Storms from El Nino Unearth a 1936 “Sin Ship” Crash along the California Coast
Storms caused by El Nino have unearthed a “party ship” which crashed on the California coast in 1936. The ship, named the SS Monte Carlo, was a anchored off the coast for San Diego for years. The SS Monte Carlo was the casino cruise ship of it day, though it might have included prostitution among its vices.
San Diego area preachers would warn their congregations about the “sin ships” offshore, which might have served as an unintentional advertisement for such activiaties. Californians who wanted to enjoy gambling, booze, or prostitution would row to the ship in smaller boats.
The ship had operated in the Prohibition Era, when alcohol was banned by the federal government coast-to-coast. By 1936, Prohibition was ended, but the sin ships continued to operate off the coast, due to laws against gambing and prositution.
SS Monte Carlo
The 300-foot long SS Monte Carlo was launched as an oil tanker named SS McKittrick in 1921. When the Depression hit, most international trade came to a halt. Prohibition laws were still in effect, so the ship was transformed into a sin ship. Its crew anchored the vessel 3 miles off the coast of California, in international waters.
For years, the Monte Carlo continued its operations, much to the chagrin of ministers, moralists, and social reformers. The party ships became infamous throughout Southern California.
The Crash of the SS Monte Carlo
On New Year’s Eve of 1936-37, the ship was caught in a storm and crashed along the coast. The ship washed up on the shore of South Coronado Beach the next morning. It is nearest to the El Camino Tower of the Coronado Shores condominiums. No one claimed the ship’s wreckage, because it was now resting in California. Anyone claiming ownership would have faced criminal charges.
Since the crash, the “palace of sin” has been buried under the sand. Some estimate that as much as $150,000 of silver coins might be buried in the sand. The late-Bud Bernhard was one of the beachcombers who collected hundreds of coins from the wreckage.
Mr. Bernhard once told the papers, “I’m convinced there is $100,000 in gold and silver coins deep in that wreck.”
Joe Ditler on the Wreckage
Over the years, when storms have washed the sand away, the ship has become visible to locals. A handful of historians have studied the wreckage, including Joe Ditler, who is executive director of the Coronado Museum of History & Art. Mr. Ditler says he has never seen the SS Monte Carlo more exposed, or cleaner. Storms from El Nino have washed away more sand this year than anyone has seen in several decades.
Ditler said local residents at the time cleaned up some flotsam and jetsam from the crash. He said people reported seeing roulette wheels, slot machines, and furniture strewn along the beach. They also saw smaller items, like dice and whiskey bottles.
No one is entirely certain who made away with the gaming equipment, but the booze was a treasured find. Ditler said, “People wiped the bottles off and drank them on the beach.”
“Smoke-Filled Gambling Parlor”
Joe Ditler has interviewed people who visited the Monte Carlo. In the 1980s, he interviewed a Coronado woman named Katherine Carlin, who claimed to have visited the ship once while it was still in operation.
Carlin said she and her companion found a smoke-filled gambling parlor, but gambling wasn’t the only activity. She said the room also had “skinny women in tiny skirts [who] danced on the tables.”
In the 80s, Carlin claimed she and her companion quickly left, out of a sense of disapproval.
Sin Ships and the Wrath of God
Joe Ditler said the mobsters who owned the SS Monte Carlo also owned two other ships. There was the SS Reno, which was moored off the coast of Orange County. There also was the SS Rex, which was moored off Santa Monica. A flier of the time lured gamblers with sales copy that read, “All the appeals of the South Seas, New York, Paris, and Monte Carlo.”
said the preachers of that time spent whole sermons warning residents about ships like the SS Monte Carlo. Ditler spoke to NBC San Diego about the history of the so-called sin ships. He said, “Evangelists throughout San Diego County and Southern California devoted their whole sermons to sin ships.”
Ditler said the preachers would tell their congregation, “‘May God let forth His wrath!’ [they would say]. When it did break moorings and crashed, they took credit.“