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Sunday, October 10, 1999
Home Edition
Section: PART A
Page: A-2

Once-Proud SS Catalina, Now Rusty and Listing, Awaits Rescue Effort

By: STEVE SPRINGER
TIMES STAFF WRITER


My earliest memory is of being on that boat.

I was just short of my fourth birthday when my father lifted me over the railing so I could look down at the deep blue water and watch all the other boats as we glided into Avalon Bay.

There were generations of us who made that 26-mile voyage from Wilmington to Avalon in the most glorious style from 1924 to 1975 on the SS Catalina, the Great White Steamship, a boat that carried about 25 million passengers over that period. According to the Steamship Historical Society of America, that's more than have been carried by any other vessel anywhere.

One of the most recognizable sights in Southern California for those 51 years, the SS Catalina was more than just a 301-foot ferry. To a boy it was like a journey halfway around the world to some exotic port.

The bottom deck was cut out to make space for its lifeboats, which allowed adventurous kids room to roam and explore and fantasize about cutthroat pirates and man-eating sharks, and supplied romantic adolescents places to pair up and be alone. There was a clown on board to entertain the youngsters among the 2,000 passengers. Those who wanted more adult entertainment found it one deck above in the bar and on the dance floor where top-quality music was supplied by the big bands of that period. Those bands were on their way over to perform at the Casino, the large circular building out on the point at the entrance to Avalon, Catalina Island's only town.

Shortly before noon, as the boat approached the end of its trip, speedboats from the island would slowly circle the ship like an honor guard. The steamship's smokestack would answer the speedboats with a loud blast that would echo off the mountains, startling the roaming herds of buffalo, alerting the small craft in the area, mobilizing the locals on shore and inspiring the young divers on the rocks. As a youngster, I chose to believe I was arriving in the South Seas, a million miles from school and mundane West L.A. For me, my annual summer ticket on the Great White Steamship was better than an E-ticket ride at Disneyland.

*

It is another summer day. The SS Catalina sways in different waters. No longer great. Barely white. A functioning steamship no more.

She is struggling these days to stay afloat in 20 feet of muddy water in the harbor of Ensenada, a boat half sunk, rusting and stripped of everything from her seats to her dignity.

The last quarter century has been cruel to this once-renowned vessel despite her many accomplishments and honors. In her record passenger total, the SS Catalina transported 820,199 troops between staging areas and ships in the Bay Area during World War II, setting a wartime record for military passengers. She is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, has been designated a California Historical Landmark and is also a registered Historical Cultural Monument for the city of Los Angeles.

Yet nobody wants her.

Retired after the summer of 1975 because of the increased cost of operation and growing competition from smaller, faster boats, the SS Catalina was purchased for $70,000 in 1977 by Hymie Singer, a real estate developer, as a belated Valentine's Day gift for his wife. Singer soon discovered, however, that there was little love and concern for a steamship without a port, no matter how historic.

The SS Catalina moved from home to home like an unwanted child as Singer failed to keep up with the mushrooming dockage fees. The boat was in Newport Beach, San Diego, Santa Monica Bay and off the coast of Long Beach. Twice she broke free of her moorings in Long Beach and once nearly hit a tanker; it was as if the ship was rebelling against her fate, having gone from being a source of pride to an embarrassment to a naval hazard.

Finally, she was taken down to Mexico in 1985, and, in 1988, became the Catalina Bar and Grill Restaurant. But a business dispute soon ended that venture. By the time Singer died last year at 87, he had put $2 million into trying to keep the boat afloat.

By December of 1997, the SS Catalina had caved in from the constant neglect and the sporadic looting by the human vultures who periodically ventured out into the harbor of Ensenada to get their piece of tarnished history.

Today she lists ever more precariously at a 15-degree angle, the ocean water having already claimed the port side of her lower decks. The benches on her top deck, where passengers once sat in eager anticipation of their arrival on the magic isle, have all been stolen or destroyed. Rust and barnacles are everywhere. And now the Mexican government, in the midst of constructing a new port for the fleet of cruise ships making their way in and out of Ensenada's harbor, needs to clear the SS Catalina out of the way to finish the project.

But there is still hope for this ship that will not die.

*

A collection of groups including the Save Our Heritage Organization, the Steamship Historical Society of America, the Titanic Historical Society, the Catalina Island Museum, the Governor's Office of California-Mexican Affairs and the Mexican Ministry of Tourism have banded together in an international effort to try and save the SS Catalina.

Of the $40,000 needed to raise the ship and put her in dry dock, nearly $20,000 has already been collected.

If the executioner's blowtorch is avoided and the boat is put back on an even keel, she will undergo months of renovation, at additional cost, in dry dock, and then perhaps find a safe harbor back in California as a floating museum, an enduring reminder of a past she shares with millions.

"The theory now is, if it's old, mow it down," said maritime artist Ken Marschall, one of the world's leading authorities on the Titanic, who has just finished a painting of the SS Catalina to help with the fund-raising. "That sickens me in the gut. We are not going to accept that attitude. There is not going to be another boat like this."

*

For information on the renovation effort, call (619) 297-9327. Contributions can be mailed to SOHO, P.O. Box 3429, San Diego, 92163.




Descriptors: SS CATALINA (SHIP); RESTORATIONS;

 

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