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Community News

Once Proud Ship Now A Memory

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 21

by Laurie Kemp

Flags were flying along the Wilmington shoreline on that sunny June day.

VIP guests were turned out in their summer best - boaters and blazers for the men, summer dresses and cloche hats for the ladies. They greeted each other with smiles … a great day out was anticipated.

But there was one lady who was the smartest of all, the one that drew all eyes. The object of their admiration was a graceful one-funnelled ship, with sleek lines and gleaming paint-work - the steamship Catalina.

Below the pristine decks was the new triple expansion reciprocating steam engine that could drive her along at 16 knots.

It was June 30, 1924, and the vessel, built in nearby San Pedro for William Wrigley Jr., founder of the famous chewing gum company, was about to make its 22-mile maiden voyage to Catalina Island, owned by the Wrigley family.

As the years passed the scene changed. Now a workday ship, she ferried visitors by the hundreds to Avalon, Catalina’s quaint old-world harbor.

Known affectionately as the Great White Steamer, the Catalina sailed from Wilmington for 50 years before, in the 1960s, moving her departure point to San Pedro, the port where, in 1975, she was decommissioned.

She had also done her bit in World War II, during which she became a military transport in San Francisco Bay. She carried over 820,000 troops, more than any other army transport during the war. When peace returned it was back to the Catalina run.

Over the 51 years she ferried over 25 million passengers to the island.

Again the years rolled by. In 1977, Mr. Hymie Singer bought the Catalina as a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife Ruth. It was hoped that the old ship could be used for business ven-tures. Success was not to be theirs and she ended up in Ensanada, the Mexican port in the Baja. Stripped of her dignity, she was now an object of curiosity for the passengers of cruise ships calling in.

In December 1997 high winds partially swamped her, flooding several cabins. Since February 1998 she’s been lying on her side in the mud.

The flags and cheering crowds are ghosts from the past. The once gracious lady has become the bag-lady of the Pacific Ocean.

The port captain of Ensanada wants her out of the way, but so far there’s been very little action. Eight local residents took out a legal claim on her in a Mexican court seeking payment for the ship before releasing her to anyone.

But there have been attempts to save the lady. On May 5, 1998, San Pedro councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr. introduced an emergency motion to Los Angeles City Council seeking to instruct the LA Harbor Department to begin proceedings to rescue the historic ship and have it towed back to the city’s port.

The councilman said he would like to see it refurbished and turned into a floating museum, moored off the Banning Landing community center in Wilmington, the port from, so many years ago, she first proudly sailed.

He then had his supporters that included assemblywoman Betty Karnette assemblyman Ralph Dills, and Long Beach and Wilmington assembly man Steven Kuykendale.

In July 1998 a fund-raising exhibition of paintings was held on the Berkley Ferry in San Diego was in aid of the Catalina.

There has been little action since. Sadly part of Wilmington and San Pedro’s maritime history is in danger of being lost.

Editor’s Note: Writer Laurie Kemp, formerly of Long Beach and now residing in London, came across the above story from 1999 in his files and offered it to the Beachcomber. In January 2009 the Los Angeles Times reported that the ship was being dismantled and sold for scrap.