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SS Catalina is seaworthy no more

The once-proud steamship, which ferried millions of passengers to the island town of Avalon, is being cut for scrap after sitting for years in Ensenada harbor.

January 06, 2009|Bob Pool

In the end, the Great White Steamer was a great white elephant.

The island town of Avalon didn't want the SS Catalina, which for 50 glorious years ferried about 25 million people to its shores. Neither did the Port of Los Angeles, or harbors in San Diego, Vancouver and Honolulu. And, finally, neither did the Port of Ensenada.

That's why Mexican demolition workers are putting an end to a three-decade campaign to preserve the once-proud steamship by cutting the 302-foot vessel apart for scrap.

"It's just horrible, they're demolishing her as we speak," said David Engholm, who was a fan of the Catalina as a boy, met his wife because of the ship and finally was married on its deck nearly 20 years ago.

"We tried so hard to save her," he said. "Half of her funnel was still on the ship last month, but now it's gone. It's very sad."

Built at a cost of $1 million by onetime Catalina Island owner and chewing gum mogul William Wrigley, the SS Catalina plied the ocean between Wilmington and Avalon daily between 1924 and 1975.

Along with a 26-mile ocean voyage, a $2.25 round-trip ticket offered 2,200 passengers big-band orchestra music for dancing, children's entertainment by clowns and magicians, and adult amenities such as a leather settees and drinks from a shipboard bar.

Smaller, faster ferries connecting the mainland and the island eventually spelled doom for the huge steamship, known for its crisp white paint job and deep, melodious horn that announced its departure.

Its arrival in Avalon would be heralded by circling speedboats. Children would dive into the water for coins tossed over the rail by passengers as island townspeople sang to passengers walking down the 25-foot gangplanks.

"They were probably poor kids trying to make a buck," former passenger Dorothy Weil of Bel-Air recalled Monday. Although she was too young to drink at the ship's bar, there was dancing to its orchestra -- an unforgettable experience for a teenager in the 1940s.

During World War II, the 1,766-ton vessel with its twin 2,000-horsepower engines and football-field-size steel decks was used as a military transport. It carried 820,199 troops around San Francisco Bay before being returned to Los Angeles.

As it continued its island runs, the ocean cruise-like ship was designated a Los Angeles historical cultural landmark and a state historical landmark and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But after its retirement following its 9,807th Catalina Channel crossing, the ship passed through several hands and sat unused for two years before a Beverly Hills developer purchased it as a Valentine's Day gift for his wife at an auction. Hymie Singer's $70,000, spur-of the-moment purchase came after the couple's 32-foot cabin cruiser sank.

Ballooning dockage fees forced Singer to move the Catalina from the San Pedro area to Newport Beach, San Diego, Santa Monica Bay and Long Beach.

A 1983 plan to rehabilitate the ship and return it to island service failed. The unmanned ship twice broke loose from its moorings off Long Beach. On the first unauthorized jaunt, it ran aground. On the second, in 1985, it nearly collided with the tanker Exxon Washington before taken into tow by a tugboat that just happened to be in the area.

When the Coast Guard announced plans to seize the ship, its owner had it towed to Mexican waters, where it was promptly confiscated.

It was later towed into the Ensenada harbor, where developers announced plans to convert the Catalina into a floating tourist attraction with shops, a restaurant and a disco after authorities released it.

That plan foundered and the ship fell into further disrepair. After its solid bronze propellers were removed as part of a governmental requirement that stripped active registration from vessels unable to move under their own power, the Catalina began to sink.

Many of those who have watched the steamship's sad decline and rusty descent into the mud of Ensenada's harbor suggest that it sank because of water that leaked in through seals used to plug the propeller openings. Others blame damage by thieves who have looted other equipment from the ship's engine room.

Engholm is a 44-year-old property manager who lives in Coos Bay, Ore. He met his wife-to-be while visiting Ensenada to see his favorite steamship's renovation into a tourist attraction. They married aboard the moored vessel in 1989.

The Engholms have salvaged some of the Catalina's original lighting fixtures, benches and cushioned seats for their home -- as well as one of its 2 1/2 -ton gangplanks. They also have a huge collection of photos and other memorabilia from its ferry days.

Among David's prizes is an audiotape of the ship sounding its horn and the orchestra playing "Avalon" as it pulled out of Catalina's harbor. Engholm taped it on a small cassette recorder in 1973.

"I tried to save the pilot house. But the demolition company didn't get the word in time and tore it off the ship," Engholm said.

"I'm happy to show people the collection. If you're in Coos Bay, just give me a call. I'm listed."

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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