Home / CRUISING THE PAST / SS CATALINA – the “Great White Steamer” – Sails Again from Los Angeles to Catalina Island…

SS CATALINA – the “Great White Steamer” – Sails Again from Los Angeles to Catalina Island…

The S.S. Catalina, also known as The Great White Steamer, was among several steamships that provided passenger service from Los Angeles to Catalina Island. Built at a cost of $1 million for William Wrigley, Jr., the 301-foot steamship carried approximately 25 million passengers to and from Catalina from 1924 through 1975.

A great video on the SS CATALINA from Cruising The Past!

The SS Catalina, also known as The Great White Steamer, was a 301-foot steamship built in 1924 that provided passenger service on the 26-mile passage between Los Angeles and Santa Catalina Island from 1924 to 1975. According to the Steamship Historical Society of America, the Catalina has carried more passengers than any other vessel anywhere. The SS Catalina also served as a troop ship during World War II, transporting more than 800,000 soldiers and sailors. After a period of service as a floating discothèque, the ship ran aground on a sandbar in Ensenada Harbor in 1997 and remained there half-submerged and decaying for more than a decade.

In January 2009 it was announced that the ship would be cut up for scrap, which has been completed.

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Pacific Electric combination passenger/baggage car express has just arrived from Los Angeles at Catalina Island Steamer Terminal in 1945. This line entered passenger service in March, 1920 when the new Catalina Dock opened. It ran continuously (except during World War II when the island was closed) during the busy summer season. While more than 115,000 passengers traveled the line in 1950, the number dropped to just over 41,000 by 1956. Pacific Electric stopped the “Big Red Car Express” connecting to the SS Catalina in 1958.  


SS Catalina is just arrived in Avalon, Catalina Island – after two hour trip from Los Angeles (Wilmington). 


SS Catalina and flying boat arriving in Los Angeles from Avalon, Catalina Is. 

SS Catalina arriving Avalon, Catalina Island from Wilmington (Los Angeles) in the 1920s.

The SS Catalina was originally built in 1924 at a cost of $1 million for William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum and confectionery magnate who owned most of Catalina Island.

Between 1924 and 1975, the SS Catalina carried about 25 million passengers between Los Angeles and Avalon Harbor.

According to the Steamship Historical Society of America, the Catalina has carried more passengers than any other vessel anywhere.

In its heyday, the ship was known as the “Great White Steamer” and carried 2,000 passengers at a time on the two-and-a-half hour trip to Catalina.

Among its famous passengers were Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, actor Robert Mitchum and many of the great musicians of the Big Band era.

The Los Angeles Times recalled the passage this way:

To board the Catalina during its heyday was to enter a world of luxurious leather settees and gleaming teak. On the upper deck people danced to swinging big bands. Magicians and clowns entertained passengers.

On the lower deck youngsters played hide and seek among the lifeboats, and couples found hidden spots where they could be alone. … Residents fondly remember the rituals with which the ship was greeted as it approached the island: Speedboats would circle the ship, water skiers slicing through its giant wake. Closer to shore, children swam out to dive for coins passengers tossed into the bay.

People in Avalon gathered to sing as passengers stepped off the ship that docked near the center of town.

In 1958, the 26-mile trip to Catalina Island was made famous by Four Preps’ hit song “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)”. The song reached the #2 position on the US popular music charts. In 1960, fed up with all of the excessive taxation and union pressure, Phillip K. Wrigley sold the ship to a group of investors, known as M.G.R.S. President, Charlie Stillwell, and Vice President, Vern Maynard who was also President of Channel Concessions, ran the ship, as well as managed the Casino Ballroom during the early to mid-1960s.

By the early 1970s, smaller, faster vessels made it difficult for the Catalina to compete for passenger traffic, and she was retired from passenger service in 1975.In 1977, the Catalina was purchased at auction for $70,000 by real estate developer Hymie Singer.

He bought the ship as a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife and the steamship was moved for several years between Newport Beach, San Diego, Santa Monica Bay and Long Beach. At one point, there was a proposal for the Catalina to ferry tourists up the Nile River, but her 21 feet of draft was too deep for the river.

As the ship bounced from one port to another, one writer noted: “Twice she broke free of her moorings in Long Beach and once nearly hit a tanker; it was as if the ship was rebelling against her fate, having gone from being a source of pride to an embarrassment to a naval hazard.”

In 1985, Singer moved the ship to Ensenada, Baja California, where she became the focus of a series of unsuccessful business ventures, including a floating discothèque and the Catalina Bar and Grill. In late 1997, the Catalina escaped its moorings and became stuck on a sandbar in Ensenada Harbor. Since that time, the Catalina remained half-submerged and stuck in the mud in the harbor. After years of neglect, the Catalina was badly decayed and rusted and had been stripped by looters and vandals.

In January 2009 it was announced that the ship would be cut up for scrap, which has been completed.

Cruising The Past is an informative site on travel featuring photos, videos and stories. Ships, trains, hotels and high society.

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