Wreckage of Army troopship lies on river’s edge

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CUTTINGS WHARF, Calif. – Life runs in the slow lane in this drowsy village on the banks of the Napa River about an hour’s drive northeast of San Francisco and 4 1/2 hours from Fallon.

Named for pioneer grower Francis Cutting, who built a wharf here in 1893 to accommodate paddlewheel steamers transporting his fruit to a cannery in Oakland, Cuttings Wharf (population about 250) still maintains its reputation as a bucolic maritime and agricultural community.

Pleasure craft, including jet skis, outboards and sailboats share the winding river that discharges into the San Pablo Bay about 11 miles to the south with commercial barges pulled by tugboats.

On the shore and wharf, which has been rebuilt and is now a county-owned recreational facility, fisherman angle for for sturgeon, halibut and bluegill.

And on the gently rolling hills above town lie more than a dozen sprawling grape vineyards producing a variety of wines such as chardonnay, pinot-noir and merlot.

Motion picture director Francis Ford Coppola, who owns a winery northwest of here, filmed several scenes of his 1979 Vietnam War epic “Apocalypse Now” on the river not far from Cuttings Wharf, including one in which Martin Sheen, playing the role of a U.S. Army captain, sets off in a patrol boat on the fictional Nung River for war-torn Cambodia with orders to assassinate a renegade and crazed Army colonel portrayed by Marlon Brando.

But along with its vineyards, wine tasting rooms and river traffic, a startling, ghostly apparition not mentioned in the tourist guidebooks sits in the mud adjacent to Cuttings Wharf surrounded by tall, reedy cattails, tule bullrushes and the nests of heron, egrets and mallards:

The rotting, bleached bones, the lifeless, crumbling hulk of the long-forgotten SS Cabrillo, a 194-foot steamship that carried passengers from Southern California to Catalina Island beginning with its launching in 1904 until the early 1940s when it was converted into a World War II Army troopship.

The 611-ton Cabrillo, named for Spanish sea captain and explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who in 1542 claimed for Spain what is present-day California, was one of the most luxurious and best-known Catalina steamers in the Wilmington Transportation Company’s “Great White Fleet.”

Nicknamed the “Queen of the South Coast” according to Gail Fornasiere of the Catalina Island Museum, the Cabrillo had a crew of 59, a Japanese teakwood deck and grand staircase, grained Honduras paneling, a tier-glassed mahogany bar, elegant restaurant and 10 private staterooms. The liner, which made the San Pedro-Catalina run in slightly less than two hours, carried hundreds of thousands of passengers during its career, many of whom traveled to its Los Angeles pier on trains from distant points in Southern California.

One of those passengers was Mel Burns, an old friend of this writer and fellow USC alum who served in the Army’s 59th Ordnance Group in Korea during the Korean War.

“My friends and I took the Red Line streetcar from our homes in Pasadena to San Pedro, where the train tracks ended just a short distance from the Cabrillo’s pier. We crossed the channel on the Cabrillo to Avalon, the town on Catalina Island, and then transferred to small boats that took us to Two Harbors on the other side of the island where we spent 10 days at the Orizaba YMCA Camp,” Burns said.

“At Two Harbors we lived in six-man tents and had great times hiking, swimming and fishing. The trips on the Cabrillo were among the highlights of our camping experience, and I had no idea the wreck of the 112-year-old steamer is lying today on the bank of the Napa River,” added Burns, one of thousands who enjoyed the crossings on the old ship.

An article in the local Napa Register published Sept. 20, 1969 said the ship also “had served as a neat dodge from nationwide prohibition laws” and famous movie stars such as Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin “took their swill aboard the Cabrillo.”

“One old wag,” added the newspaper, “recalled an evening’s frivolities which were capped by a guest chasing a nude young lady across the weather decks with a squirting champagne bottle aimed at strategic portions of her anatomy.”

How the luxurious liner than could carry 1,200 passengers was moved to Cuttings Wharf and ended its last days here it itself a captivating story.

Following its use as a passenger ship from 1904 through the second year of World War II, the Cabrillo was commandeered by the War Shipping Administration in 1942, renamed “U.S. Army Troopship FS-100” and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where it carried countless thousands of troops to and from San Francisco, Oakland and Camp Stoneman in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta until war’s end.

The Cabrillo’s conversion to an Army vessel was not its first. In 1939, it was featured in the motion picture “The Real Glory” starring Gary Cooper, David Niven and Broderick Crawford. Filmed at Point Mugu north of Malibu, the movie portrayed the Cabrillo as a U.S. Army gunboat battling ruthless Moro guerrillas along a river in the Philippines following the 1898 Spanish-American War when the Philippines, as well as Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam, had been seized from Spain by the United States.

But getting back to the SS Cabrillo’s untimely end...following WW II, the 44-year-old steamship was deemed too old and obsolete for further military and passenger use, was laid up in the Bay Area for several years, and in 1951 purchased by the Moore family that owned Moore’s Café on the Cuttings Wharf riverfront.

Towed to Cuttings Wharf from Oakland, the liner over the years was stripped by vandals of its machinery, fittings, furnishings and three-deck wooden superstructure after the Moores’ plans to turn it into an elegant floating restaurant, nightclub and hotel evaporated because of unanticipated high costs.

Today, the Cabrillo’s deteriorating hull is all that is left of the once-grand “Queen of the South Coast,” and its only visitors are beavers, otters, raccoons, bobcats and the occasional curious traveler.

The wreckage, lying in a muddy river cul-de-sac near the long-closed Moore’s Café, is well out of the way of boaters and fishermen, and Dennis Weber, communications director of the California Division of Boating and Waterways, said his office “has received no public complaints about the abandoned Cabrillo.”

Sgt. Chris Carlisle, commander of Napa County’s Marine Division, concurs, stating, “The shipwreck poses no danger to commercial and recreational vessels on the river, and there are no plans to remove it.”

Kirby Long, manager of the Napa Valley Marina which lies about a half-mile downstream from the wreckage, said, “No one cares about the SS Cabrillo anymore. In a few years, there’ll probably be nothing left of her.”


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