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SS CATALINA and SS AVALON sailed 26 miles across the sea from Los Angeles to Catalina Island…

SS CATALINA and SS AVALON sailed 26 miles across the sea from Los Angeles to Catalina Island…

They were called the Big White Steamers.

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SS Catalina and SS Avalon docked in Avalon, after completing the 2-hour voyage from Los Angeles (San Pedro), during the late 1940s. 

These day tourist steamships operated together by William Wrigley Company from 1920 into the early 1950s — except for World War 2 – between Los Angeles and Catalina Island. The SS CATALINA continued running into the mid-1970s.

The two ships carried millions of passengers.

A retro-look at the SS CATALINA and SS AVALON.

The SS CATALINA was 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.

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SS Catalina leaving Los Angeles and SS Catalina arriving in Avalon during the 1950s…

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.

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The SS Catalina arriving in Avalon – 1970s… and the SS Catalina and SS Avalon docked in Avalon during the late 1940s… 

“They were probably poor kids trying to make a buck,” former passenger Dorothy Weil of Bel-Air recalled. 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.

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The SS Catalina and the flying boat-airship during the 1950s… and the SS Catalina docked in Los Angeles with the flying boat-airship ready to depart during 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.

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The SS Catalina is now nothing but a memory; she was scrapped in 2009 after rotting for 12 years in Ensenada Harbor (despite also being declared a California Historic Landmark and its listing on the National Register of Historic Places); preservation efforts in the 1990s failed after endless financial problems and legal actions (see also www.cruisingthepast.com). A three-decade campaign to preserve the once-proud steamship ended failed. 

The SS Catalina arriving in Avalon during the 1920s…

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