Over the last month, El Niño storms have brought much needed rain and snow to the drought stricken state of California. In addition to relief and recreational fun, these storms also uncovered a part of California’s history that has been buried for the last seven decades.
During the 1930’s a handful of ships, often thought to be under the control of the mob, dotted the Pacific Coast of California in effort to skirt State and Federal alcohol, gambling and prostitution laws. The S.S. Monte Carlo, one of these ships, was anchored off the coast of Long Beach and San Diego, was the subject of public ire during the mid-1930’s.
In what some deemed an “act of God,” the S.S. Monte Carlo crashed on the shores of Coronado’s beach on New Years of 1937, and soon was buried by the unforgiving ocean. That was until El Niño decided to uncover it and all of the legends that have spawned since the “sin ship’s” demise.
In 1921, the S.S. McKittrick was one of a dozen large oil tankers built for use during World War I. According to one source, she served two years in the U.S. Quartermaster Corps as Tanker No. 1 before being acquired by the Associated Oil Company of San Francisco and renamed the S.S. McKittrick. She would go on to proudly serve off the coast of California for nearly a decade.
The Monte Carlo
In 1932, the McKittrick was sold and converted to a gambling ship. Renamed the Monte Carlo, her grand opening was on May 7, 1932, during the end of Prohibition. She was anchored roughly three miles off shores of Long Beach, in international waters. Her original owners were Ed V. Turner and Marvin Schouweiler. History states that Turner was a gambler and that Schouweiler was a rum runner during prohibition and a partner in the Johanna Smith; which was the first real gambling ship off the coast of California opening up in 1927.
The S.S. Monte Carlo was the crown jewel of all of the gambling ships. She was the biggest and most extravagant of the fleet. Research has uncovered that the notable crime figure Tony Cornero was linked to many of the gambling ships. He was a bootlegger and gambler in Southern California and one of the pioneers for casinos in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, he ran into some opposition with Charlie “Lucky” Luciano and his time in Vegas came to an abrupt end. It’s also rumored that Cornero could’ve received some pressure from Al Capone as the notorious gangster was seen in Coronado during the Monte Carlo’s heyday.
Also, during her heyday, the gambling ship pulled in an average of 15,000 visitors a week with rumors of major celebrities like Clark Gable and Mae West making appearances.
The Monte Carlo featured blackjack tables, roulette tables, dice tables, chuck-a-luck, poker and slot machines. Visitors could get free taxi rides from the dock at 1375 West Seventh Street while the ship was in Long Beach. The ship opened daily at 5 P.M. during the week and at 1 P.M. on the weekends.
One advertisement for the boat stated the following:
“Show Boat, Monte Carlo – where youth, life and gayety reign supreme. Meet your friends at sea, where the salt breezes have a tang all their own, and you may dine on excellent food or dance to the exhilarating melodies of the popular Arthur “Hoot” Gibson Orchestra … Where you may stroll to a marvelous bar and order drinks such as used to be mixed in the good old days.
Words can never picture the glamour of an evening aboard the picturesque Monte Carlo.”
The gambling ships were constantly under attack from State and Federal officials. One incident saw the Johanna Smith and the Monte Carlo temporarily halt operations in September 1933, due to raids from authorities. This was a common occurrence during the gambling ship era.
In the Spring of 1936, the Monte Carlo was towed from Long Beach to San Diego. For the next 8 months, the “sin ship” operated successfully. It was also during this time that some historians believe that the ship changed ownership, possibly to the hands of Tony Cornero or other members of organized crime.
On November 1, the ship closed operations for the winter. Two caretakers were left to watch over the anchored pleasure ship. On December 30, a storm began to rage at sea. By the 31st, 15 foot waves were crashing against the ship. During the night, both the stern and the bow’s chains snapped causing the caretakers to shoot distress flares into the night sky. A Coast Guard skiff rescued the two men. The Monte Carlo was now betting on its survival while at the mercy of the storm.
On the morning of January 1, 1937, the ship lost that bet and ran aground. The sea was unforgiving as it destroyed portions of the ship. The upper deck washed ashore and crowds of people scurried to collect the remnants of gambling tables and bottles of liquor. Officials and residents were also rumored to have stripped off lumber and other items of worth.
The Monte Carlo was unfixable and no owners came forward to salvage or lay claim to the ship. This also lends credence to the theory that she was owned by organized crime.
Over the decades, visitors and historians have seen glimpses of the ship. But, nothing like this most recent uncovering. Apparently, El Niño also unveiled this ship in the early 80’s as if it wants the Monte Carlo’s story to be told to future generations. This is a very intriguing part of California’s history and the site of this shipwreck is one that I long to see. Legend has it that there’s at least $100,000 in silver coins still buried within the sunken ship.
A great source for this ship and the history of California’s gambling ships is a book by Earnest Marquez title Noir Afloat: Tony Cornero and the Notorious Gambling Ships of Southern California.
If you have been to this shipwreck, please send me a message or comment below.
The following video is a local news broadcast of the latest uncovering:
The following video is a podcast interview with historian Joe Ditler on the Bear Flag Libation Podcast. The main photo of this article was found on the Bear Flag Libation Blog and could be credited to Joe Ditler.