Half the Town Would Run toward the Pier
by Bill Manson

The SS Catalina is about to move again. This time she's being hauled south from Ensenada to Puerto Vallarta, to be turned into a party gambling ship. And J.C. Wilkinson wants to know why she isn’t being rescued. "She ought to be up here," Wilkinson says. "She’s part of our history." In the ‘40s, Wilkinson worked in her engine room for hundreds of voyages between L.A. and Catalina. The SS Catalina has been a famous California icon since the 1920’s, when Chicago’s Wrigley chewing gum family had her built in San Pedro in early 1924 to become Catalina island’s link with Los Angeles. They owned Santa Catalina, and they needed a large passenger steamer to keep the holiday island stocked with tourists. Catalina, 310 feet long and known as the "Great White Steamer," did the job for half a century. Daily since 1924, she transported up to 2000 tourists back and forth.

I drove down to Ensenada to take one last look.  She wasn't hard to find.   Not with that funnel, the one still emblazoned with "C" for Catalina.   She lay in the bay at the end of a tongue of dirt landfill.  One of her eight-foot bronze props stood guard by the locked gate.  The gangplank had been secured, leaving a gap too wide to cross.  The SS Catalina was empty, rusting, bereft of human company except for three drunks sipping brandy on the rocks beside her.   California's many Catalina fans breathed a sigh of relief nine years ago when her owners promised a brilliant retirement for the old girl as a restaurant and party ship anchored in Ensenada.

"The Catalina is scheduled to open March 25 as a floating tourist attraction in Ensenada, Mexico," wrote The Waterfront, an Irvine-based magazine, in January 1988, "complete with a 110-seat restaurant, a sushi bar, a disco, two bars, nine boutiques, and a museum."  Hopes for the "Great White Steamer" were high.

As soon as I saw her I knew it hadn't worked.  Despite what the ship's general manager in Ensenada said was "around $500,000" worth of renovations, she lost money.  The crowds disappeared.  The Catalina didn't take off as a central attraction for Ensenada's waterfront tourist district.  Now the authorities want her out of the way so they can build a proper terminal for cruise ships.  So an old steamer's on her last legs.  Does anybody care?  It turns out quite a few people do.  Ted Robertson, a doctor now, recalls Catalina as a part of every summer of his childhood.  "I remember as a five-year-old kid in 1941, getting lost among the crowds cramming aboard.  I remember the flying fish, hearing the bands, racing up and down the decks, tossing nickels to the local kids who swam out to the ship and dove for coins."

He remembers the thrill of going ashore, but always keeping an ear out for that ghostly steam whistle at four o'clock.

"We'd hear that horn - everybody on the island did," says Ted, "and half the town would start running toward the pier.  If you missed the day-trip return, you were stuck there."

J.C. Wilkinson of San Marcos spent 1946 down in Catalina's engine room, oiling the engines.  "I was a youth at that time," he says.  "This job was a good shot to meet young ladies.  They had an observation port that the passengers could look down through at the engine.  We oilers would wear blue bandannas, and the firemen wore padded black caps.  We hoped we cut romantic figures.  We'd stand there in the watertight door to cool off, and they'd wander by, and we would tell them just how salty we were."

To make it as an engine-room oiler of Catalina's reciprocating steam engines, says Wilkinson, you had to learn to dance.  "You had an oilcan in your hand, the old type with the diaphragm bottom.  You would dance a few times right there beside the engine, moving in and out with the engine's movements before you risked your arm in there, squirting the oil between the webs on the crankshaft and the connecting rod.  And if you didn't do that right, you were history."

Now those crankshafts are still.  "How come you guys don't save her?"   I ask Joseph Ditler of the San Diego Maritime Museum when I get back.   "Don't you realize what a piece of California history she is?"

A silence on the phone.  "I'll meet you," says Ditler, "on the Silver Strand.  By the Navy Seals' training compound, 3:33 p.m., exactly."

The time and the place are important, it turns out; 3:33 is low tide.  The winter storms have gouged out a lot of the sand.  The beach is down maybe ten feet from its summer level.  Ditler stands on two rusting bollards poking out of the shallows.   "Know what this is?" he asks.  "It's the Monte Carlo.   Same length, three years older than the Catalina.  One of the first ships on the coast made of concrete.  She was a gambling ship when she was wrecked here in 1936.  She used to anchor out there just beyond the three-mile limit.  And see down here?"

He points to a hatchway that leads into a deep green pool of water.  "Down there is treasure.  Maybe $150,000 worth of silver dollars still stuck in the slot machines, and acres of whisky besides.  People have argued we should rescue this ship for history.  We've been offered so many ships, you wouldn't believe it.  A submarine [The USS Blueback], an aircraft carrier [the USS Cabot], a battleship [the USS Wisconsin], the tugboat Hoga, which is the last surviving vessel from the Pearl Harbor attack, the Pelican, a replica 17th-century warship, a replica of Lord Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory - the reduced model they used in the movie That Hamilton Woman - historic Chinese junks, Red Sea dhows.... And we want to build a replica of Cabrillo's ship, the San Salvador, the first European ship to enter San Diego Bay.  The point is, we haven't got the money to do it all.  And once you get a ship, you have to look after it for life, in the water.  We already have the Star and two other ships to look after."

Twenty-five years ago, in 1972, the San Diego Maritime Museum nearly chose the SS Catalina to be their museum ship.  Her future looked assured, right on San Diego's Embarcadero.  But the museum opted for the old San Francisco ferry Berkeley instead.   She was fatter, wider, allowed more display space.  After officially retiring in 1975, the SS Catalina was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.   But being on the register didn't help.  The problem, as with all retired ships, was where to put her.  After just one year, she was confiscated when her owners couldn't pay $60,000 in dock fees to the Port of Los Angeles.

That's when a Beverly Hills based Canadian businessman, Hymie Singer, bought her for $70,000 on impulse as a Valentine's gift for his wife Ruth, after their 32-foot cabin cruiser sank.  But Ruth couldn't handle the Great White gift.  Catalina ended up unwanted in San Diego.

Schemes were proposed and fell flat, including fitting her up as a gambling ship to run between San Diego and Ensenada.  Egyptian businessmen were approached to use the Catalina to ferry tourists up the Nile, until they found her 21 feet of draft too deep for the river.  By 1985 the Coast Guard told the owners to get their ship out of U.S. waters or face having it seized and sunk.  About then she suddenly turned up off Ensenada and was subsequently seized as an abandoned vessel by the Mexican Coast Guard.   In September 1986, the Ensenada tourism department decided to give her a berth and transform her into a tourist attraction, their own mini Queen Mary.  But she has proved as much a money drain to Ensenada as the great Queen has to Long Beach.  I take one last look at her tall, raked funnel and those rusting sides that had once sparkled white and wish her luck in Puerto Vallarta.  That 1957 song floats into my mind:  "Twenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is awaitin' for me...."