Monday, June 26, 2000 Torrance, CA


Local News


By Grace Lee

The year was 1946 and Bill Schwab had recently returned to Wilmington after serving in the Merchant Marine.

He was 21, with a wife and new baby. The civilian life he resumed was filled with more than just the comforts of home and family, but a touch of glamour as well.

As a deck engineer on the SS Catalina, which transported passengers between the mainland and Catalina Island, he heard the swing music of the eight-piece band on board, and danced with his wife on the white teak floors of the ship's ballroom. He glimpsed the likes of Harry James enjoying a glass of Scotch.

When he reached the island, he heard the big band music of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, who often performed at the casino.

For Schwab, the SS Catalina was more than a backdrop for his memories it was a part of his past. So when he discovered that the “Great White Steamer” had been abandoned in Ensenada, Mexico, partially submerged in 15 feet of water, he joined the SS Catalina Conservation Association last year in an effort to help rescue it.

SHIP/A10 Ship likelihood of rescuing the 307-foot ship appeared slim, especially because the Mexican government hadn't given the conservation association permission to handle the steamship. Originally built in 1924 for William Wrigley, the chewing gum tycoon who owned most of Catalina Island, the ship has passed through a series of owners before being taken to Ensenada 17 years ago, where it eventually was abandoned.

The association tried to persuade the Mexican government to grant it access to the ship even as a construction crew used the SS Catalina as a barge, ripping open the side of the ship.

Three years after the ship started to sink, the Mexican government granted the conservation group access to it last week, giving it 90 days to refloat it.

While the group has raised $40,000 to lift the ship out of the water and place it in dry dock, it has yet do determine whether it can be be salvaged or where a home for it can be found.

But Ron Holder, president of the conservation group, is hopeful.

“We were told it was impossible to do what we've done so far,” Holder said. “Now we have some credibility.”

The rescue effort was initiated by David Engholm, who learned that the ship was sinking three years ago, when he received a phone call from his sister.

Like Schwab, Engholm used to listen to the bands on the SS Catalina, but his most dis tinct memory is the sound of the whistle as he played hide-and-seek on the ship.

“I used to go and sit with a bench full of people” as a hiding place, he said.

“When I saw it sinking, I knew something had to be done,” Engholm continued. “The ship has been a lifetime thing for me. I fell in love on it. I got married on it.”

In recent years, a historical society funded a trip to the SS Catalina, which was how Ken Marshall, a maritime artist, learned about the ship's condition.

The SS Catalina was Marshall's “first experience with a large steamship of any kind,” he said, and the reason he has been a maritime artist for 30 years.

“I had no idea it was abandoned,” Marshall said. “I was absolutely horrified to see the condition it was in.”

Marshall raised money for the SS Catalina by selling lithographs of the ship, and the money raised will cover the costs of getting the ship to dry dock.

However, more than personal memories have inspired the group's commitment, said Phil Dockery, who said the main reason he's given time to the ship's rescue is because of the ship's role in history.

The SS Catalina carried more than 2million passengers from its first voyage in 1924 until its retirement in 1975. During World War II, the 1-inch-thick steel ship ferried more than 800,000 passengers around San Francisco Bay.

“How many thousands of people have met their husbands and wives on the Catalina?” Schwab asked.

Publish Date:Sunday June 25