SS Catalina is history as dream dies

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Posted by Max Bottomtime on December 29, 2008 at 15:33:27:

By Donna Littlejohn, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/27/2008 11:15:06 PM PST

Preservationists have given up the battle to restore the sunken SS Catalina after Mexican officials began demolition on the steamship so they can move forward with plans to develop a new marina. (File Photo)

Preservationists have given up the battle to restore the sunken SS Catalina after Mexican officials began demolition on the steamship so they can move forward with plans to develop a new marina. (File Photo)Many said it was an impossible dream.
And in the end, they were right.
Preservationists who launched an all-out effort in the late 1990s to save the
SS Catalina have officially given up the battle, surrendering to the ravages of time and the inevitable march of progress.
On Dec. 8, demolition crews began hacking away at the Great White Steamer - stuck in the bottom of Ensenada Harbor for more than a decade now. It ended the dream of refurbishing the 1920s-era vessel that so many still remember.
"I would have wished for a different outcome," said David Engholm of Coos Bay, Ore., who spearheaded the movement to return the ship to San Pedro and turn it into a floating museum.
He launched the effort in 1997, but ran into continual roadblocks in trying to lift the decaying ship from the bottom of the harbor. Not only would it cost several million dollars, but working through the Mexican government also proved difficult, he said.
In 2005, a new group was formed - Save the Catalina Association - to see if it could succeed where the SS Catalina Preservation Society had so far failed after spending some $80,000 on the effort.
But the Web site for the newer group, which was endorsed by Engholm, hasn't been updated in three years and organizers did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
The 310-foot steamship, which took its maiden voyage on May 30, 1924, was glorious in its day, hosting the big
bands of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller as it ferried passengers from the California mainland to Catalina Island.
The island's signature song "Avalon" was played as the ship left and entered the ports on either end.
The ship served the passenger route to Catalina until its retirement in 1974, overtaken by smaller, faster boats that grew in popularity.
After that, the steamer, which was commissioned by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. and built at the Los Angeles Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. at a cost of more than $1 million, was purchased by a private party. The idea was to turn it into a restaurant, but that never happened.
It wound up in Mexico in 1985 where it fell into disrepair and began to sink.
Mexican officials have been threatening for years to demolish the ship for scrap, turning the project to save her into a race against time. Because the cost was so high - estimated at around $16 million at one point - the ship languished until now.
With plans to develop a new marina, Mexican officials finally began moving forward to dismantle the ship, a job they say will take several months.
Engholm has managed to salvage some pieces from the old ship and was hopeful the pilot house could be saved. But that now has been destroyed, he said earlier this month.
For Engholm, now in his mid-40s, the end of the battle has been painful. But he said the experience has helped him in a more recent - and successful - effort in his Oregon hometown to save a 1925 movie theater.
Engholm took his first trip on the SS Catalina before he was a year old. His family lived in Silver Lake and were regular visitors to Catalina Island while he was growing up.
"I loved that ship," he said in a 2005 interview. "My grandparents had a house in Catalina and we would go over there every other weekend."
The newer ships, he said, don't offer the amenities that the SS Catalina did with its dance floor and the Wrigley stateroom, featuring a ceiling adorned with a painting of the constellations.
"She was so big and so different," Engholm said of the ship. "She had class. You felt like you were going to Hawaii or Europe."

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