There was nothing about the SS Catalina that would make people unduly angry. She was a happy ship, plying the 26 miles of water between her mainland berth in Wilmington and the Steamer Pier in Avalon on Catalina Island off the Southern California coast, taking about two hours to make the journey—exactly the job she was built for.
The SS Catalina was ordered by William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate who owned Catalina Island, in 1923 and she was completed the following year at a cost of $1 million (about $12 million in 2007 dollars). She joined a fleet owned by Mr. Wrigley, including a very close running mate called the Avalon.
And the Catalina, known as the Great White Steamer, outlasted them all, serving the island community for 50 years, carrying some 25 million people across the channel.
In between she was requisitioned for service in San Francisco Bay during World War II to ferry troops around various military locations. During this service she carried more than 800,000 personnel, more than any of the Army’s other troop transport ferries. It was good service for her because she wasn’t needed on her usual home run; Catalina Island was closed to civilians during the duration of the war, used for training and as a sentinel location against the very real threat of a Japanese attack.
Back in service after the war, however, she continued to be a bright presence on the Shangri La island. Her daily arrival was met with circling Catalina speedboats hauling water skiers. Children would dive next to ship as it approached the dock to retrieve coins passengers tossed in the water.
By 1975, however, a fleet of faster and smaller cross-channel ferries had cut the voyage just about in half and visitors were not as attracted to the old 1,766 GRT vessel.
For a couple of years it was sold among various people with plans for her reuse. In 1977, a man named Hymie Singer bought the ship as a gift for his wife at an auction for $70,000. It was to replace their 32-foot cabin cruiser which had recently sunk.
First he announced plans to have the ship moored off the Venice Pier, to serve as a floating restaurant and event venue. Those plans didn’t work out for some reason, however.
Increasing dock fees forced Mr. Singer to move the ship to a variety of locations along the Southern California coast. In 1983 he had planned to revitalize the SS Catalina and return her to serving the island, but that effort failed.
Moored near Long Beach, she twice broke loose, once running aground and another time coming perilously close to an Exxon tanker. The Coast Guard saw it as a menace and announced plans to seize it. So she was towed to Mexican waters, where officials there did seize her.
But the story, as with most relating to old ships, is not quite as simple as a man having trouble finding the right spot for the vessel he owned. Indeed, this was a period of intense litigation between Mr. Singer and Gene Webber, a real estate agent from Orange County, who leased the ship from Mr. Singer. It was Webber who had the ship towed to Mexico.
Later she was towed to Ensenada Harbor with plans to convert her into a floating tourist attraction. It was planned to accommodate some 4,000 people for dining, dancing, and special events, far more than her capacity as a sailing steamship. By 1988, those plans were looking up, with refurbishment of the ship progressing. In fact, it is reported that more than $1 million was put into a complex array of work, the money coming through an equally complex financing structure that involved a Canadian company owned by Mr. Singer.
Teams went top to bottom on the ship and discovered many rare vintage items, including photographs and original life vests. All of the benches were stripped of many coats of paint to their bare wood and refinished and paint was stripped off bright work and the metal polished.
But in the end, despite all the effort, things didn’t work out. Her propellers were removed by government order because active registration wasn’t allowed for any ship that couldn’t move under its own power.
The propellers sat on a dock adjacent to the ship and some say that was the real beginning of her decline.
Over the years, water seeped into openings around her hull. And, like the SS Princess Louise, she was apparently the victim of looters, who took many of her fittings, without regard for the effect on her structure or stability.
Tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers calling in Ensenada have seen the hulk of the old steamer, sinking lower and lower into the muck.
Well-intentioned individuals and organizations sought to raise the funds to pull her out of that muck—either refloating her or just getting her onto a barge—to make a trip back up north to a shipyard to be refurbished and, if not brought into service, at least preserved as an icon of Southern California maritime history and an example of fine steamship building.
Those plans, like others before them, however, became mere good intentions once the Mexican government finally made good on its orders that the ship be gone from the harbor. (Variously this order has been to make way for an expanded pleasure craft harbor and also to accommodate the generally increasing boat traffic into the coastal Baja city.)
It’s all gone now. Parts have been saved by David Engholm, who preserves them in his home in Coos Bay, OR. Much has been lost and is probably making its way back to Southern California in the form of razor blades and automobile fenders.
And, by the way, if you ever want to see Mr. Engholm’s collection of SS Catalina artifacts, he says to just give him a call. He’ll be glad to show them. And he’s in the Coos Bay phone book.