Shawn J. Dake

She was the million dollar steamship, in the days when a million dollars was a lot of money. She was built with chewing gum, or more correctly of steel, bought with the profits from a chewing gum empire created by Mr. William Wrigley, Jr., who happened to own an island about 24 miles off the coast of Southern California called Santa Catalina. The only major town on the island was Avalon, an almost Mediterranean-like setting, far removed from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, on the other side of the San Pedro Channel. By the 1920's, tourism to the island was booming, thanks in part to a strong economy and Mr. Wrigley's various enterprises on the island, including a training camp for his Chicago Cubs baseball team, and his own steamship line known as the Wilmington Transportation Company.

The new steamship CATALINA, was built in 1924 to provide additional capacity and more elegant transportation to the island. William Wrigley Jr., himself laid the keel on December 26, 1923 at the yards of the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. Situated in the heart of Los Angeles harbor, this location later became the Todd Shipyard. The new ship was designated hull number 42. After a quick construction period the new vessel was ready to take to the water for the first time. Named for the island which she would serve, the s.s. CATALINA was launched on May 3, 1924, by Miss Marcia A. Patrick, the daughter of Joseph Patrick, president of the Santa Catalina Island Company. The Mayor of Los Angeles, along with 3,000 other people were on hand to witness the event. A little over eight weeks later the ship commenced her maiden voyage from Wilmington, California to Avalon on June 30th, under the command of Captain A. A. Morris. Few on that first voyage could have envisioned that 25 million people would follow them onto those same decks, enjoying a 2 hour cruise to Catalina Island during an active career of 51 years!

To fully understand the story of the s.s. CATALINA, some background information is helpful. The first European navigators arrived, at what would become Santa Catalina Island, aboard the caravels VICTORIA and SAN SALVADOR with Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo in 1542, to find it already inhabited by native California Indians who obviously had "discovered" it earlier. Sebastian Vizcaino followed with his 3 ships SAN DIEGO, SANTO TOMAS and TRES REYES, giving the island it's name in 1602. But it wasn't until the 1860's that the first steamboat carrying passengers would arrive. Phineas Banning, a well known name in Southern California history, began a charter service with the tiny steamer CRICKET. In 1880, he added the second-hand sidewheel steamboat AMELIA, which came complete with a restaurant on board. The Banning family created the Wilmington Transportation Company in 1884 to operate ships to Catalina Island and by 1892 they had purchased the island. Their fleet consisted of the steamers HATTIE, LA PALOMA, OLEANDER, FALCON, WARRIOR and HERMOSA. New ships were needed after the turn of the century and the HERMOSA (ii) was added in 1902, followed by the CABRILLO in 1904.

The CABRILLO was the most luxurious ship of the fleet at the time and boasted a beautiful rosewood staircase, mahogany paneling and a bar. The year 1919 would bring a significant change to the Wilmington Transportation Company and Catalina Island, as both were purchased by William Wrigley Jr. The same year he purchased the 1,985 gross ton steamer VIRGINIA from the Goodrich Transportation Company. This ship had been built 28 years earlier in 1891, by the Globe Ironworks, at Cleveland, Ohio, for service on the Great Lakes. During the first World War, the VIRGINIA was requisitioned and taken to the Boston Navy Yard to be converted into a troop transport and renamed U.S.S. BLUE RIDGE. By the time she was ready for service the war was over and she was taken to the Moore Dry Dock at Brooklyn, New York. It was there, on August 18, 1919, that she was purchased by Wilmington Transportation Company. The ship was brought around to Los Angeles, through the Panama Canal. A major refit transformed her into the s.s. AVALON, a vessel that would be the s.s. CATALINA's fleetmate for much of her career. The rebuilding of the AVALON took place at the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Drydock Company during the winter of 1919-20. The ship was powered by two triple expansion steam engines. A 1923 refit gave her four new Babcock & Wilcox watertube boilers. The AVALON originally carried 1,625 passengers, however this was soon increased to 1,900. The ship was 265 feet in length with a beam of 38 feet and a depth of 22 feet. Her raked funnel was oddly placed just slightly aft of mid-ship, and her high bow and low stern gave the impression she was heavily laden aft. Along with her fleetmates, HERMOSA (ii) and CABRILLO, she was painted with a black hull in her early years. The ship was ready in time for the summer tourist season, and made her inaugural voyage to the island April 20, 1920. The Wilmington Transportation Company fleet of the "roaring 20's" was nearly complete. But William Wrigley had even grander plans in mind, for another ship, to be newly built for the channel crossing.

Pleased with the success of the converted s.s. AVALON, Wrigley returned to the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Drydock Company and consulted with their chief engineer L.E. Coverly, who would design the new ship. Plans were drawn up in 1923, and by the end of the year the keel had been laid. Total construction took only six months but the result was spectacular. The s.s. CATALINA emerged with a white hull, with red boot topping at the waterline. Her upper decks and bridge also were all in white. A single tall buff colored funnel with a black top crowned the new ship. The Wrigley emblem of a white "W" against a blue background in the form of a flag, was painted on both sides of the stack. Eight large ventilators sprouted from her top deck, two forward of the stack and six clustered just aft of it. Two masts were carried, one just aft of the bridge and the other midway between the funnel and stern. With a straight stem and a rounded stern, the new CATALINA presented a very handsome profile. One unusual feature was the placement of her lifeboats. In a break from traditional appearances, these were placed low in the ship in davits along the Main Deck. This arrangement allowed more space for passengers along her open Promenade Deck up top and were designed to be launched more easily and safely than those carried on the upper decks of other steamers. Entering service just 12 years after the TITANIC disaster, her "Ludin" lifeboats were nested one on top of the other, with five pairs of boats along each side of the ship; twenty boats all together. Each lifeboat had a capacity of 76 persons. Additional life-rafts were provided and the ship carried enough life-preservers for 3,000 passengers. An extra boat was later added which was carried awkwardly off her stern on the starboard side.

The maiden voyage of the s.s. CATALINA was a huge social event for the people of Catalina Island. The ship would be an enormous boost to their economy. Mr. Wrigley's activities on the island seemed to find favor, as evidenced by this quote from a local resident, "we've got the water from Middle Ranch and the new steamship CATALINA, what's next on the program? Avalon is fortunate in having a rich dad!" At the keel-laying, William Wrigley had said he wanted the ship built at "war-time speed" and sailing by July 1, 1924. He got his wish, a day ahead of schedule. Monday, June 30th at 10:55 A.M., the brand new s.s. CATALINA cast off her mooring lines and entered service. Her passenger list on this day numbered 600 invited guests; a "who's who" of dignitaries, politicians from Long Beach, Los Angeles and Avalon, and top officials of the Wilmington Transportation Company and Santa Catalina Island Company. Mr. and Mrs. Wrigley could not be present, but sent two wireless messages of "Bon Voyage" to the ship, and "Regret exceedingly that we could not be present with you and the guests on the trial trip. Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. delivered the boat in record time and right. Heartiest congratulations and best wishes for many happy trips to and from our beautiful Island." Signed, "William Wrigley, Jr." As the ship pulled away from her Wilmington berth, music played across her decks and steam whistles blared from other ships in the harbor. Steaming away under her own power, the new vessel was accompanied through the harbor as far as the breakwater by the Wilmington Transportation Co. tugs, DAVID M. RENTON and DAVID P. FLEMING, which had also been on hand to assist during her launching the previous month. During the crossing, cabin boys served punch and passed around cigars and of course, chewing gum. In mid-channel a Pacific Marine Airways, bi-wing, flying boat passed overhead. On board, someone described the ship as "A million-dollar ferryship to fairyland" and that slogan would be picked up by the newspapers, providing much positive publicity. Two miles from her destination, the ship was met by a flotilla of boats, one even carrying the Whittier Band on board. Whistles and horns sounded from the boats, until they ran out of compressed air. Exactly two hours after departure, the s.s. CATALINA tied up on the south side of Avalon's steamer pier, with fleetmate AVALON on the opposite side. The entire town was decorated for the occasion. The Catalina Marine Band played a loud welcome, Avalon Boy Scouts stood at attention, and flower bouquets were presented to company President Patrick as he stepped off the gangplank. Guests filed off the ship and went directly to the famous Hotel St. Catherine where a special luncheon was held. By 3:15 P.M., with a blast from her steam whistle, tuned to the key of "B", the s.s. CATALINA backed away from the steamer pier and began the return leg of her maiden voyage. The day had been an enormous success; the auspicious start of a fabulous career.

The principal dimensions of the ship can not begin to describe the care and quality that were built into her, but are of course an important part of her story. The s.s. CATALINA entered service with a gross registered tonnage of 1,766; Net tonnage of 1,161. Her overall length is 301 feet 7 inches. Length between perpendiculars is 285 feet 2 inches. Breadth is 52 feet 1 inch. Depth is 21 feet 1 inch, with a normal draft of 16 feet 1 inch. Her official number was #223907.

The main engines for the s.s. CATALINA were built by the Hooven-Owens-Rentschler Co. of Hamilton, Ohio. They consisted of two, 3-cylinder triple expansion steam engines. The ship had a lovely, oval-shaped builder's plate in the engine room, that read "Main Engines 20 1/2" - 35" - 60" X 36" S.S. CATALINA - 1924 -," indicating her cylinder diameters with a 36" stroke. Triple expansion engines had largely been replaced with steam turbines by the mid-1920's, but were still being used on smaller passenger vessels like the CATALINA. A triple expansion engine utilizes the steam in a three stage system consisting of a small High Pressure cylinder, then an Intermediate Pressure cylinder, and finally a large Low Pressure cylinder, the diameters increasing as the steam expands. The three cylinders are of cast iron and designed to produce nearly equal amounts of power. The CATALINA maintained a cruising speed of 15.5 knots at 110 rpm, and produced over 2,000 horsepower per engine. An engine specifications log from the 1920's revealed slightly higher figures of 125 rpm's, indicated horsepower of 4,500, and steam pressure at the throttle of 210 pounds. The boilers were very similar to those installed aboard the AVALON. The CATALINA had four Babcock & Wilcox watertube boilers that were oil fired. A twin-screw ship, she had straight shafts with no gearing, driving her large three-blade bronze propellers. (Much more in depth information on the ship's machinery can be found in the article "The Steamer CATALINA & Her Engines" by William D. Sawyer in the Winter 1975 issue of STEAMBOAT BILL #136.)

The arrangement of the decks aboard the CATALINA were certainly more utilitarian than luxurious. Still, she provided a level of comfort to her passengers not usually found on vessels that essentially were providing a ferry service. There were five decks, three of which were given over for passenger use. The uppermost deck was Bridge Deck. Forward was the wooden pilot house with open bridge wings on both sides. Just aft and connecting to the bridge was the Captain's Room, with a desk, bed, closet and door exiting to the deck aft. Past the first two ventilators, the funnel rose from it's mid-ship position. Further aft, two hatches with eight portholes on each side, provided light and ventilation down the engine casing. They could be opened and closed by means of long crank handles from the engine room several decks below. The next deck down was Promenade Deck, also known as "A" Deck or top deck to passengers. Most of this deck provided open air seating on hundreds of oak benches along both sides of the ship and along the center beside the boiler and engine casings and further aft. All the way forward, a stairway descended to the bow. The Owner's Stateroom (also called the Wrigley cabin), was forward, which connected to private restroom facilities. As built, there were 4 small rooms immediately aft of this cabin, a radio room and 3 private staterooms. Public toilets with 4 stalls each were provided for both ladies and gentlemen. Two more staircases, one forward and one aft of the casings, made the descent to the Saloon Deck. This middle deck was also known as "B" Deck during the ship's career. Except for a small section aft, this deck was entirely glass enclosed, adding much to her good looks. The windows could be opened on hot summer days. This deck extended all the way from bow to stern. On the enclosed portion forward was a refreshment counter. Cushioned bench seating was provided for passengers who preferred to stay indoors. Like the deck above, public toilets were provided. Moving aft, would bring you to the most popular feature on the ship, the Ball Room. The room had a large wooden dance floor with a bandstand at the after end. All the way at the stern, more bench seating was provided in the open air, but sheltered by the deck above. This area was later enclosed and rebuilt to include a cocktail bar with red naugahyde bar stools and built in seats around the sides. The lowest passenger level was Main or "C" Deck. Forward were deck machinery spaces including steam powered anchor winches and capstans. Also forward was the baggage room with large shell doors in the hull on both sides. In the passenger area, the purser's office and mail room were forward. Just aft of the lobby and stairs was a large men's toilet. Along the sides narrow walkways passed between the lifeboats and the structure. The entire midships area was given over to boiler and engine casings. From this deck passengers could get a fascinating view into the workings of the engine room. The Chief Engineer's cabin was between the aft staircase and engine casing on the starboard side. To port was an engineers toilet and washroom. The ladies "Rest Room" was separate from their toilet area, aft of the stairs. Beyond, 10 small staterooms, 5 on each side, provided private accommodations in the early years. At the stern was a steering gear room and docking machinery. The bottom deck was given over to crew quarters forward and machinery spaces aft. The fore peak held fresh water tanks. The crew quarters contained lockers, toilets and a mess room. Midships the 4 boilers were placed in pairs port and starboard, while further aft the 2 engines were also arranged one on each side with the twin propeller shafts exiting through the hull. The after peak tank was also used for fresh water storage. A gracefully curved, balanced rudder completed her underwater profile.

The actual decks of the CATALINA were constructed of wood on the two highest passenger levels. Hemlock over 1" thick covered by stretched canvas was used and proved itself extremely durable. The bottom, Main Deck was made of steel coated with a cement-like surface. A bumper strip, or fender, circled most of the ship at Main Deck level and was reinforced with iron wood. The hull itself was constructed of 1" thick steel.

No ship is perfect, and the CATALINA entered service in 1924 with one small design flaw. Originally, her anchor wells were set very low to the water. As the ship sped across the channel, water would be scooped up the hawse pipes and pour into the forecastle. This was quickly corrected in the first dry-docking with the anchor being repositioned up to the main deck level.
A crossing to Catalina Island in the 1920's was an event to be looked forward to. Passengers in those days dressed for the occasion; gentlemen in jackets and ties, escorting ladies in dresses and coats, some carrying umbrellas to protect them from the sun. The ship would depart from Banning's Landing at the foot of Avalon Boulevard in the port city of Wilmington. If you were going to Avalon you could simply drive your automobile down the boulevard of the same name, or take the Pacific Electric's "Big Red (trolley) Cars" to the Catalina terminal at Berth 185. The ship would steam slowly out of Los Angeles Harbor, past the city of San Pedro and through "Angels Gate" into the San Pedro channel. From there, two hours of open water separated the mainland from the city of Avalon. The cares of the city were quickly left behind. This was a real sea voyage. Along the way passengers would frequently marvel at the sight of dolphins playing or flying fish skimming across the water. One of the other Wilmington Transportation Company steamers would pass by in the opposite direction and steam whistle salutes would be exchanged. Snacks, drinks, magazines and souvenirs were available on board. Before long, the mountains of Catalina Island would come into view through the haze, and first-time visitors would line the railings to watch as the ship approached. The "Miss Catalina" speedboats, capable of racing at 60 knots, would zip past the approaching steamer. Perhaps one of the early bi-winged seaplanes would be seen in the harbor. Bands greeted the ship on arrival and local residents lined the pier welcoming guests to the Island with a friendly greeting of, "hi, neighbor". Local kids would dive for coins tossed from the steamer by passengers. As the gangplanks were pulled into the ship guests would troop into town for the day, or perhaps stay longer at the elegant Hotel St. Catherine. The old steamer pier led directly into the center of Avalon, and the big ships could dock on either side of it. Next to it was the Pleasure Pier where the world's largest sidewheel glass-bottom boat, PHOENIX, would be waiting to take passengers on an excursion over the submarine gardens. On departure, passengers would be serenaded by the sounds of the song "Avalon". This scene would be played out thousands of times over the years, with only a few minor adjustments, until that day in 1975, when no more steamships would exist to bring happy visitors to the shores of Catalina Island.

For the s.s. CATALINA and her running mates business in the 1920's could not have been better. Tourist traffic to the island was increasing at the rate of 20% annually. The old steamer HERMOSA (ii) could not match the quality of her fleetmates and was sold in 1928. In July, August and September of 1929, the CABRILLO, AVALON and CATALINA carried approximately 500,000 passengers. The ships offered a combined total of five sailings daily each way. Among the passengers were film stars and well known athletes who laughed, danced and drank their way to the island for a brief vacation. Even President Calvin Coolidge, and later President Herbert Hoover, made the voyage. By November 9, 1929, the "Los Angeles Times" newspaper reported that Mr. Joseph Patrick had announced plans for a new passenger liner to be built for Wilmington Transportation Company. Separate designs were being considered from two naval architects, Mr. William Lambie and G. Bruce Newby. The new ship would be 350 feet long, with a 65 foot beam and carry 3,000 passengers. Both Diesel-Electric propulsion and Diesel direct drive were being considered for the vessel. The new ship would cost an astounding $1,500,000 to build. All that was needed was the approval of designs by William Wrigley Jr., who was expected to arrive in California in January. That approval never came. With the onslaught of the Great Depression, plans for the new ship, along with a $2 million hotel on the island were shelved. The existing ships would have to suffice, and never again would they carry the volume of traffic that was seen at the end of the 1920's.

The 1930's were hard times for the s.s. CATALINA. Few people had spare money available for a tourist trip to Catalina and traffic slowed considerably. In 1932, William Wrigley Jr. died. The ship and the company were passed on to Philip K. Wrigley. There were no significant operational changes. In the hope of stimulating business, by the mid-1930's the company adopted the advertising slogan "The price you won't remember - but the trip you can't forget." Slowly, as the decade progressed, the economy began to pick up, and so did patronage on the ships. But in 1936, another dark image passed in front of the s.s. CATALINA's bows. On a foggy night about mid way through her crossing the CATALINA rammed into the 76 foot long yacht ARBUTUS, cutting her in two. Amazingly, none of the 7 passengers aboard the yacht were injured, but the owner was in the mood to sue. Court testimony indicated that both vessels were sounding fog horns, but neither heard the other. The yacht's owner said "The CATALINA came on like a knife" impaling his boat on her prow. The judge ruled that the CATALINA was guilty of travelling at excessive speed through fog and that her signals were of insufficient length. The passengers of the yacht were awarded a combined total of $36,561.11.
The clouds of World War II affected even the peaceful crossing to Catalina. The island was closed to the public and used as a training center for merchant seamen by the U.S. military. The s.s. AVALON was painted gray and pressed into duty ferrying trainees, troops and local residents to and from Catalina Island under the auspices of the Maritime Training Service. Her war service would last from October, 1942 to October, 1945. The CATALINA left her home waters for the first time sailing up the California coast to San Francisco Bay. On August 25, 1942, she became a U.S. Army troop transport, was painted gray and given the designation FS-99. Her duties included ferrying troops between military installations at various locations around the Bay area, and taking them to the big transports heading out to the war in the Pacific. She was joined in San Francisco by her veteran fleetmate, CABRILLO. During her years of military service, the CATALINA carried 820,199 troops; a larger number than any other U.S. Army transport. Along with the troops, military prisoners were carried in a brig on the bottom deck near the bow. Some of them left inscriptions on the bulkheads - their names and camps at which they had been based - and that wartime graffiti remained with the ship throughout it's career. On April 15, 1946, the CATALINA was released from her wartime service and returned to her owners. After a refurbishment, the ship resumed regular voyages to Avalon on July 3, 1946. Her double layers of lifeboats were reduced to 11 boats carried in a single level, with additional life rafts. She had also gained one prize from the war, a new radar mast atop her pilot house.

In January of 1948, the Wilmington Transportation Company changed it's name to the Catalina Island Steamship Line. It was a different world after the war and many other changes were soon to come. While the CATALINA and the AVALON continued to ply the waters of the channel in the late 1940's, the aged CABRILLO's days were numbered. Old and no longer needed, she was sold in 1950 for use as a restaurant vessel in Northern California. As so often happens, those plans did not materialize and she was left to rot away on the shores of the Napa River. The old AVALON did not have much time left either. She was retired from service to the island in February, 1951. After nine long years laid up at Wilmington, she was sold in early January, 1960 for scrap to an individual named Everett J. Stotts. He intended to cut the ship down himself and took her to the outer reaches of Long Beach harbor off Terminal Island. The task proved rather daunting, and late on the night of July 18th, whether by accident, or design, the 69 year old ship caught fire. But the remains of the AVALON still had one more voyage to make. Cut down to a barge, the hull was towed up to Point San Vicente, California to assist in off-loading another barge that was in peril of sinking. In heavy weather, both barges ended up going to the bottom.

The s.s. CATALINA was left alone to ferry tourists to the "Island of Romance." A brochure for the service dated June 11, 1956, shows departures from Wilmington daily at 10:00 A.M., arriving in Avalon at 12:10 P.M. Return trips departed the island at 4:30 P.M. with arrival at the Wilmington pier scheduled for 6:30 P.M. The fare was $2.96 each way, plus a Federal tax of .30 cents bringing the complete round trip to $6.52. Children under 12 were half price, and kids under 5 sailed for free with adults. Passenger capacity was listed as 1,950 persons. The brochure cover featured an exaggerated drawing of a gigantic s.s. CATALINA with tiny little people waving from her decks, while the text inside read in part: "Small in cost, this trip is nevertheless a genuine big-ship, big-ocean voyage. The S.S. Catalina operates under the same U.S. regulations that govern trans-oceanic liners. And its passengers enjoy a thrilling experience shared by voyagers to the Hawaiian Islands: the strange exhilaration of leaving the continent and heading out into the vast, mysterious Pacific. For such reasons, Catalina has been likened to 'a world cruise in a day.'" A lot of hyperbole to live up to for a ship making a two hour run just "twenty-six miles across the sea."
Physically, the appearance of the CATALINA did not change much during her first 35 years of service. The letter "W" in the flag painted on her funnel changed to a "C" sometime in 1950. The first of six strikes idled the vessel for a week in August, 1955. The CATALINA continued sailing under Wrigley ownership through the 1959 season. With maritime unions becoming more demanding in staffing requirements and pay, the ship suffered another strike.

Fed up with union problems and having little use for the passenger ship business anymore, the Wrigley's sold the s.s. CATALINA to Charlie Stillwell, the colorful owner of a local harbor sightseeing business who placed the vessel under the banner of his M. G. R. S. Company, Inc. The ship too, soon became more colorful as the covers along the sides of her Promenade Deck changed to turquoise, trimmed with a yellow railing, and a pink stripe was added encircling the ship below the Saloon Deck, now simply called "B" Deck. The classic ventilators atop the ship also became pink. The funnel was repainted white with a black top and a very thin pink stripe separating the two colors. The single house-flag motif became a series of four pennants, each a different color and bearing a letter of the company name: "M" in dark blue, "G" on a yellow field, "R" on red and "S" on light blue. The letters represented the last names of the four principle shareholders in the ship. The aft end of "B" Deck was enclosed with glass and a bar area was added in 1960. Surprisingly, all these changes did not spoil the good looks of the ship, a real tribute to her original designer.

Captain Lloyd Fredgren was the ship's master, and he would remain with the s.s. CATALINA for the rest of her active career. Besides her regular daylight crossings to the island, nighttime voyages were also reinstated. An advertisement from 1963 says "Take a moonlight cruise to Catalina on the Big White Steamship." Round trip fare was only $7.16 and departures were every Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 P.M. during the summer. Would be passengers were enticed by the ad copy inviting them to "enjoy cocktails and dancing aboard the ship plus an evening of dancing to Russ Morgan and his Music in the Morgan Manner at the World Famous Casino Ballroom in Avalon."

During the winter lay up of 1964-65 the 40 year old ship received some extensive remodeling. All of the remaining lifeboats along the Main Deck were removed and replaced with inflatable life raft canisters. Where the boats once occupied the deck, additional seating intended for up to 400 more passengers was installed. The greatest outward change to the ship came with the removal of both of her masts.

Through all the events of the long, hot summer of 1965, two involving the s.s. CATALINA made the papers, and epitomized the extremes of those changing times. The motion picture "The Glass Bottom Boat" was being filmed in Avalon, and it's star Doris Day, arrived aboard the ship and was greeted by the Mayor and Miss Catalina along with a mariachi band. Although the excursion boat PHOENIX was the featured player, the CATALINA made a cameo appearance in the end credits of the film. Late in the summer, the Coast Guard received a message from the CATALINA that teenagers were jumping overboard. Ten wet passengers were plucked from the water. The ship had long been a popular escape for local high school students. Over the years it had become a favorite venue for senior ditch day. Now a new tradition developed of celebrating Labor Day and marking the end of summer by diving into Los Angeles Harbor from the ship. The most infamous of student problems was the 1966 riot on the decks. Up to 800 youths took over the aft end of the steamer squirting beer and shaving cream and dousing passengers with fire fighting equipment. Brawling and ripping up benches, the situation got out of control. Police and the Coast Guard were called, and as the ship neared her L.A. berth, 22 of the teenagers jumped overboard hoping to avoid capture. All were soon rounded up, but on future Labor Day weekends, police were assigned to sail aboard the steamer. A criminal of a different type decided to take a cruise to Catalina after robbing a local grocery store. Unfortunately for him, the manager he had robbed the night before just happened to be aboard the same sailing. The thief was easily recognized, the Captain was notified, and police were waiting to nab the robber as he stepped ashore in Avalon.

Perky movie stars and rowdy students were the least of the worries facing the owners of the s.s. CATALINA in 1968. The demands of no less than eight different maritime unions caused the vessel to sit idle for the entire season. At least two local newspapers ran headlines putting the ship in a premature grave. It was an understandable mistake since Charlie Stillwell actually had the CATALINA towed to a local scrap yard. With a flair for the dramatic, he declared with tears in his eyes and his voice cracking, "Today, reluctantly, I ordered the S.S. CATALINA taken to the yards of the National Metal and Steel Co. We will remove approximately $4,500 in new radar gear, some other electronic equipment and salvageable furniture... As scrap steel she will bring about a penny and a half a pound. Maybe a little more for the bronze propellers. It should total out to about $38,000." The frustration of the company to reach agreements with the unions was understandable. Stillwell claimed losses during the 1967 season were $28,000, and $111,000 since he began operations eight years earlier. Featherbedding by the unions required a crew of 64 men, while the Coast Guard only demanded 46 staff. One agreement reportedly allowed longshoremen to load the ship in San Pedro, then fly to the island to unload her. Also at issue was a desire by management to shorten the season from four months to three months during the summer. As both sides fought it out, tourist traffic to Avalon dropped by 125,000 arrivals compared to 300,000 in a normal year. Finally, the following April, a new contract valid for one year, was ratified giving the unions a $25.00 monthly across-the-board pay hike, a 10% pay raise, with crew size to remain at 64 men, but with a shortened season. In 1969, the ship would sail from June 15th to September 15th. The CATALINA had escaped her first brush with a scrap yard, although it may not have been a close call at all. An official at the scrap dock, where the ship had sat idle revealed that Charlie Stillwell had not even discussed the possibility of scrapping her.

The docking facilities for the "Great White Steamer" were also changed in the late 1960's. Her original home in Wilmington was abandoned, in favor of a new Catalina Terminal, constructed in 1967, at Berth 95 in San Pedro directly under the Vincent Thomas Bridge. In Avalon, the quaint old steamer pier was demolished to create more space for private yachts, and a new mole was constructed just outside the east end of the main harbor. The CATALINA used this dock from the summer of 1969, but it was much less suitable as it was subject to wave action which frequently banged the old ship against the concrete.

Labor disputes were again plaguing Charlie Stillwell and M. G. R. S. in 1970. He sold the line that year to Carolyn Stanalan of Bellflower, California, who placed it under the ownership name of Catalina Transportation Company. She controlled 82% of the shares, with the remaining 18% held by her nephew Anthony Gregory and her two sons Tom and Jack Stanalan, the company's President. M.G.R.S. Inc., was still the name of the operating company. Also in 1970, the 164 foot, gas turbine vessel AVALON (ii) was built as a possible replacement for the CATALINA. The aluminum hull vessel could carry 500 passengers but was soon found to be expensive and unsuitable for the Catalina Island service, and was withdrawn.

The CATALINA continued her daily runs between San Pedro and Avalon throughout the 1970 and 1971 season, sailing only during the summer months. But her happiest days were behind her. No longer would kids dive for coins as the ship arrived. Most kids by that time wouldn't pick up a coin from the sidewalk let alone dive for one, and besides, those in charge felt it was too dangerous. Nobody dressed up for a crossing anymore. Even the bands that had played in her ballroom, had shrunken to small combos. In 1972, labor disputes again forced the cancellation of her entire season.

The ship received an enthusiastic welcome in Avalon on June 16, 1973, when service resumed. Her daily arrivals filled with tourists had been badly missed. Her schedule called for departures from San Pedro at 9:30 A.M. arriving in Avalon at 11:30 A.M. The return was at 3:45 P.M. arriving in San Pedro at 5:45 P.M. As an added incentive for families, the cartoon characters, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Sylvester the Cat rode along to entertain children. The ship's color scheme was modified slightly before the season began, with the topside Promenade Deck covers being repainted white, and the ventilators becoming a turquoise-blue with yellow in the cowls. The funnel colors remained the same, except that the M. G. R. S. initials were removed from the four painted pennants. The total number of passengers carried remained excellent. Unfortunately, the season did not go by without a mishap. In August, the company severely over booked the ship for a return voyage, leaving 194 people with confirmed reservations stranded in Avalon. One man was arrested in the resulting protests. The ship's Coast Guard certificate allowed for 2,197 passengers.

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