Sunday, February 13, 2011

S.S. Catalina

This boat had class, and yet a regular guy from Rialto could shed a nametag uniform for a sport coat and share the ambiance with a Bel Air millionaire at the fantail bar as the bow cracked the summer morning ocean mist to the halo of crystal blue sky and waters of Avalon Bay. It’s July, 1955 and we’re in the wheelhouse of the S.S. Catalina’s heyday. 

Toss some coins off the starboard side to the diving island kids, as the refrain from ‘Avalon’ plays in your head stepping on to steamer pier. Bunny hop the night away at the casino with an actual orchestra, hit the glass bottom boats, or off to the interior in search of buffalo in the round back tour bus, go to the bird park, or simply hoist a few at the Marlin. At three in the afternoon (4 for daylight savings) the S.S. Catalina’s earth shaking whistle calls everyone back for the return to the mainland. Though you could cross by flying boat, DC-3, or sail or powerboat, the Great White Steamer was built for the task of going to Avalon and nothing did it better.

Sadly, due to cost of operation and the need for more frequent daily crossings, the S.S. Catalina was taken out of service in 1975 and bought by Hymie Singer for $70,000 as a Valentine gift for his wife. Hymie bit off more than he could chew and the once elegant vessel fell to progressively worsening situations and left to rot in Ensenada Bay. It has since been demolished. Though the present day Catalina Express catamarans are marvels of efficiency and Commodore Class includes trail mix, cookie, and a drink, the brass, teak, and leather is missed…yeah, that boat had class.

Before ‘officially’ setting out to see all of California’s state landmarks in 1993, there were a dozen or so seen by chance or choice in earlier years. The S.S. Catalina is the third in this series of dispatches.   

If there was a plaque the inscription would read: Launched in 1924, built by Santa Catalina Island owner and chewing gum Magnate William Wrigley. She was used to transport passengers from Los Angeles to the island. During her working life she carried over 2.4 million passengers to and from Avalon Bay on Catalina Island.  Retired in 1975 and place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. CATALINA is registered as California State Historical Landmark No. 894 and City of Los Angeles Cultural Monument No. 213.

Location: Google maps: 33.344683 - 118.3264 for former site of ‘steamer pier’ in Avalon Bay.  Original location: Port of Los Angeles, Catalina Terminal, Berth 96.

The family has been trekking to Catalina for nearly 100 years and here are a few early shots from 1918. The ship at the steamer pier is unknown but possibly ‘The Hermosa’. When Wm. Wrigley bought the island he also bought the ‘Virginia’ or USS Blue Ridge and renamed it ‘The Avalon’, and later added the S.S. Catalina in 1924.

For the 1958 Four Preps hit ‘26 Miles’ the story was that Mr. Belland from the group was putting a song about Catalina together on a LA South Bay beach and asked someone walking by how far away the island was, "I dunno, about 26 miles".

For this writer, the island gets many visits in song; ‘Catalina’, ‘Day Old’, ‘S.S. Catalina’, ‘The Golf Cart Song’, ‘Charlotte’, ‘Great Avalon Fat Dog Contest’, ‘Tuna Club’, and ‘Avalon, I’m Coming Home’ are all about the experience.

Here’s a YouTube link for a video of the song:

S.S. CATALINA                   

Up the ramp, onboard the ship, leave the world behind

To a topside bench painted blue, out on the starboard side

Hands to your ears for the whistle blast, soon you’re on your way
Out to sea at 16 knots, could there be a better day?

Porpoises swim to the side as if to say hello
There’s flying fish and stranger things, they put on quite a show
The band plays by the dance floor, with drinks at the fantail bar
There’s lovers, friends and wide eyed kids and occasional movie stars

(Chorus) On the SS Catalina there’s so much to be seen
Come take a ride, leave cares aside on the ocean so serene
To the island of romance, won’t you come along?
On the SS Catalina, the pride of Avalon

William Wrigley had her built in 1924
2000 strong she’ll carry, to the Catalina shore
Past the grand Casino to the steamer pier on time
Over 20 million passengers she carried in her prime

Alas, her time has come and gone she sails the sea no more
But legend says there is a way, if you go to the Avalon shore
And listen close you’ll hear the ghost of her whistle everyday
At three o’clock she calls goodbye and sails on her way

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