- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The SS Catalina is sending out an SOS. The steamship, the last in a line of vessels that sailed to California’s Santa Catalina Island since the 1860s, is partially submerged in the harbor of Ensenada, Mexico.Without immediate attention, the ship and its unique history will be sunk, says Phil Dockery, president of the SS Catalina Preservation Association in Irvine, Calif.

“She has been loved by millions of people,” he says. “She is truly a part of American culture. Before the automobile, steamships were one of the primary sources of transportation around the country. She is one of the last remaining examples of that.”

In 1924, California’s “Great White Steamer” was launched by chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. By 1975, the steamship had carried 22 million people, more than any other ship on record. During its 51-year run, passengers traveling between Los Angeles Harbor and the city of Avalon on Santa Catalina Island enjoyed ballroom dancing, live music and many other amenities aboard.

The ship also transported 820,199 troops across San Francisco Bay during World War II. That was more personnel than any other U.S. Army transport ship moved during the war.

The Catalina was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and was registered as California State Historical Landmark No. 895 and the City of Los Angeles Historical Cultural Monument No. 213.

In 1977, the vessel was sold to a private party. By 1985, it was taken to Ensenada, where the owners tried but failed to convert it into a restaurant and retail outlet. After years of neglect and vandalism, the ship was seized by the Mexican government.

In 2000, representatives from the SS Catalina Preservation Association (www.sscatalina.org), traveled to Mexico to accept a promissory decree of ownership signed by President Ernesto Zedillo.

Inspections show that the Catalina has retained its structural integrity and could be repaired and refloated, but federal grants cannot be used because the ship is outside U.S. borders. Revitalization will depend on charitable donations, which so far have been insufficient for the project.

Mr. Dockery would like to raise the Catalina and transport it to a California harbor, which he estimates would cost $1 million to $2 million. Complete restoration would cost at least an additional $2 million. Depending on whether repairs to the ship’s triple-expansion engines are attempted, even more money would be required.

Mr. Dockery hopes the Catalina, once restored, can serve in an educational capacity. Others have suggested turning various sections of the ship into a maritime museum, an art gallery, a research library and a conference center.

Ken Marschall, a maritime artist from Redondo Beach, Calif., has depicted the Catalina in a painting from its glory days of 1924. To help raise money to save the ship, he is selling prints of the work through his company, Trans-Atlantic Designs Inc. (www.transatlanticdesigns.com).

Mr. Marschall has painted mostly pictures of the RMS Titanic. He assisted “Titanic” film director James Cameron by diving with him to the site of the shipwreck in the North Atlantic.

Mr. Marschall, who traveled on the Catalina during his childhood, said he was shocked at the sight of it submerged in Mexico.

“We don’t tend to save too much out here in California,” he said. “We’re not too preservation-oriented. If we’re going to save anything related to maritime history, we should save the Catalina. How can we turn our backs and let her go?”

Shawn Dake, past president of the Southern California chapter of the Steamship Historical Society of America, confirmed an emotional attachment to the Catalina.

“It’s a lot more than just a hunk of steel,” he said. “It’s definitely known by anyone alive before 1975, if they went to Catalina Island.”

Even with a rotting wooden deck and chipped paint, the ship gives a feeling of magic, said Mr. Dake, who has visited the steamer in Mexico.

“Something about it captures your imagination,” he says. “It feels living, even though it’s a shipwreck.”

Ron Holder, owner of CAD Research Inc. in Irvine, said his grandfather traveled on the ship regularly to Santa Catalina Island to coach the Angels, a Pacific Coast League team that helped train the Chicago Cubs during the off-season.

“A lot of people have a personal story attached to the ship,” he says. “If enough money could be raised, it could be restored.”

Mr. Holder, a specialist in naval architecture and boat design, appreciates the vessel’s architectural features, including the placement of lifeboats on the waterline near the engine room. Most ships of the era had lifeboats on their upper decks.

“The appearance of the ship is entirely different than any other ship of her time,” he said. “She was uniquely designed for the open ocean, traveling 26 miles to Catalina Island.”

Despite the enormous work needed to restore the SS Catalina, Mr. Dockery hopes people who understand the ship’s historical importance will help save it.

“We want to restore the public spaces so a new generation can appreciate her,” he said. “She wasn’t an incredibly ornate ship, but she was beautiful. … She had a distinct beauty about her.”

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