Getting to Catalina Island

December 13th, 2009

By Larry Ennis

Catalina CasinoI’m a lover of days past. I could go on about my youth in Alabama, but my youth was more diverse than just Alabama. How about my life in California?

Southern California as seen through the eyes of a youngster from rural Alabama. Oh, wow!

With encouragement from my cousin Shela (her real name was Hazel) my mom and dad journeyed to the Golden State seeking a better life financially. We went in a Ford one-ton truck with the bed made up to look and protect like a covered wagon. We were years ahead of the Beverly Hillbillies and the influx of other foreigners.

I remember arriving in Los Angeles after dark and being greeted with the thickest fog I’d ever seen. Creosote, dead fish, and sea water made for a strange smell, especially if you’d spent all your life breathing rural pine-scented air back home.

Because we needed to catch a boat to our final destination at ten o’clock in the morning, we were up early the next day. The boat left the Wilmington docks at ten forty-five. My dad had to get boat tickets and make arrangements to rent a safe place to leave our truck and belongings. He managed to do it all, and at ten o’clock that morning we were lead out to the pier area and the SS Catalina.

CatalinaMeasuring three hundred and twenty feet, she wasn’t a boat, exactly. The ship had been designed and built for hauling tourists to Catalina Island. It was mid-May, and the tourist season was already going strong, gauging from the number of passengers on board.

Catalina Island is located about 25 miles off the coast of southern California. In its history the Island has been the property of Spain, Mexico, and this country. 

Early in the twentieth century, the Wrigley family (Wrigley chewing gum) bought the development rights and the Catalina Island Company. The state of California gave Bill Wrigley a 100-year lease on the Island. After obtaining the lease, Wrigley began investing millions of dollars in the development of the infrastructure and Avalon, the principle city on the Island.

The result was one of the most beautiful places on earth. Built to be a resort for the very wealthy, Catalina was not that well known to the general public at first. The Island and its well-being became a hobby for Wrigley and his family. They wanted to give the public better access so they bought one steamship and had another one built to haul tourists back and forth between the Island and the mainland.

Wrigley had his plans upset when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Until the war ended, the tourist trade was dead. The Army and Navy used the Island as an early warning site, complete with the then new radar defense system. The summer of 1947 was dedicated to getting back to full speed in the tourist business. My mom and dad could not have made the move at a better time.

For my little brother and me it was almost like living in a good dream. We were on the largest ship we’d ever imagined, heading to a place so beautiful that you’d feel you were in heaven. The trip was uneventful except for two things, both of which involved fish. First was the appearance of dolphins. They would follow the ship and race ahead to play in the waves caused by the bow of our ship as it steamed toward Catalina. Shortly after the Island came into view on the horizon, the flying fish began to arch through the air. These fish are amazing to say the least, gliding about thirty yards on a good jump. As we drew closer to the Island it presented the vision of a jewel in the blue-green water and the California sunshine.

More and more smaller boats came out to meet us as the big ship got closer to our destination. The festive atmosphere started before our ship had docked. Everyone stood on the upper deck as the Captain and the pilot began to ease into the berth where we would dock. The good ship Catalina eased into her spot with little more than a slight bump against the dock. Within a few minutes the large ship was tied down, the ramps were in place, and we were about to step onto Island soil for the first time.

Down the ramp and a walk to the waiting area, and we were officially there. The place was crowded with all the tourists and the welcoming committee in a room that needed to be bigger. There was a Mexican band playing while a woman danced and twirled. Everyone was given a flower necklace called a “lei”. Shela and her husband Bob were waiting for us. Seeing a familiar face so far from home was a life saver. So began my California adventure.

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3 Responses to “Getting to Catalina Island”

  1. Tom |

    Great story, Larry! That must have been a great adventure for a couple of kids. The SS Catalina finally reached a very inglorious end in 2008, when it was cut up for scrap after preservationists spent years trying to save it. There’s a very sad photo at the linked website.

  2. Kathleen Etter |

    Thanks for the great story! My grandfather, Capt. Christensen was one of the captains . It is nice to know that the boat and experience still live through people like you!

  3. Linda Hironimus |

    Thank you for the great story and your wonderful memories. The S.S. Catalina was so much a part of the history of the island. She was indeed cut up for scrap. A very sad ending for a state historical landmark and the U.S. Army had commissioned her as a WWII Veteran. I wonder how many of us will remember her on Veteran’s Day. I grew up on that ship and in Catalina. My father who is 96, still living, is the last of the survivors of the owners of the ship. He was VP of MGRS. Those initials, MGRS, were of the owners of the ship who also Managed her as well.

    This is a wonderful website and your story is a great tribute not only to the island, but to the ship. Thank you!!

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