsuccessful bid to become Governor. The boat show lasted two weeks and the CATALINA was a popular attraction with exhibition booths on board. When the show ended, she set out to sea again, on the end of a tow line, ending up at the National Steel & Shipbuilding Yards in San Diego. She had been refused dock space in Los Angeles and the Harbor Department was now suing to recover $29,823 in unpaid docking, towing and utility fees. Singer pre-paid two months wharf fees so the ship could stay at the San Diego yard. In late July, the ship was on the move once again, being towed north to an anchorage beyond the 3-Mile limit off Santa Monica. The ship was left there to avoid the expense of a dock, but the unguarded ship was extensively vandalized. Her two name boards above the bridge and much of the brass fittings from the engine room were among the items lost. Rocking in the sea swells, doors would swing open and shut on their hinges. A considerable amount of water built up in her bilge. The CATALINA was a true ghost ship. The Coast Guard declared the unlighted vessel a hazard to navigation and levied a $1,000 fine against her.
With Hymie Singer being a Canadian citizen, there could be potential problems in owning a U.S. registered ship. Consequently, the original bill of sale was in the name of Ruth Singer, who was an American citizen. In 1978, she transferred ownership from herself as an individual to a corporation under the name S.S.CATALINA, Inc. Although Ruth’s name was on the paperwork, there is no doubt that Hymie Singer was the driving force behind all things relating to the CATALINA. Being frustrated in their efforts to find a home for the vessel, and receiving offers that seemed to present viable solutions, the Singers’ entered into the first of what would be a series of disastrous lease agreements. On August 11, 1978, a 20 year lease was signed with two men from Beverly Hills, Gary Bookasta and Robert Masson. Their stated intention was to open the ship as a music entertainment, shopping complex and possibly a broadcasting facility for the popular L.A. radio station KROQ, with the ship berthed at San Pedro’s Ports O’ Call Village. The $6,000 down payment check bounced, as did subsequent checks. The pair soon could not be reached and their purported backers disavowed knowledge of them. Hymie Singer was forced to file a $1 million admiralty lawsuit to regain control of the ship and nullify the lease.
A January, 1979 television program put the spotlight on the plight of the CATALINA and featured an interview with Hymie Singer. The ship looked forlorn as it rode at the off-shore anchorage. In the interview Mr. Singer stated, “I’ve had opportunities to sell the boat. I could have doubled what I paid for the boat the next day. But I promised the public I’d never scrap the boat.” Two other excerpts from that interview give a glimpse into his personality; “So I went down to the auction just for a kibitz… and I made a bid. What do I know about boats?” He continued, “I guess a lot of other people would have given up, but I’m sort of a tenacious person, and like the old saying is, that I’ll go down with the ship.” More idle speculation was raised by Singer as to where the ship was bound. He mentioned towing her to Washington State, Vancouver, British Columbia, Ensenada again, or possibly docking her at some property he had recently purchased in Northern California along the Sacramento River. “I’ve got no regrets about all the headaches and expense. I just feel sorry for the people of Los Angeles who will be losing a priceless landmark,” Singer said.
One of the people watching that television broadcast was an Orange County California real estate agent named Gene Webber. He and his brother Gary thought the ship had great potential and sought out Hymie Singer to negotiate a new lease. Early in 1979, an agreement was reached to lease the ship on a sliding rent scale beginning at $1,500 per month the 1st year, increasing to $3,000 per month by the 4th year. The lease was signed by only Gene Norbert Webber and Hymie Singer. Two provisions regarding maintaining insurance and lease/purchasing the vessel would remain points of contention for over a decade. The first plan put forth by Webber was a good one. He got the Avalon City Council to agree to allow the ship to anchor for a period of 6 months off Casino Point, as a restaurant and souvenir shop, to be served by shore boats. If successful, it would be allowed inside the breakwater the next season. One minor condition was that the ship be repainted, which didn’t happen. There was also opposition from established businesses that did not welcome competition, so the first real opportunity for the S.S.CATALINA to return to Avalon was missed. Later, the Webber brothers reportedly had an agreement in place with the Jolly Roger chain of seafood restaurants, but only if a location to moor the ship could be found. In reality, Gene Webber did not have any more solid plans for the ship than the Singer’s did, and he had a tendency to not follow through on commitments.
Ordered removed from her Santa Monica Bay anchorage by a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, the CATALINA made her next move back down the coast to Long Beach. The Coast Guard allowed her to anchor within the breakwater a mile off the beach near Oil Island Freeman, so long as the ship was manned at all times, had a working radio aboard and used two anchors. Webber never did pay for a watchman, but instead allowed an unemployed couple, Monty and Marlene Koschalk to live aboard. For 3 years they made the ship their home without the benefit of heat or running water, rarely leaving the vessel except to buy groceries. When this writer rowed out from the beach to see the ship up close, a young man and his dog were the sole occupants of the once proud steamship.
During 1979, the CATALINA became the prop for yet another film, the CBS television movie “The Memory Of Eva Ryker” with scenes filmed aboard her and the QUEEN MARY. Funds received from the movie company were supposed to be used to rebuild and restore the CATALINA.
The saga of unfulfilled dreams for the S.S.CATALINA intensified in the early 1980’s. As the decade dawned, a glimmer of hope again surfaced that perhaps the ship could be moored in Avalon during the summer tourist season as an attraction housing shops and restaurants. Unfortunately, this time the Avalon City Council voted 3-2 to reject that proposal. The issue was later put to a vote of the people who overwhelmingly rejected it 922 against, only 164 in favor. The City of Avalon had made it perfectly clear, they did not want the ship. Gene Webber’s next proposal was to use the CATALINA as a fishing barge off Long Beach. Failing in this, he then asked the Steamship Historical Society of America for help in efforts to preserve the historic ship. A minor revision to the lease was signed on August 3, 1981. Meanwhile, Hymie Singer finally settled his longstanding dispute with the Los Angeles Harbor Department, agreeing to pay $10,000 for past dockage fees. The latest scheme in 1982 involved supposed investors in San Francisco who wanted to use the ship as either an office building, or for taking tourists on cruises up the Sacramento River. As usual, nothing developed.
Finally, in 1983, it looked like the S.S.CATALINA’s troubles might be over. The Long Beach Press Telegram reported that Gene Webber, President of S.S.Catalina Steamship, Inc., would be returning the ship to service between Los Angeles and Catalina Island. Webber had found a new partner in Bernard Pasche, whose deep financial pockets would provide the funds necessary for a thorough refurbishing of the long neglected ship. The partnership was to be 50-50, provided the vessel actually re-entered service. The ship would be dry docked, completely reconditioned and brought up to U.S. Coast Guard standards. Webber even offered to exercise his lease option to buy the ship for $300,000, but the Singer’s refused to sign escrow papers. In March, the S.S.CATALINA entered the Todd Shipyard’s drydock in San Pedro, the same location she had been built, to be readied for a second career. Over the next several months, considerable work was done on the vessel. Years of accumulated sea-growth was removed from her hull; propellers and shafts were pulled and repacked. The hull was sandblasted and given an epoxy coat. On the interior, new paint was applied and the seating was refinished. Reportedly $1.5 million was spent on renovations. However, by December, the project was dead; the California Public Utilities Commission dismissing the application when Gene Webber failed to file an environmental assessment report.
Delays had already caused the summer tourist season to be missed. Considerable protest from competing Catalina Cruises may have also been a factor in killing the project. But the responsibility to see the project through, ultimately belonged to Gene Webber. While he should have been working full time getting the CATALINA back into service, he was busy, supposedly seeking help for the ship, by vacationing in Las Vegas and Hawaii on an expense account, funds courtesy of Bernie Pasche. Ironically, Pasche was eliminated as a partner due to a small clause in the agreement that Webber had put in stating his 50% interest was void if the project did not reach completion. The last, best chance for the CATALINA to resume service was lost. She was moved first to a dock near the old fireboat station on the main harbor channel, then to an anchorage off Terminal Island in Long Beach, where she sat out 1984. During gusty winds in December, she lost her port-side anchor, and took a cruise of her own through the harbor, hitting the Navy breakwater but causing no damage. She was then moored to a buoy at the U.S. Coast Guard Station. Not satisfied, she broke free again in January, and this time just missed colliding with the loaded oil tanker EXXON WASHINGTON. The ship was drifting sideways with such force that she created a wake. This time, the Coast Guard had had enough, and moved to levy fines and recoup expenses for the two operations.
The Department of Justice was preparing to file suit authorizing Federal Marshals to seize the ship and put it up for auction if $200,000 was not paid for the rescues. But before papers could be served, Webber had the CATALINA hooked up to an Eaton Tugboat Company tug, and slipped out of the harbor and out to sea. The S.S.CATALINA left United States waters on March 3, 1985. After a tow of approximately 30 hours, the ship dropped anchor just over 3 miles outside of Ensenada, Mexico. A letter was received a few days later by the Coast Guard from Gene Webber explaining that he was moving his family to Baja California so that he could restore the steamer in cooperation with a Mexican corporation. He “just flew the coop” said Hymie Singer’s attorneys who were preparing a suit charging Webber with taking stolen property out of the country and failing to make lease payments since the summer of 1984. The suit was filed in 1986, and the battle would rage on for four years.
Riding at anchor in the open ocean off Ensenada put the CATALINA in a precarious position. To make matters worse, the Port Captain of Ensenada seized the ship illegally. In July, armed Mexican Marines boarded the ship in the middle of the night and at gunpoint convinced the two watchmen on board to sign statements in Spanish which they could not read. They were then ejected from the vessel. The ship remained at anchor and in control of the Port Captain until September, 1986. Hymie Singer was furious that his ship had been stolen, not once but twice, and appealed to a California congressman to intervene with the Government in Mexico City, which claimed no knowledge of the incident.
At this point a new character enters the picture, a Mexican partner named Alejandro Marcin Salazar. Under Mexican law at that time, any venture had to be at least 51% controlled by a citizen of Mexico. Gene Webber offered to sell the ship to him, and on July 31, 1986 entered into a lease/purchase agreement that was nearly identical in wording to the original lease he, Webber, had signed with the Singers’ back in 1979. But it quickly became clear that Webber could not produce any proof of ownership. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times told Marcin that the Singer’s were the rightful owners and he should be dealing with them. Marcin dropped his plans with Webber and contacted Singer. Webber then sued Marcin for fraud. In anticipation of the ship being developed as an attraction, it had been released, towed into Ensenada harbor and anchored in September. Initially, Marcin told the Singers’ they owed him $8,000 to cover his expenses if they wanted their ship back. Instead, they formed an uneasy partnership together, with the intent of opening the CATALINA up as an entertainment center in Ensenada. The ship remained under the ownership of S.S.CATALINA Inc., which was Ruth Singer, who leased it to Catalina de Ensenada, S.A., a partnership between the Singers’ and Marcin. The relationship would last nearly two years. The capital needed for extensive remodeling would come from a Canadian investment firm, which was once again, Hymie Singer.
Money was poured into refurbishing the ship; just under $1 million U.S. dollars. Work that could be carried out at the anchorage proceeded. Passenger benches were stripped of their blue paint, railings were sanded, doors and frames refinished and linoleum that had been added to her decks was removed and the wood underneath restored. In November of 1987, the ship was taken into an Ensenada drydock, to have her hull cleaned and painted. Ninety zinc plates were added. An interesting quirk of maritime law was also remedied during the dry-docking. Technically, the CATALINA was still a U.S.-flag vessel, under Coast Guard regulations. A vessel no longer capable of moving under its own power surrenders her active registration. By removing her two 8-foot diameter bronze propellers, which would be displayed ashore next to the new berth, her status automatically changed. Across her stern, “Avalon,” the port-of-registry, disappeared. Emerging from drydock, the ship was towed to her new home, a rock lined dirt jetty, just south of downtown near the convention center, a former hotel built by Jack Dempsey, the champion boxer, as a retreat for American celebrities during prohibition. Severe winter storms damaged the new dock in January, 1988, but work continued on board the ship. The sounds of hammers and saws echoed through the decks. Alejandro Marcin, also known as Alex, kept writing checks.
By June 25th, the ship was ready for a well attended preview party. Ruth Singer presided at the ribbon cutting ceremony with the ship looking resplendent behind her. With hull and upper decks gleaming white, the funnel and ventilators were painted gold. The black-topped funnel also sported a white circle with a black letter “C” in the center. On board, the ship had been beautifully redone. Much of the original look had been retained, but with a distinctly Mexican accent. The Promenade Deck had been given an outdoor bar, glass wind screens, umbrellas and the original wooden benches for seating. The former Saloon Deck was wonderfully transformed into small shops and dining facilities. Forward was a Sushi bar and souvenir shop. Midships, ten boutiques were constructed along the deck. The ballroom was converted into the “Bar & Grill Restaurant Catalina” while the fantail bar was beautifully refurbished in it’s original style. Wooden decks showed a polished shine. Even the engine room was meticulously restored, using spare parts that were found in storage below decks and had somehow escaped the looters. The aft steering wheel, long missing, was also discovered hidden among the vintage parts and placed in the restaurant. A discotheque was planned in the former cargo area. Thirteen years after her retirement from service, the S.S.CATALINA was open and again serving happy customers. Sadly, it was only a brief reprieve. On a night in September, Alex Marcin came aboard the vessel and removed items including a large mirror, and absconded with the deposit money from the tenants on board. The shopkeepers were justifiably angry and thought Hymie and Ruth Singer had conspired with Marcin to cheat them. Instead they had been cheated themselves. Their corrupt partner had allegedly managed to funnel $100,000 to $200,000 of the refurbishment money back into his own accounts. He disappeared, and reportedly was spotted in Acapulco. The ship remained open until December, 1988 but as the shops closed, the operation was shut down.
From February until August 1989, David Engholm served as a representative for Hymie and Ruth Singer on board the steamer. He was born on December 18, 1964, and made his first cruise aboard the S.S.CATALINA before he was 1 year old. Throughout his childhood, weekends were spent travelling to Catalina Island and he developed a great love for the ship. After it’s retirement, he became friends with the Singers’ and followed their investment to Ensenada. He even got married aboard the ship on Cinco de Mayo, 1989. Perhaps no one today knows more about the S.S.CATALINA than David Engholm, and he would come to play a major role in it’s future.
As the 1980’s turned into the 1990’s, the old CATALINA sat idle at her dock. But attorneys were still making money off the ship. The lawsuit against Gene Webber was finally resolved in the spring of 1990, with Hymie and Ruth Singer being awarded $233,965.00, considerably less than the $6 million they wanted but a moral victory nonetheless. Most of the award was for back rent $195,000, followed by attorney fees $37,500, interest of $1,137 and minor travel expenses of $328.00. Judge Warren Deering ruled that Webber had breached terms of the 1981 lease agreement when he stopped making payments in 1984, and subsequently had the ship towed to Mexico. Webber countered that the Hymie and Ruth Singer had broken the lease when they refused to sell the ship to him in 1983, but since he had brought no legal action at the time, he was overruled. Although the Singers’s won the suit, reportedly no funds were ever recovered from Webber.
While the CATALINA remained closed, she was maintained in excellent condition. Hymie Singer once again became enthusiastic about reopening the bar and restaurant and by July of 1993 major work had started up again. On the starboard side of Main Deck the former lifeboat deck was enclosed with wood to provide additional seating. Only the port side received a new paint job because Hymie believed just the part that faced the shore needed to look good. On a visit to the ship in January, 1994 it looked immaculate. A pink stripe was painted around the hull at Saloon Deck level and along Main Deck midships. The rail coverings and ventilators were once again painted blue and vertical stanchions along the exterior of Main Deck were painted yellow, giving the ship a festive atmosphere. The American flag fluttered from her stern pole. It looked like she could re-open any day, but it never happened. Ruth Singer had long since become disillusioned with the ship, and openly argued with Hymie over the money he was continuing to pour into her. She was never happy with the vessel being in Ensenada, and claimed she never wanted the ship in the first place. The money was not only going into refurbishment but also toward fighting 7 Mexican workers who claimed they were owed severance pay. Hymie spent more money on that battle than if he had just paid them off to begin with. It is estimated that during the time the S.S.CATALINA was in Ensenada, the Singers’ spent $2 million on her.
It was obvious that Hymie Singer loved the ship, and his determination kept him involved despite all the years of tribulation. But he was getting old, and his health was not good. By 1996, Ruth Singer was in full control, and she just stopped work on the ship and washed her hands of the venture. With the Singers’ out of the picture, the Mexican courts awarded the ship to the 7 men as compensation for their severance pay. They thought they had a gold mine in the ship and hoped to sell her for $500,000, before the reality set in that no one was going to come forward to operate her again. In March of 1997, she was towed across the harbor to the current cruise ship dock. In May, she was moved for the final time to an anchorage in Ensenada Harbor, near her old berth and about 50 yards offshore. Her starboard side was rust-streaked and battered, while the port side still looked well maintained. On or about December 21st the ship began sinking by the stern.
The CATALINA’s old friend, David Engholm was the first to notice her predicament. He was visiting his wife’s relatives in Ensenada over Christmas, 1997. He immediately called Ruth Singer because he knew Hymie would want to know, but was told she did not want to hear anymore about that ship and that Hymie was too ill to receive news like that. Apparently, nearly 21 years of dealing with the difficulties of the ship had exhausted her energy and patience. Sinking very slowly, the stern of the CATALINA settled on the muddy harbor bottom. At high tide, the stern was awash. The harbor master as early as January, 1998 indicated that the ship was nothing more than a headache to him and if the owner’s would not move her, legal proceedings would start to have her broken up for scrap. Over the next 3 months, the stern sank lower until water washing over the Main Deck was able to enter through the large openings, flooding the engine room and lowest deck. The ship now settled on the bottom with the bow down and a 15-20 degree list to port. She was submerged up to her Saloon Deck on the port side, about 45% of the vessel underwater. The situation appeared to be hopeless.
Mobilized into action, David Engholm would not let the ship he loved go without a fight. He quickly formed the S.S.CATALINA Steamship Fund, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the ship. He was able to generate considerable press coverage both in newspapers and on television, but very little in the way of donations. By April, he had formed a bond with a San Diego, California based preservation group, Save Our Heritage Organization. Also known as SOHO, their director Bruce Coons, placed the ship on their top 10 list of preservation priorities. Being close to the Mexican border and having 501 C-3 non-profit, tax-exempt status enabled their members to spearhead a fund raising campaign. Perhaps most importantly, one of their members living in Mexico, Maria Castillo-Curry was able to act as a liaison between the Catalina Steamship Fund and the Mexican authorities. She is dedicated to saving the S.S.CATALINA and is an important link in bridging the cultural gap between the ideals of the two countries. On the U.S. side of the border, politicians voiced their moral, but not financial support. On May 5th, the Los Angeles City Council, led by 15th District Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., passed an emergency resolution formally requesting the Ensenada Port Captain to declare the ship abandoned and turn the vessel over to the Port of Los Angeles and allow her to be towed back to her home country. Councilman Svorinich would like to see the ship become part of a community center project underway at Banning’s Landing in Wilmington, the ship’s original home berth. It is hoped that the ship could include a maritime museum on board.
With all the sudden interest in their sunken ship, the 7 Mexican owners requested $100,000 to release their claims on her. They eventually gained an understanding that saving the ship was a philanthropic effort and that no profit was going to be gained by them. Filiberto Estrada, the current Ensenada Harbor Master, after originally wanting to recover $45,000 in debt owed to his port, was willing to waive payment if someone would just get rid of the ship for him. He told the Los Angeles Times “The ship was of no interest to us when it was floating and even less so now that it is sinking.” Besides the obvious need to get the ship out of the water as quickly as possible, the Port of Ensenada is also in the midst of their most ambitious expansion plans ever. A new container terminal has just opened, and a $40 million cruise ship terminal is under construction on the downtown side of the harbor. The main tenants of the new terminal will be Carnival Cruise Lines HOLIDAY, and Royal Caribbean International’s VIKING SERENADE, making their twice weekly calls in Ensenada. The CATALINA sits almost directly in the way of this development.
On July 17, 1998 at 87 years of age, Hymie Singer passed away. His dreams of seeing the CATALINA preserved were now in the hands of others.
The first underwater surveys of the ship were conducted on May 18th and 19th by a team from Sea Tow and Coast Diving. Over the next eight months two more independent surveys would be conducted. The consensus of most was that the CATALINA had taken on water through leaks in the propeller shaft packings, causing the stern to slowly settle. The hull was found to be sound, and only the rudder had received damage from settling on the stern and rocking with the tide. Incredibly the 1″ thick hull plates had wastage of only 10% in her 75 years in the water. Based on the excellent condition of the hull and the shallow water around the wreck, it was concluded that raising the ship and towing it back to Southern California would be a viable project. The ship sits in water about 20 feet deep and subject to up to 8 foot tides. Estimates for the work ranged from $40,000 to $325,000. The low bid was submitted by Raul Arenas of Mariana del Pacifico y Caribe, a Mexican company with offices in Cozumel and Ensenada. The bid was the most recent one when it was received on February 24, 1999.
David Engholm had been waiting for a positive response from the Mexican government and it finally came. In October, 1998 the ship was declared legally abandoned. The S.S.CATALINA, now officially was under the ownership of the Mexican Navy. The 7 previous owners relinquished their claims thereby clearing the way for the ship to be donated to the S.S.CATALINA Steamship Fund, Inc. Now the only remaining hurdle was raising the money necessary to get the ship off the bottom and back to the United States. Financing must be in place for the project to go forward. Even then, ongoing funds will be needed to support her upkeep. David Engholm voiced a sentiment shared by this writer when he said, “Imagine if everyone who ever rode the historic ferry to Catalina Island were to donate one dollar, we would have $25 million to work with.”
On April 16, 1999, representatives from SOHO and El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, in Baja California organized an excursion to take people that might be influential in preservation efforts south to Ensenada to go on board the ship. Included in the group were members of the San Diego Maritime Museum, L.A. Conservancy, Titanic Historical Society and the Steamship Historical Society of America, Southern California Chapter. What they found was not a decaying shipwreck, but an incredibly intact early 20th Century steamship. Sea growth had accumulated in those areas exposed to the water but otherwise she was remarkably solid. Her wooden decks, constructed 75 years earlier, were still water-proof, as evidenced by rainwater that had accumulated on them. Sunlight, filtering through peaceful green water covering the engine spaces and along the Main “C” Deck gave a beautiful, if melancholy feel to this once proud queen of the Catalina crossing. All who went to Ensenada that day were deeply moved by what they saw and agreed the ship was well worth preserving. Noted maritime artist, Ken Marschall, was one of the participants that day, and volunteered to do a painting of the S.S.CATALINA in her early years, which would be reproduced as an art poster for fund raising purposes.
At a meeting held on May 1st in Long Beach, the Southern California Chapter of the Steamship Historical Society publicly declared they would lend their support to the preservation and fundraising efforts. SOHO also held a $100.00 a plate dinner aboard the San Diego Maritime Museum ferry BERKELEY in July, 1999. In an ironic twist, the Museum had looked into buying the CATALINA in 1972 to add to it’s collection of historic vessels, but chose to acquire the BERKELEY instead.
The S.S.CATALINA is a landmark in every sense of the word. In 1976 she was bestowed the honor of being placed on the National Register of Historic Places. California recognizes her as State Historical Landmark #894. And, she is the City of Los Angeles Historical Cultural Monument #213. Probably most notable, the S.S.CATALINA has carried more passengers than any other ocean-going ship in history! To those that suggest that the CATALINA’s only value is as scrap, David Engholm replies, “You have 25 million memories in this ship. It’s not scrap metal. It’s more than metal. This ship has memories in it; Mine included.” For her 75th birthday she deserves to be afloat and on her way to a bright future.
In this day and age, people are more interested in getting to the destination than enjoying themselves on the way. In 1999, a new high-speed catamaran named STARSHIP EXPRESS was introduced on the Long Beach to Avalon route that cut travel time to only 45 minutes. Already, Catalina Express has boats that can make the run from San Pedro in just an hour. For convenience, there are up to 28 departures a day from 3 mainland ports. But as a passenger, you don’t remember these trips, unless it is for the teeth-rattling qualities of the boats as they slam into the waves on rough days.
But once there was a time, when a “Great White Steamer” plied these waters, and guests would arrive at an island paradise in a civilized way. They would sip drinks and dance to the pleasant sounds of an orchestra during the crossing. The sound of a steam whistle signalled their departure and arrival. And even after many years had passed; even in old age, they would remember that they had a voyage; a voyage that was etched forever in their memories. They had taken a cruise aboard the S.S.CATALINA.
This article is dedicated to David Engholm, whose perseverance and willpower have made this project possible. Also, special thanks to Ken Marschall and Tim Schwab whose generosity toward the CATALINA has inspired me. And, as always, to Caroline!
My Fellow S.S. CATALINA Preservationist,
On Behalf Of The S.S. CATALINA STEAMSHIP FUND (SSCSF) And Myself I Endorse The Efforts Of Richard McPherson, Linda (Maynard) Hironimus And The RAISING THE CATALINA ASSOCIATION (RTCA) To SAVE The GREAT WHITE STEAMER CATALINA!
I Would Also Like To Thank Phil Dockery And The S.S. CATALINA PRESERVATION ASSOCIATION (SSCPA) For Their Well Intentioned Effort, But Now However It Is Time To Move Forward With The Same Vision That I Had In Establishing The S.S. CATALINA STEAMSHIP FUND (SSCS) And In Setting Up The S.S. CATALINA PRESERVATION ASSOCIATION (SSCPA).
I Am Confident That The RAISING THE CATALINA ASSOCIATION (RTCA) Will Stick To Its Goal And Leave Politics Aside Where Individual Agendas Will Not Detract From Its Mission And Will Have The Boldness & Fortitude To Do This!
I Am Looking Forward To This Upcoming Event At The AVALON CASINO, In Discussing And Planning These Events Linda, Has Brought Back The Excitement And Fervor That I Once Had With Making This Project A Reality Because I Feel A Genuine Unity With This Group No Divisiveness And No Back Door Negotiations.
GREAT Things Could Still Happen For Our GREAT WHITE STEAMER CATALINA!!!
It Is The Perfect Time To Take Advantage Of This Opportunity!!!
S.S. CATALINA STEAMSHIP FUND
JOHN PAUL DEJORIA JOINS
FIGHT TO SAVE THE S.S. CATALINA
Laguna Niguel, CA …John Paul DeJoria, Chairman and Co-Founder of John Paul Mitchell Systems, Chairman and CEO of Patron Tequila, has demonstrated his firm resolve to help return the “big white steamer” to California by serving on the advisory board of the Raising the Catalina Association to save this historical landmark. The world-famous ship currently sits half submerged in Ensenada Bay, Mexico in danger of being demolished.
DeJoria, a first generation American turned entrepreneur, philanthropist and pillar of the business community noted for his humanitarian efforts, explains that his happiest childhood memories are of summer days spent playing on Catalina’s glistening sandy beaches.
“We were very poor,” he states, “but every summer my mother managed to take me and my brother to that magical island. We’d ride the trolley from Echo Park to the beach, take a bus to San Pedro and there boarded the S.S. Catalina. Like most kids, we loved running and playing on her decks and believed her to be the world’s largest and most magnificent ocean liner taking us on a great adventure. When I read that a nonprofit organization was formed to restore the S.S. Catalina, I knew I had to be part of the mission.”
“We are honored to have John Paul DeJoria’s participation,” enthuses Richard McPherson, retired Navy salvage expert and Chairman of the Raising the Catalina Association . “His personal history with our ship is the basis for his commitment, but his appreciation of history in general and California history in particular is the driving force.”
“Whether she can be made seaworthy is conjecture at this time,” DeJoria states, “but I would like to see her in service, making her runs between the island and the mainland. She carried over 20 million passengers from her inception in 1924 to being retired in 1975. That includes the 800,000 servicemen she transported from San Francisco to waiting troop ships during World War II. I’d like present and future generations to have the opportunity to experience her as I and thousands of kids like me did. However, if she can’t be made seaworthy, the S.S. Catalina has already been named a designated California Historical Landmark and a City of Los Angeles Historical Monument; and can serve well as a museum and educational center for our youth.”
For more information on saving the S.S. Catalina, click on www.savethecatalina.org.
Joyce Brubaker/Devon Blaine
The Blaine Group
8665 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 301
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
310 360 1499
Raising the Catalina Association
Message from David Engholm to the S.S. Catalina Preservationists and Supporters
January 29, 2006
Dear S.S. CATALINA preservationists/supporters:
On behalf of the S.S. CATALINA STEAMSHIP FUND (SSCFS) and myself we are retracting our endorsement of the RAISING THE CATALINA ASSOCIATION (RTCA) or affiliated associations/organizations.
I personally would like to thank all of the supporters who have contributed funds and time to this endeavor to SAVE THE S.S. CATALINA through the S.S. CATALINA STEAMSHIP FUND (SSCSF) via SAVE OUR HERITAGE ORGANISATION (SOHO), the S.S. CATALINA PRESERVATION ASSOCIATION (SSCPA), and the RAISING THE CATALINA ASSOCIATION (RTCA) from the years of 1998-2005. And special thanks to: Guadalupe Engholm, Vida Brickner, Marlene Koschalk, Sandra Putnam, Linda Hironimus, Ruth Singer, Vern Maynard, the late Captain Lloyd Fredgren, the late Hymie Singer, the late Jay Ware, the late Chief Engineers Ray Burnham & Charlie Beal, the late and colorful Charlie Stillwell who was one of the former owners, Doug Means, Jai Adviento, Gary Hanson, Michael Vanosdol, Phil Thorpe, Raul Arenas, Jason Ware, Phil Munsch, Milton Heyne, Gordon Teuber Jr., Shawn Dake and my late Uncle Joe Quinn.
I feel at this point the S.S. CATALINA CAN NOT BE SAVED taking in small monetary contributions from the S.S. CATALINA supporters/public.
We are not giving up efforts to save the S.S. CATALINA, but will be exploring many new avenues and are always open to ideas/input from the supporters/public to achieve this goal!!!
I would also like to add, that if there are any individuals or companies with the financial means and may wish to SAVE THE S.S. CATALINA on their own, that would be fantastic and is most definitely possible!!!
In closing, I again thank all S.S. CATALINA supporters so very much and hope & pray for success in our endeavor to SAVE THE S.S. CATALINA!!!
S.S. CATALINA STEAMSHIP FUND
For Further Information:
S.S. Catalina Steamship Fund
910 Elrod Avenue
Coos Bay, OR 97420
Thank you for all your help!
Since 2006 there has been no news on this effort.
During my recent visit to Ensenada there were 2 vessels apparantly tied up to Catalina, but what they are doing there is not apparant. At this point I assume they are scrapping it. I’ve heard rumors of floating it away from the harbor and creating an artificial reef with Catalina. A more fitting end, I think, than scrap. At least the fish will continue to call it home.