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S.S. Cabrillo under construction.
Courtesy Catalina Island Museum
S.S. Cabrillo construction completed.
Courtesy Catalina Island Museum
S.S. Cabrillo, stuck in the mud, rotting on the banks of the Napa River.

Cabrillo (#201058) (1904-WWII), 182-foot passenger steamer built for the Wilmington Transportation Company which went into service July 1, 1904. Known as the ‘Queen of the South Coast,’ Cabrillo served Santa Catalina Island from San Pedro for 55 years — her tall stack a common sight in the channel. She was permitted to carry 614 passengers (although this number changed with laws). At the time, she was the most luxurious of the vessels making the run to Santa Catalina Island, with ten staterooms, a great social hall, Javanese teak decks, a rosewood staircase, and mahogany bar. The transit time was two hours. During World Wars I and II, Cabrillo became a troop ship and carried thousands of soldiers to and across San Francisco Bay. After 1918, Cabrillo flew the blue and white flag of the Wrigley’s when they bought rights to the island. Cabrillo was the last of the wooden excursion ships built for island service. In 1920 the steel-hulled S.S. Avalon supplemented and eventually replaced Cabrillo on her island runs. Cabrillo served Santa Catalina Island for forty years. After being used to transport troops during World War II, 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 ultimately abandoned and left to rot away on the shores of the Napa River. Her name board was given to the Cabrillo Museum. [Huntington. Banning Album 180(601)].

NOTE: The original Log Book for the S.S. Cabrillo, Captain Evan H. Trefathen, for July 4, 1904 through Tuesday, February 14, 1905 is on file at the Santa Cruz Island Foundation.

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In the News~

February 16, 1904 [LAT/SP]: “Another vessel has been added to the fleet of the Banning Company… ‘I christen thee Cabrillo.’ With these words little Margaretha Muller, aged 11, the flaxen-haired, smiling daughter of William Muller, the shipbuilder, broke a bottle of California vintage upon the prow of the new Banning steamer, dedicating her to mother ocean, and slowly and gracefully the new boat started down the ways at 8:30 o’clock this morning, amid the screeching of sirens and the plaudits of the crowd. Flying the flag of Spain, and holding a commission form the Viceroy of Mexico, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, an old Spanish navigator, was the first discoverer of Santa Catalina Island and the Bay of San Pedro. He sighted the island on the sixth day of October, 1542, over 350 years ago, and took possession in the name of the King of Spain, calling it San Salvador, which many years later was changed to Santa Catalina… The Cabrillo, in all her appointments, is a beautiful vessel. She was designed and built by William Muller, a resident of this city, who is considered one of the best shipbuilders on the coast. He has been in the employ of the Banning Company for six years… The new steamer will be used exclusively in the passenger business between San Pedro and ‘that sweet vale called Avalon’ on Catalina Island. Her completed cost will be almost $200,000, and she will be scheduled to carry 1200 persons. As an evidence of the great growth of the business to Avalon, it is stated by officials of the company that eight years ago the little vessel, La Paloma, was used to make two trips a week to Avalon carrying provisions, the mails, and an occasional passenger. Since that time, the Warrior and Hermosa have been built as well as the steamer launched today. The number of passengers carried to the island last year was 62,492. Nothing that the shipbuilders’ art could suggest has been omitted in the construction of the Cabrillo. Her length overall is 194 feet, molded depth 15.5 feet, beam 32 feet, and she will have a speed of 16 miles an hour. Her displacement at mean draft of 11 feet will be 564 tons. Her hull is built of wood, covered up to load water line with pure copper. All her cabin and interior is finished in soft mahogany, while the outside of the cabin is white cedar. She has 12 staterooms and 10 rooms for her crew and officers. On the main deck are located the engineer and steward departments, and on the hurricane deck the captain’s quarters. The outside finish of the deck houses are in teak. The Cabrillo’s engines will be of 1500 horse-power, four cylinder triple expansion and of the very latest make… The decorations of the bar and grill room are elaborate. The main stairway is constructed of solid mahogany, and was built by H. Koll. All the joiner work and everything pertaining to the inside finish was manufactured at the shipyard which is so complete that it was not necessary to go outside for anything… In a few days the Cabrillo will be towed to San Francisco to have her machinery installed…”

February 25, 1905 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. The big glass-bottom power boat Cleopatra, which is unique among power boats for the reason that she is perhaps the only ocean boat in the world which requires no wharf at the beach to land, but simply glides up on the beach to receive and discharge her passengers, was chartered yesterday to carry the Hotel Maryland excursionists to Seal Rocks. In landing to receive them she she ran up on the beach on a receding tide, which left her stuck hard and fast. Her sister boat, Lady Lou, tried for half an hour to drag her off, but was obliged to give up as a bad job, when Captain Tripthen of the ship Cabrillo had a line passed out to his ship and soon had her in the swim again.”

April 11, 1904 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. The Wilmington Transportation Comapny’s new steamer Cabrillo is progressing famously, and now promises to be ready for commission at an earlier date than was originally fixed for. The joiner work and paneling are completed, and she will be taken to San Francsico next Wednesday to receive her machinery, which is all complete and ready for installation…”

June 23, 1904 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. A pile driver is at work at the wharf here reinforcing and strengthening it by the addition of some fifty or more piles in readiness for the Cabrillo, Wilmington Transportation Company’s new boat.”

July 3, 1904 [LAT/SP]: “With many pennants floating in the breeze, the flag of General Phineas Banning at her masthead, the Cabrillo, the finest and fastest steamer of the Banning Fleet, steamed proudly up the inner harbor at 10 o’clock this morning, while half the town cheered her arrival and all the other craft in the harbor gave her noisy welcome… The Cabrillo left San Francisco yesterday morning at 5 o’clock, under the command of Captain George A. Harvey, and made the run to this port in twenty-seven hours, an exceptionally fast run, being over sixteen knots an our. Her builder, Captain William Muller, says she is the fastest craft of her class in the West, barring none, and he is much elated over the showing made by the Cabrillo on her first trip… The Cabrillo is the fastest wooden vessel ever built on the Pacific Coast... Her complete cost was close to $250,000… The new steamer will make her initial trip to Avalon on July 4. She will be under the command of Captain Evan Trefethen, who has been for many years in the employ of the Banning Company and who is now the master of the steamer Hermosa…”

July 3, 1904 [LAT/SP]: “With many pennants floating in the breeze, the flag of General Phineas Banning at her masthead, the Cabrillo, the finest and fastest steamer of the Banning Fleet, steamed proudly up the inner harbor at 10 o’clock this morning, while half the town cheered her arrival and all the other craft in the harbor gave her noisy welcome…”

July 6, 1904 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. It was a picture of fairyland that burst upon the vision of the passengers on the new steamer Cabrillo, which arrived here at 9 o’clock last evening. Although the new craft came over on the morning run bringing a large list of passengers and was met by the Catalina Band and the enthusiastic populace, the formal reception was scheduled for the evening…”

July 9, 1904 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. The Cabrillo was late in making port today, having been delayed by a too free flow of oil into the firebox which ignited and blazed up about the boilers, making a tremendous smudge which caused consternation among the timid of the passengers…”

July 10, 1904 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. Passengers on the new steamer Cabrillo, going to Catalina Island on Friday, had an experience such as they will long remember, but which terminated without the slightest injury to any one or damage to property… When midway between the island and the mainland a dense volume of smoke was seen pouring from the engine room below… Within a few minutes the small blaze that had caused all the trouble was extinguished… The Cabrillo is the new boat that went into service on July 4.”

September 4, 1904 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. Today promises to surpass any other of the season in number of visitors. The Cabrillo on her first trip over this morning brought 850 passengers. The Hermosa likewise had a big list, and the Cabrillo still has two more trips to make before the record is closed…”

September 13, 1904 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. Recent travel to this resort has broken the record for largness of volume… This morning the hegira this way set in early and a special boat, the Warrior, brought a party of 176 people for breakfast at 9 o’clock. At 11:15 the Cabrillo landed 900, and at 12:45 the Hermosa steamed in with 250 more…”

February 8, 1905 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. William Muller, the builder of the steamers Cabrillo, Hermosa No. 2, and the Warrior, is here, and will superintend the new building which will replace the old one occupied by Ben Rosin, opposite the post office.”

October 28, 1907 [LAT]: “Shipping. Port Los Angeles, San Pedro. The passenger steamer Cabrillo makes daily trips to Santa Catalina Island and return.”

August 26, 1913 [LAT]: “Avalon. Negotiations between a representative of the Meteor Boat Company of Los Angeles and the Wilmington Transportation Company, who operate the steamers Hermosa and Cabrillo from San Pedro to Avalon, are pending. The former company proposes, if the deal is closed, to take a five-years’ lease upon the two steamers and to operate them between Long Beach and Avalon. Plans are under consideration by the Banning Company to purchase two large steamers to take place of the Hermosa and Cabrillo. After September 15 Hotel Metropole would close its doors for several months and that the steamer Cabrillo would be taken off its regular run September 13. The Hermosa or Warrior, owned by the Wilmington Transportation Company, will be the only vessel plying between San Pedro and Avalon during the winter months...”

February 10, 1914 [TI/Avalon]: “It is reported that the steamer Cabrillo will be put in commission in a few days.”

February 10, 1914 [TI/Avalon]: “The S.S. Cabrillo is now doing regular duty between San Pedro and Avalon. Since the steamer has been overhauled much better time is being made across the channel.”

April 20, 1915 [TI/Avalon]: “While crossing the channel Tuesday the steamer Cabrillo killed a sea elephant thought to be one of the specimens that had escaped from captivity at Venice. Captain Smith of the Cabrillo stated that he was unable to avoid the huge monster owing to the rough sea that prevailed at the time. As the stem of the vessel struck the monster, the massive head turned, the huge saucer like eyes blinked and the stunned elephant rolled over and sank. C. H. Davis spent the greater portion of last week cruising in the channel in search of his pets. The total loss to him, six elephants, is estimated at $22,000.”

September 14, 1915 [TI/Avalon]: “As the steamer Cabrillo pulled away from the dock Saturday afternoon and the strains of harmony from Porter’s well trained musicians wafted over the sunlit bay, the visitors on the beach cheered…”

March 19, 1918 [TI/Avalon]: “Another large lighter load of material for the St. Catherine Hotel was unloaded at the Sugar Loaf Point wharf last week, besides which there are daily arrivals of other material on the steamship Cabrillo.”

September 13, 2009 [Napa Valley Register]: “The ghost ship of Carneros. An old wreck is all that is left of a former Catalina beauty. Nearly 30 years ago, while kayaking on the Napa River, Bob Johnstone stumbled on a sight that has haunted his imagination ever since. The weather-beaten carcass of a triple-decked wooden ship, stretching more than half the length of a football field, sat on a mud flat at Moore’s Landing. “What is this thing? It’s huge,” he remembers asking himself. Johnstone returned again and again. “When the tide was in, I could pull up in my kayak and touch it and feel it,” he said. Johnstone had happened upon the ruins of the SS Cabrillo, a steamship once celebrated as “The Queen of the South Coast.” For nearly 40 years she had ferried tourists from San Pedro Harbor to Santa Catalina Island off the Southern California coast. As his research would reveal, “it had been one of the finest ships on the West Coast, but here it sat,” guarded by “No Trespassing” signs, Johnstone said. He was tempted to dock and somehow climb onto the battered superstructure, which resembled a ghost ship from a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, but he never dared. “I was afraid of being shot,” he said. As bad as the Cabrillo looked in the early ’80s, things soon got worse. With every visit, there was less and less of the ship, Johnstone said. On a recent September morning, with a reporter in tow, Johnstone showed off what’s left. The ragged outline of a wooden hull barely rises above the shore line. Missing its upper decks, the Cabrillo is now inextricably merged with Napa River muck and tule reeds.

Catalina queen. Janice Owens, owner of Moore’s Landing restaurant just steps from the ship’s remains, pointed to a photo of the Cabrillo on the wall next to the bar. The black-and-white image captures a still-impressive ship soon after its arrival in Carneros. Stories abound about the Cabrillo, Owens said. Chuck Moore, the original developer of the property, had the ship hauled to Cuttings Wharf decades ago, she said. “Chuck had a vision for a restaurant. I’ve heard a brothel, too,” she said. Owens couldn’t vouch for the brothel rumor, but it certainly added luster to the improbable arrival of a Catalina excursion ship to a watery cul-de-sac off San Francisco Bay. Records show that the Cabrillo was launched in San Pedro Harbor on Feb. 15, 1904, to handle the surging number of Angelenos seeking a quick escape to Catalina, a resort island just off the coast. Dignitaries from Los Angeles arrived in a private railroad car for the champagne christening. When the Cabrillo slid into the water, men waved their handkerchiefs and lumber mills blew their whistles, newspapers reported. Nearly 200 feet long, with a capacity of 1,200 passengers, the Cabrillo was fashioned out of Oregon fir and Australian ironwood. The bottom of the ship was clad in copper plates. The Cabrillo was the most luxurious ship on the Catalina run, Stacey Otte, executive director of the Catalina Island Museum said. Topside, the ship had Javanese teak decks, a rosewood staircase, mahogany paneling, electric lights, 10 state rooms, a social hall and a grill room for food service. The upper decks included a “women’s cabin” for members of the fairer sex suffering “crossing sickness.” “She was known for the high-quality workmanship,” Marifrances Trivelli, director of the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, said. “Everybody remembers how beautiful she was.” The Cabrillo’s first decades were glorious, marked by festive runs to Catalina, which to this day remains one of Southern California’s favorite day-trip and vacation destinations. “Her decks and rooms were hosts to thousands of parties, romances and escapes from the humdrum,” John M. Houston wrote in his book, “Early Excursion Ships to Santa Catalina.”

Going to pieces. The SS Cabrillo was the biggest and last of the wooden-hulled steamships on the Catalina run. While it would soon be eclipsed by larger steel-hulled vessels, the SS Avalon and the SS Catalina, it stayed in service until World War II. During the war, the Army commandeered the Cabrillo and the Catalina for troop transportation in the Bay Area. When the war ended, the Catalina returned to excursion service, but the Army held onto the Cabrillo for another few years. What happened next remains murky. Sometime between 1947 and 1950, the Cabrillo, still in good shape, landed next to Moore’s fishing shack on the banks of the Napa River. Frances Proctor remembers playing inside the Cabrillo in 1950 as a 16-year-old. Her stepfather, who worked at Moore’s, was living inside the captain’s quarters. “You walked right up the gang plank and right onto the ship,” she said. She described the Cabrillo as “absolutely beautiful.” She remembers “a huge lounge. There was an enormously wide staircase with cherry wood and red carpeting.” She and her sister Shirley had great fun. We “pretended we were going on a cruise, that one of the staterooms was ours,” she said. The good times didn’t last. “Chuck’s idea was to turn it into a restaurant-casino,” Proctor said. “When he couldn’t get the permits, he started salvaging it. He started selling the woodwork, the carpeting. He salvaged it out to whoever.” “It would have made a beautiful nightclub or dinner house, either one,” Proctor said. In retrospect, Proctor said she shouldn’t have been surprised that Moore’s idea for a floating restaurant didn’t work out. “My mother said he was a dreamer. He had stars in his eyes all the time,” she said.

The Real Glory. From her family’s archive, Proctor produced a snapshot of the Cabrillo docked at Moore’s in 1950. Looking nearly as impressive as the Queen Elizabeth II, now a tourist attraction in Long Beach, the ship carried the U.S. Army logo on the bow. Albert Giovannoni, who has owned commercial operations on the river since the ’50s, said it’s hard to remember events from so long ago. “A lot of people have dreams. They let them go, go, go. Then it sank,” he said most succinctly. “If it cost any money, he wouldn’t have spent it,” Giovannoni said of Moore, who died nearly three decades ago. Jim Matheson, Janice Owens’ father, was living in Carneros some 60 years ago when Moore docked the Cabrillo. “All I know is, it showed up there and old Chuck Moore started tearing it apart,” he recalled. For a more definitive explanation of the Cabrillo’s demise, a call went out to Chuck Moore’s son, Ken, now an attorney in the South Bay. Born in 1952, Moore said he grew up believing that he father had plans for “some sort of bar and restaurant.” When his dad couldn’t get a liquor license, “it forced him to begin salvage operations,” he said. “I think he was frustrated about his inability to obtain a liquor license at that time. He was caught up in the bureaucracy of his day,” he said. Moore’s earliest memories of the Cabrillo are from the late ’50s. “In my first recollection, it had already been partially salvaged,” he said. “I can remember going up there with my dad a couple of times,” he said. “Within a few years the deck deteriorated and it became unsafe.” The Cabrillo has been resting on mud for decades. “I don’t know if he intentionally scuttled it or not,” Moore said of his father. The Moore family still owns the Moore’s Landing restaurant building, several dozen adjacent cottages and the land next to the ruins of the Cabrillo. As far as Moore is concerned, the Cabrillo’s rotting remains should be left as they are. “I’m sure it enhances the fish habitat,” he said. For a glimpse of the SS Cabrillo in its heyday, a person can visit the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro. “We have a model of Cabrillo on display here,” Trivelli said. “It’s very nice.” According to the museum, the Cabrillo, outfitted with a dummy second smokestack, starred in a 1939 Hollywood film, “The Real Glory,” a romantic adventure starring Gary Cooper and David Niven. The Catalina Island Museum on Catalina is the repository of the Cabrillo’s name plate. The name plate is not on display, but a half-hull model is. If the film and the museums are out of reach, there’s always lunch or weekend brunch on the deck at Moore’s Landing. The remaining shards of the Cabrillo are within view. Johnstone retains creepy memories of dining in the ’80s at the old Moore’s, a greasy spoon heated by a wood-burning stove. The stove gave off a lot of heat, he said. They were burning the Cabrillo.

January 20, 2016 [LAT]: “ ”

March 18, 2018 [Times-Herald Online]: “...Another old wreck is located on the Napa River at Cuttings Wharf, about 10 miles by water north of Vallejo: The SS Cabrillo, a 194-foot, 1,200-passenger steamship that carried passengers from Los Angeles to Catalina Island from 1904 to the early 1940s. The luxurious ship, nicknamed the “Queen of the South Coast,” was featured in “The Real Glory,” a 1939 film starring Gary Cooper, David Niven and Broderick Crawford. During World War II, the CabrilloThe became an Army troopship and ferried thousands of soldiers to various San Francisco Bay area points. The ship was towed in about 1950 to Cuttings Wharf. Plans by then-owner Chuck Moore to use it as a restaurant, nightclub and hotel never materialized, and over the years it was completely stripped. All that’s left is its rotting hull.”

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