Sunday, December 31, 2006


The ship that was to be SS Nevada now flounders in Mexico


Nevada Appeal
By David C. Henley
December 31, 2006

She's 82 years old, 302 feet long, and has been near death's door since the day before Christmas nine years ago.

There have been several attempts the past few years to bring the old girl back to life, one of which involved a plan by Nevada gaming interests to turn her into a floating casino and rename her the SS Nevada. But nothing ever came of them.

But today there's new hope that the fabled passenger steamer SS Catalina, which carried more than 24 million passengers from Southern California to Catalina Island, may have another chance at life.

The Catalina, built in 1923 by the Wrigley chewing gum family and put into service the following year, made more than 9,800 crossings between Los Angeles and Catalina before her troubles began in 1975.

During World War II, she was taken over by the U.S. Army, painted military gray, renamed the U.S. Army Transport SS-99, and carried more than 820,000 troops between the Oakland Army Base and several California ports until war's end in 1945.

In the mid 1970s, however, competition from swifter passenger boats, labor troubles and several ownership changes brought a halt to her Los Angeles-Catalina run.

One owner wanted to sell her off to a Hong Kong ferry service. Another wanted to sail her to South America to serve as a floating restaurant. Still another hoped to turn the Catalina into a gambling ship and hotel that would ply the California coasts. None of these ventures came to fruition.

The SS Catalina eventually sailed to the Pacific Coast Mexican beach resort of Ensenada and turned into a dockside dance hall and cafe.

The new owners, hoping for more profits from the old ship, conducted negotiations with a Hollywood producer to use the SS Catalina in a motion picture about the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester that was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in the North Atlantic in 1943. More than 670 men died, including four Army chaplains representing the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths who gave their life jackets to survivors.

In the movie, the Catalina was to have been a double for the Dorchester, but nothing came of this endeavor as well.

The SS Catalina's near-death blow came nine years ago.

The day before Christmas in 1997, the famed "Great White Steamer" broke loose from her moorings, struck a sandbar on Ensenada Harbor's southeast shore and slowly sank, stern first.

She remains in this near-moribund state today. Most of her superstructure visible, she's a sorry sight for gawking tourists, crewmembers of the huge container ships sailing in and out of Ensenada's port, and passengers arriving and departing here aboard massive cruise ships.

Since her near sinking in 1997, the Catalina has been boarded by vandals who have stolen much of her fittings and marine artifacts. She's also been the center of contention of several competing groups that have attempted to raise funds to raise, refit and restore her.

Until now, the efforts have failed.

But a potential new savior has arrived, a former Navy diving officer and current civilian salvage expert. Retired Lt. Commander Richard McPherson of Orange County, Calif., said the ship's hull is in pretty good shape and it can be successfully raised and refurbished.

It will take about $2 million to raise the ship and another $6 million to restore it to its original shape. After that, they hope to turn it into a floating California nautical museum.

He's hired a public relations firm to help with the fundraising and is himself leading a team to discover how to raise the ship without damaging its rotting wooden sides.

Meanwhile, the SS Catalina remains prey to looters and scavengers who board her from small boats, taking away valued parts of the ship.


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