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The Catalina rests on the bottom, stuck in shallow water inside the harbor of Ensenada.

 

Old ship Catalina starts long journey back to splendor

Mexico deeds vessel to restoration group

By Anna Cearley
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

June 29, 2000

TIJUANA -- A historically significant U.S. ship that ferried tourists to and from Catalina Island will soon be rescued from the harbor of Ensenada, where it's stuck in the mud.

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo signed a decree earlier this month deeding the abandoned ship to the SS Catalina Preservation Association, a binational organization that wants to restore the ship to its former glory. The group expects to start work next month on the project, which could eventually cost as much as $20 million.

"The Great White Steamer," which ran from 1924 to 1975, was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It is also a California State Historical Landmark and a City of Los Angeles Historical Cultural Monument.

"It's been a long haul, and I've had a lot of people come and tell me that fighting for it was an impossible dream," said David Engholm, who is on the organization's board of directors. "But you don't give up on something that's been a life thing for me."

Engholm was one of the 25 million people who sailed on the ship. When he was a child, he pestered his grandmother to take him to see it, and he made audiotapes of its whistles. When he grew up, he got married on the ship.

The Catalina was built by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley at a cost of $1 million. The luxurious vessel ferried passengers between San Pedro and Catalina Island. During World War II, it was also used to transport 820,199 troops.

The ship's downfall began after its 1977 sale to U.S. investors. It ended up in Ensenada, and started settling to the shallow bottom in 1997. The Mexican government claimed the ship after it was abandoned by its owners, and the once-gracious vessel appeared to be destined for the scrap heap.

Three years ago, Engholm and other U.S. preservationists banded together with Baja California groups, including the Centro Cultural Tijuana and the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, to petition the Mexican government for ownership rights.

"This will be a chance for us to learn and share with each other," said Mar�a Castillo Curry, a researcher at the Colegio.

To claim the ship, the preservation group presented its plan to a Mexican Navy vice admiral in January. The information was forwarded to the president's office in Mexico City for a final decision.

Then they waited.

"It's a rusty old boat in Ensenada and it's not a high priority for them," said Ron Holder, another preservation association board member.

With the approvals now in order, the group will hire mostly local people to hoist the ship to an upright position and bring it to a dry dock at a cost of about $50,000. Then the cosmetic restoration will begin. The group is considering proposals to bring the ship to Los Angeles or San Francisco after restoration, but the cost of a move may keep the vessel in Ensenada until more money could be found. No one knows exactly how much it will take to get the ship in running condition, with estimates running from $3 million to $20 million.

 



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