THE S.S. CATALINA
THE FIRST 75 YEARS OF A "GREAT WHITE STEAMER"
By Shawn J. Dake
Line drawing by Tom Nicolai
Santa Catalina Island has long been a popular destination for the people of Southern California seeking a quick getaway from the fast paced life in the city. But perhaps at no time in history was the island so vibrant as in the 1920's. A tourist mecca was created by one man, William Wrigley Jr., and to service it from the mainland of California he needed a fleet of ships. Financed by the fortunes of an empire built from chewing gum, he bought an island, bought 3 ships and built a 4th that would become one of the most remarkable vessels of our time!
The s.s. CATALINA was created in 1924, and for 51 years served passengers crossing the San Pedro Channel between Los Angeles Harbor and Avalon, California. During that time, she carried 25 million people, reportedly more than any other ocean-going ship in history. During World War II, as a troop transport in San Francisco Bay, she broke records by ferrying 820,199 men which was more than any other U.S. Army Transport. Incredible feats for a passenger ship of only 1,766 gross tons. Perhaps even more remarkable is that nearing the turn of the millennium, she is still in existence; an incredible opportunity for us to look back in time to another era, closer to the start of this century, than today.
The yards of the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Drydock Company were situated in the heart of Los Angeles Harbor. There, on December 26, 1923, William Wrigley Jr. himself, laid the keel of hull number 42. Within 5 months time the $1 million steamer would be launched and have a name. The Mayor of Los Angeles and 3,000 spectators assembled on May 3, 1924 as Miss Marcia A. Patrick christened the new steamship CATALINA. After just 8 more weeks of outfitting and building her wooden upper decks the ship was ready for her maiden voyage. Under the command of Captain A. A. Morris, with bands playing and steam whistles blowing, the ship left her homeport at berth 185 in Wilmington on June 30, 1924. Invited guests on that trip made up a who's who of dignitaries and politicians from around Southern California, who mingled with top officials of the Wilmington Transportation Company and Santa Catalina Island Company. Not among the guests on that first trip, Mr. and Mrs. Wrigley sent their regards and regrets by wireless to the ship: "Bon Voyage... Regret exceedingly that we could not be present with you and the guests on the trial trip. Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. delivered the boat in record time and right. Heartiest congratulations and best wishes for many happy trips to and from our beautiful Island." During the crossing, cabin boys served punch and passed out cigars and of course, Wrigley's chewing gum. One of her passengers on that trip described the CATALINA as "A million-dollar ferryship to fairyland" and that catch-phrase would be used effectively by several newspapers for quite some time. After a swift crossing of the channel at a speed of 15.5 knots, the ship tied up at the Steamer pier in Avalon, exactly two hours after her departure. A warm welcome greeted her as bands played, Boy Scouts stood at attention and bouquets of flowers were presented. The whole town was decorated for the occasion. Guests filed off the ship and went to a special luncheon at the elegant Hotel St. Catherine. All too soon, the steam whistle, tuned to the key of "B" sounded, and at 3:15 pm, the ship backed away from the pier to begin the return leg of her maiden voyage. The trip had been a resounding success.
With the CATALINA having joined the fleet, Wrigley's Wilmington Transportation Company consisted of 4 steamers. The HERMOSA of 1902 and the CABRILLO of 1904 had been built for the Banning Family who had previously owned the line. In 1919, Wrigley bought both the company and the island. He also bought the former Great Lakes passenger steamer VIRGINIA built in 1891 by Globe Ironworks of Cleveland, Ohio. The vessel had been requisitioned for war service and moved to the east coast, but the conflict was over before she could begin transporting troops. The 1,985 gross ton ship fit perfectly into Wrigley's plans to bring tourists to his island. The ship was purchased and brought around to Los Angeles through the Panama Canal. A major rebuilding during the winter of 1919-20 at Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Drydock Company transformed the ship into the s.s. AVALON. She was powered by 2 triple expansion reciprocating steam engines. A further refit in 1923 gave her 4 new Babcock & Wilcox watertube boilers. A similar type of propulsion system would be placed in the new CATALINA when she made her debut the following year. The fleet remained the same until 1928 when the HERMOSA was sold.
For the s.s. CATALINA and her running mates business could not have been better. In the late 1920's tourist traffic to the island was increasing at the rate of 20% annually. In July, August and September of 1929, the CABRILLO, AVALON and CATALINA carried a combined total of 500,000 passengers. The 3 ships offered a total of 5 sailings daily each way. Among the passengers were movie stars and famous athletes who laughed, danced and drank their way to the island "26 miles across the sea." The CATALINA even hosted 2 United States Presidents at different times. In those days, passengers dressed for the crossing. Gentlemen wore jackets and ties and the ladies dresses and coats, with some carrying umbrellas to protect them from the sun. The terminal was at Banning's Landing at the foot of Avalon Blvd. To get there, passengers would arrive by the Pacific Electric "Big Red Cars" or the more well to do, by private automobile. The crossings were always exciting times, giving many landlubbers their first taste of a real sea voyage. Along the way, passengers would frequently marvel at the sight of a pod of dolphins playing or flying fish skimming across the water. Magazines, souvenirs, snacks and drinks were served on board, while an orchestra played in the spacious ballroom. As the ship approached Avalon the famous wooden-hulled "Miss Catalina" speedboats would zip around the ship at high speeds or perhaps one of the dual wing Pacific Marine Airways flying boats would take off from the harbor. Passengers on every voyage were greeted by a contingent of local townspeople, and young boys would dive for coins tossed by passengers from the steamer. Those were truly the good old days.
The s.s. CATALINA boasted 5 decks of which 3 were given over to passenger use. The uppermost level was Bridge Deck with the pilot house and Captain's cabin forward, with open bridge wings on both sides. Two large ventilators rose from the deck just forward of the funnel positioned midships. Aft of this 6 more ventilators and 2 hatches allowed air and light to reach the engine room. For passengers, the top deck was the Promenade or "A" Deck. Most of this deck provided open air seating on hundreds of painted oak benches along both sides of the ship. Forward, a stairway descended to the bow. The owner's stateroom was also forward connected to private restroom facilities. Further aft were four small rooms including the radio room, 3 staterooms and public toilet facilities for both men and women. Two main staircases connected all three passenger decks. The middle deck was known as the Saloon or "B" Deck. Except for a small section aft, this deck was entirely glass enclosed which added much to the ship's classic good looks. A refreshment counter was located forward. More bench seating was provided for passengers who wished to stay indoors. Toward the aft end was the most popular feature on the ship, the ballroom. The room had a large wooden dance floor with a bandstand at the after end. Originally, the stern provided more outdoor bench seating, with shelter provided by the deck above. Many years later this area was rebuilt to include a lovely cocktail bar. The lowest passenger deck was called Main or "C" Deck. In the bow covered by the deck above, were machinery spaces for docking including steam powered anchor winches and capstans. Also forward was the baggage room with large shell doors in the hull on both sides. In the passenger area was the purser's office and mail room. Just aft of the entrance lobby were the stairs and a men's toilet. Along the sides of the ship narrow walkways passed the double layers of lifeboats. The midships area was given over to boiler and engine casings. From this deck passengers were able to get a peek into the workings of the engine room. The Chief Engineers cabin was on this deck next to the aft staircase. There were also facilities for engineers, and a Ladies room on this deck. Beyond, 10 small staterooms provided private accommodations for those wishing it in the early years. At the stern was a steering gear room and docking machinery. The bottom deck was given over to crew spaces forward and machinery spaces aft.
The s.s. CATALINA has a length of 301 feet 7" overall. Length between perpendiculars is 285 feet 2". The beam is 52 feet 1". Her normal draft is 16 feet 1". As previously mentioned, the gross tonnage is 1,766, with a net tonnage of 1,161. The s.s. CATALINA's main engines were built by the Hooven-Owens-Rentschler Co. of Hamilton, Ohio. The builder's plate reads "Main Engines 20 1/2" - 35" - 60" X 36" S.S. CATALINA - 1924 -," indicating the cylinder diameters with 36" stroke of her triple expansion engines. Each engine produced over 2,000 horsepower direct driving the propeller shafts at a normal speed of 110 rpm. Steam was produced by the 4 boilers placed in pairs midships both port and starboard. Steam pressure figures vary, but seem to have been about 210 pounds. The propulsion plant of the s.s. CATALINA is amazing just by itself, and represents one of the last surviving examples of early 20th Century marine engineering.
For most of the CATALINA's career she was a trouble free ship. But no ship is perfect, and one design flaw made itself known very early. Originally, the anchor hawse pipes were set very low to the water. As the ship sped across the channel, water would be scooped up past the anchors and into the forecastle. This problem was corrected by moving the anchors up to the Main Deck level. In the late 1920's there was talk of building a larger and even more expensive new ship capable of carrying 3,000 passengers. Two sets of plans were drawn up, but eventually the project was shelved due to the effects of the Great Depression. In 1932, William Wrigley Jr. died and the company was passed on to Philip K. Wrigley. Patronage on all of the Wilmington Transportation Company steamers took a sharp decline. To stimulate business, the company introduced the slogan "The price you won't remember - but the trip you can't forget." That proved to be especially true one foggy night in 1936 when the CATALINA rammed and sank the 76 foot yacht ARBUTUS in mid channel. In court testimony, the CATALINA was found guilty of travelling at excessive speed through fog, and that her whistle blasts were of insufficient length. The passengers from the yacht were awarded a total of $36,561.11.
The clouds of World War II affected even the peaceful crossings to Catalina Island. All 3 ships were drafted into military service. Only the AVALON remained in Southern California ferrying island residents and merchant marine recruits to the Maritime Training Service Center which had been set up on the island. For tourists, the island was closed. Both the CATALINA and CABRILLO steamed north to take up service in the San Francisco Bay area, with the later running upriver to Sacramento. The CATALINA was designated FS-99 and given to the U.S. Army as a troop transport. Part of her job included bringing soldiers across the bay to the big transports heading off to the war in the Pacific. She ended up carrying more men than any other vessel in the U.S. Army. Her wartime service lasted from August 25, 1942 until April 15, 1946, when she was returned to her owners. After a major refurbishment which included the reduction of her lifeboats to a single level, and the addition of a radar mast, the CATALINA was ready to resume regular voyages to Avalon on July 3, 1946.
In January of 1948, the Wilmington Transportation Company changed it's name to the Catalina Island Steamship Line. The CABRILLO was not returned to service and eventually was left to rot away on the banks of the Napa River in Northern California. The two big white steamers, continued to ply the waters of the channel in the late 1940's. But the old AVALON's days were numbered. At sixty years of age, she was retired in February, 1951. For nine long years she would languish, laid up in Wilmington before being sold for scrap. Early in 1960, the AVALON was purchased by an individual named E.J. Stotts. He began cutting the ship down himself in the outer harbor off Terminal Island. The upper decks were easy to remove but the steel hull proved rather daunting. On July 18th, whether by accident, or design, a fire broke out gutting the ship. Portions of the hull were converted into a barge and the last remanents of the famous AVALON ended up sinking off Point San Vicente, California during a storm. A brilliant career was over, and the CATALINA was left alone to make her daily crossings.
During the 1950's one roundtrip was made daily departing from Wilmington at 10:00 am and returning at 4:30 pm. The fare in 1956 was $2.96 each way plus .30 cents federal tax. The CATALINA had the largest passenger capacity certificate of any ocean-going, U.S.-flag ship including the new s.s. UNITED STATES. As maritime labor unions became more aggressive, the first of 6 strikes idled the vessel for a week in 1955.
With labor troubles increasing, the Wrigley family found they had little use for a steamship line, and sold the company to Charlie Stillwell, a local harbor cruise owner, who operated the CATALINA under the banner of his M. G. R. S. Company, Inc., beginning with the 1960 season. He was a colorful character, and made the ship more colorful also. The new color scheme changed the funnel to white, with four colored pennants featuring the companies initials. The top remained black. The sides of the Promenade Deck became turquois with a yellow railing, and a pink stripe was added below the Saloon Deck or "B" Deck. The classic ventilators also became pink. Structurally, the aft end of "B" Deck was enclosed and a bar added. Further changes would be made during the winter lay up of 1964-65 when both masts were removed. All of her lifeboats were taken off and replaced with inflatable life raft canisters. More seating was added along the Main Deck. Lloyd Fredgren became master of the s.s. CATALINA and would remain so for the rest of her active career.
The late 1960's were turbulent times both on land and sea. In a study in contrasts, Doris Day rode the steamer to film the movie "The Glass Bottom Boat" on Catalina during 1965. By 1966, police and Coast Guard had to be called to quell a student riot that had broken out on her decks. Labor disputes got so bad that the ship did not sail at all in 1968. Charlie Stillwell docked the s.s. CATALINA at a local scrapyard indicating that would be her fate if the unions would not be reasonable. Although the Coast Guard only required a crew of 46, the unions demanded staffing by 65 men. The company wanted the season reduced to just 3 months. Agreement was finally reached and in 1969 the ship sailed from June 15th to September 15th. Her terminal was moved to San Pedro under the Vincent Thomas Bridge. In Catalina, the old steamer pier was demolished and from 1969 on, the CATALINA was tied to a mole outside the east end of Avalon harbor and subject to wave action.
Charlie Stillwell also tired of labor disputes and in 1970 he sold the ship to Carolyn Stanalan and members of her family. Competition increased as did dockage fees and union trouble. In 1972, strikes again forced the cancellation of her entire season. The company was also not being very well run, and Captain Fredgren said he often had to order supplies himself to stock the ship. Crowley Maritime brought in their red and white ships to compete as Long Beach-Catalina Cruise Line, and took much business away with their faster, more frequent service. To compete, the CATALINA was given a modern running mate, the CARIB STAR. But before the 1975 season, she was mysteriously blown up at her dock, and the CATALINA was later sabotaged as well. Newspapers reported that the CATALINA had been sold to the oil-rich sheikdom of Kuwait, but nothing ever came of this deal. As it turned out, 1975 would be the last season the ship would operate. Repairs were completed in time the first trip on June 14th. The following week members of the Steamship Historical Society made a cruise organized by Lester Arrellanes enjoying what he called "the last honest to goodness steamship of her kind under United States registry." On September 14, 1975 the s.s. CATALINA completed her 9,807th crossing, and it would be her last. At 7:30 pm, she tied up to her San Pedro berth and Captain Fredgren rang down "Finished With Engines" for the final time. The sea-going career of the "Great White Steamer" was over.
The 24 years that have passed since that day have not been good to the old CATALINA. Twice she was seized and arrested by U.S. Marshals. At auction on February 16, 1977, she was purchased for $70,000 by Hymie Singer, a Beverly Hills real estate developer, who said the ship was a Valentine's Day gift for his wife Ruth. She would remain the owner until 1996 when she gave up her claims to it. A series of disastrous leases, most notably with an individual named Gene Webber, caused the CATALINA to lead a nomadic after-life. Ejected from Los Angeles harbor for non-payment of dockage fees, the CATALINA journeyed to a boat show in Newport Beach, then to San Diego. To avoid further docking expenses she was towed to Santa Monica Bay and anchored beyond the 3 mile limit. Soon she was declared a hazard to navigation, and was towed to Long Beach harbor where she would sit for 5 years in various locations, looking forlorn and unwanted. There was a glimmer of hope that she would be returned to service in 1983, but after $1.5 million was spent, those plans sank in a sea of mismanagement and red tape. After an extensive drydock renovation that led to nothing, the CATALINA was returned to lay up. But she seemed to have a mind of her own and twice in a 2 month period broke free of her moorings and took unmanned cruises around the harbor. The second time she very nearly hit a loaded oil tanker and the Coast Guard prepared to levy fines as the Justice Department prepared to seize the ship.
Before papers could be served, Gene Webber had the CATALINA hooked to a tugboat and on March 3, 1985 she left American waters for the last time. Her destination was an anchorage 3 miles off Ensenada, Mexico. After a few months there, she was seized at gunpoint by Mexican Marines on behalf of the Port Captain. Hymie Singer was furious that his ship had been stolen, not once but twice, and appealed to the Mexican government and sued Webber.
With lawsuits flying every direction, the complicated saga looked hopeless. But a bright spot briefly appeared after the ship was allowed into Ensenada harbor. The Singer's, still hoping to make something of the ship, entered into partnership with Alejandro Marcin. In November of 1987, the CATALINA was once again drydocked and given extensive hull work. On board improvements continued throughout the spring of 1988, and on June 25th the ship was ready to reopen as the CATALINA Bar and Grill Restaurant. She spent a glorious summer successfully operating and in excellent condition. Then one night in September, Marcin absconded with the deposits of the shopkeepers on board, along with nearly $200,000 in refurbishment costs he had channeled back into his own accounts. The Singer's tried to keep the operation going but by December it was closed. For the next 7 years Hymie Singer would continue to lavish money on the ship he loved, keeping her in great condition and always hoping to reopen the restaurant. His greatest regret was that the port of Los Angeles had never wanted her as an attraction. During her time in Mexico it's estimated that he spent $2 million on the ship. Hymie Singer died in July, 1998 at age 87.
After 21 years of trouble with the ship, Ruth Singer no longer had interest in maintaining it, and ownership of the vessel reverted to 7 Mexican laborers who had claims for severance pay.
Just before Christmas, 1997, water began seeping in through the propeller shaft packings. The ship began to sink slowly by the stern. David Engholm had worked on the ship for the Singers' and had sailed aboard the ship since he was a year old. He quickly founded the S.S. CATALINA Steamship Fund, Inc. to try and save the ship. The present situation finds the the "Great White Steamer" partially submerged in Ensenada. Her 1" thick hull is in excellent condition; her decks and superstructure sound. The Mexican Navy, her present owner, will donate the ship for preservation. As one of the oldest and most historic steamships ever built, she deserves to be afloat and preserved for her 75th birthday. As soon as funds are available, plans are to raise, restore and return the s.s. CATALINA to Southern California. You can help make it happen this year! Once again we'll be able to say BonVoyage, s.s. CATALINA!