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SS CATALINA and SS AVALON – Video and Highlights

  • They were called the BIG WHITE STEAMERS.
  • These day tourist steamships operated together from 1920 into the early 1950s — except for WW 2.
  • The SS CATALINA continued running into the mid-1970s.


1950s RETRO video on the SS CATALINA and SS AVALON.

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All about the Big White Ships

 They provided daily service throughout the summer from Los Angeles to Catalina Island. avalon_feb_1924.gifThe SS AVALON lies at the bottom of the Pacific off the coast of Southern California. The SS CATALINA, after a valiant attempt to rescue it, was taken to Mexico where she is rotting in Ensenada Harbor. There was a big deal about making the SS CATALINA a National Historical Monument. But like most “historical” endeavors in California, it got lost in financial problems and endless legal action. Cheers to the memory of these ships and the great people who tried to save the SS CATALINA.

  • The S.S. Catalina, also known as The Great White Steamer, is a 301-foot steamship built in 1924 that provided passenger service on the 26-mile passage between Los Angeles and Santa Catalina Island from 1924 to 1975.
  • According to the Steamship Historical Society of America, the Catalina has carried more passengers than any other vessel anywhere.
  • The S.S. Catalina also served as a troop ship during World War II, transporting more than 800,000 soldiers and sailors.
  • After a period of service as a floating discotheque, the ship ran aground on a sandbar in Ensenada Harbor in 1997 and has remained half-submerged and decaying at that location for more than a decade.
  • In January 2009 it was announced the SS Catalina was no more — it was being cut for scrap.

Passenger Service to Catalina Island

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  • The S.S. Catalina was originally built in 1924 at a cost of $1 million for William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum and confectionary magnate who owned most of Catalina Island.
  • Between 1924 and 1975, the S.S. Catalina carried about 25 million passengers between Los Angeles and Avalon Harbor.
  • According to the Steamship Historical Society of America, the Catalina has carried more passengers than any other vessel anywhere.
  • In its heyday, the ship was known as the “Great White Steamer” and carried 2,000 passengers at a time on the two-and-a-half hour trip to Catalina.
  • Among its famous passengers were Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, actor Robert Mitchum and many of the great musicians of the Big Band era.
  • The Los Angeles Times recalled the passage this way:

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“To board the Catalina during its heyday was to enter a world of luxurious leather settees and gleaming teak. On the upper deck, people danced to swinging big bands. Magicians and clowns entertained passengers. On the lower deck youngsters played hide and seek among the lifeboats, and couples found hidden spots where they could be alone. … Residents fondly remember the rituals with which the ship was greeted as it approached the island: Speedboats would circle the ship, water skiers slicing through its giant wake. Closer to shore, children swam out to dive for coins passengers tossed into the bay. People in Avalon gathered to sing as passengers stepped off the ship that docked near the center of town.”

  • In 1958, the 26-mile trip to Catalina Island was made famous by Four Preps’ hit song “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)”. The song reached the #2 position on the U.S. popular music charts. The metric distance of “42 kil-o-meters” also is sung.

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  • Schedule during the late 1940s when the SS AVALON and SS CATALINA were providing daily service.   The cruise took 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Troopship in World War II

  • During World War II, the Catalina was used as a troop ship in San Francisco Bay, transporting more than 820,000 sailors and soldiers – more than any other military transport ship in the war effort.

Retirement and abandonment in Ensenada, Meexico.

  • By the early 1970s, smaller, faster vessels made it difficult for the Catalina to compete for passenger traffic, and she was retired from passenger service in 1975.

In 1977, the Catalina was purchased at auction for $70,000 by real estate developer Hymie Singer.

  • He bought the ship as Valentine’s day gift for his wife and the steamship was moved for several years between Newport Beach, San Diego, Santa Monica Bay and Long Beach.
  • At one point, there was a proposal for the Catalina to ferry tourists up the Nile River, but her 21 feet of draft was too deep for the river.
  • As the ship bounced from one port to another, one writer noted: “Twice she broke free of her moorings in Long Beach and once nearly hit a tanker; it was as if the ship was rebelling against her fate, having gone from being a source of pride to an embarrassment to a naval hazard.”

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  • In 1985, Singer moved the ship to Ensenada, Baja California, where she became the focus of a series of unsuccessful business ventures, including a floating discotheque and the Catalina Bar and Grill.
  • In late 1997, the Catalina escaped its moorings and became stuck on a sandbar in Ensenada Harbor. Since that time, the Catalina has remained half-submerged and stuck in the mud in the harbor.
  • After years of neglect, the Catalina has become badly decayed and rusted and has been stripped by looters and vandals.

Historic recognition and preservation efforts.

  • The Catalina has been recognized as a Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM #213) by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission and is a California State Historic Landmark. She was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Preservationists have sought since the late 1990s to raise funds to return the Catalina to Los Angeles for restoration. Others have opposed raising the ship, saying, “It’s like digging up grandma and putting her at the head of the table.”

The Catalina was scrapped last month.

The following is an excellent book on Sea Transportation to Catalina.  Click here to order it on Amazon.

Catalina by Sea: A Transportation History (CA) (Images of America) (Paperback) from Arcadia Publishing.
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A fancy flight of lyrics specifies that Santa Catalina Island is “26 miles across the sea.” But mapmakers put the distance at 19.7 miles from the closest island point, Doctor’s Cove (near Arrow Point), to the closest mainland locale, Point Fermin at San Pedro. Today boats and helicopters operating out of the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Newport Beach, and Dana Point transport musing songwriters and everyone else to Catalina for the song’s much-promised “romance, romance, romance, romance,” as well as fishing, sightseeing, and gainful employment. But the history of getting to and from the island’s ports of Avalon and Two Harbors has been an epic across centuries of business and pleasure, involving a collective flotilla of side-wheelers, yachts, lumber schooners, steamships, water taxis, converted military vessels, crew boats, and today’s fast and convenient jet boats.

About the Author

This unique photographic history by Jeannine L. Pedersen covers public transportation to and from the island, well as channel crossings activities steamship greetings. Pedersen, the curator of the Catalina Island Museum, gathered more than 200 vintage photographs from the museum’s extensive archives to illustrate Catalina Island’s transportation lore.

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