Saga of the Catalina : Proud Old Ship Flees to Mexico, May Not Return

Times Staff Writer

A proud old American has taken refuge in Mexico, perhaps never to return.

She's the 310-foot steamship Catalina, the Great White Steamer, which plied the Catalina Channel over a period of more than 50 years, hauling millions of Americans--Presidents, movie stars, baseball heroes and ordinary folk--between San Pedro and Avalon.

She also carried soldiers--800,000 of them--more than any other Army transport ship during World War II, according to her current owner, Gene Webber, a San Pedro real estate agent.

But it's been a long time since her glory days. And today she sits, a rusting, begrimed hulk, squatting dead in the water in a bay near Ensenada.

Webber says he had her hauled there to avoid seizure by the U.S. government.

'Made It Impossible'

"They made it impossible to keep the ship in the United States," Webber said. "I don't think the vessel will ever return."

Twice in recent months--once in December and again in January--the 1,766-ton ship broke loose from her moorings off San Pedro and began to wander about Los Angeles Harbor.

The first time, she ended up stranded on the Navy breakwater and had to be towed to the Long Beach Naval Station for the night. The second time, she drifted dangerously close to a tanker before a passing tug intercepted her and nudged her over to the Coast Guard base at Terminal Island.

A few weeks later, the Coast Guard asked Justice Department officials in San Francisco to file a lawsuit that could force sale of the aging steamship for non-payment of towing and mooring charges.

Threatened to Seize Ship

"They told us that if the ship was still in U.S. waters last Monday, they would seize the ship," Webber said. "They told us that if they seized it--with all the wood and asbestos aboard--it probably would not be possible to scrap it. So they would have to take it out and scuttle it."

Webber, who has dedicated a good deal of time and, by his reckoning, about $1.5 million to keep the old girl afloat, decided to give it one more try.

He had the ship hauled to the bay near Ensenada, where another $100,000 will be spent to make her seaworthy.

He's had plans for several years to return her to service on the tourist route between the mainland and Santa Catalina Island. But like so many other plans for the Great White Steamer, they have thus far failed to work out.

It all began well enough back in 1924 when the sparkling white vessel with twin 4,000-horsepower engines and steel decks as long as a football field was launched in San Pedro for the Wrigleys, the chewing gum family that owned the island, the buffalo that roamed it and, for further diversion, the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

For years, the steamship prospered, often filled on summer weekends to her maximum capacity of 2,200 passengers. But after World War II, the ship, not yet old enough to be a relic, became an anachronism--too big to fill, too costly to maintain.

But by the late 1960s, the Great White Steamer--sold to a company called MGRS Inc.--was suffering from the increasing competition of smaller cruise ships, commercial airplane flights and a rapidly expanding fleet of private boats and aircraft.

Then, during the 1971 and 1972 tourist seasons, she was laid up because of a labor dispute.

In 1975, her owners were sued for overdue dockage fees incurred while she sat idle in Los Angeles Harbor during the off-seasons. Later that year, MGRS shut down her boilers for the last time, leaving thousands of dollars in debts.

Enter Hymie Singer, a Beverly Hills real estate developer.

Auctioned for $70,000

Singer bought the ship at a 1977 auction for $70,000, saying it was a Valentine's Day present for his wife. But Singer had other plans.

By then the ship was viewed as more of a location than a means of getting to one. It had been designated a California historical landmark, listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, and Singer figured she'd make a dandy site for a restaurant, shops, museum and banquet facilities.

But there were more disputes over docking fees. And when Singer tried to interest California ports in the steamship Catalina as a permanent fixture, no one was interested. In 1978, she ended up moored to a buoy, three miles off Santa Monica. A year later, Webber leased the ship from Singer, continuing the futile search for a home port.

Thieves and vandals found the ship unprotected and took full advantage of it--stripping her of brass accessories, instruments and engine parts, shattering windows and mirrors, scattering trash and garbage on the decks.

Ship Declared a Hazard

Later in 1979, a judge declared the old ship a navigation hazard and ordered her out of the bay. She was towed to her moorings in Los Angeles Harbor, and Marty and Marlene Koschalk moved aboard as caretakers while Webber tried to figure out what to do next.

There were several ideas:

A group of South American businessmen considered using her as a gambling barge, but Webber decided the political climate there was too unstable.

Egyptian officials talked about using her to haul tourists up and down the Nile, but it turned out that the Great White Steamer was too big to navigate the river.

Sought PUC Approval

And Webber tried to talk the state Public Utilities Commission into letting him put the ship back into service between San Pedro and Avalon.

In December, 1983, the PUC turned Webber down, leaving the ship bobbing at her mooring in the harbor. And there, except for her errant strayings, the big ship sat until Webber had her hauled off to Mexico.

But Webber says that despite the setbacks he and Singer aren't finished yet, even if it means pursuing their venture in Mexico.

"The way things were going (in the United States), both our interests were going down the tubes real quick," Webber said last week. "But I'll see to it Mr. Singer gets every dime he's got coming to him."

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