Seeing the Shipwreck of the SS Monte Carlo in Coronado

On the beach, just a few hundred feet south of the Hotel Del Coronado, the remains of the prohibition era in California lay hidden just under the sand and waves. Every few years, when the conditions are just right, the shipwreck of the SS Monte Carlo reemerges to remind all who see it of that long-forgotten past.

The History of the SS Monte Carlo

With metal shortages due to World War I, the government experimented with building ships out of alternative materials. One of the ideas was to make ships out of concrete, which honestly wouldn’t be one of the first materials to come to mind if I was building a ship. 

As I’m sure will come as no surprise, they realized concrete ships are pretty heavy, so that experiment ended pretty quickly, and the government only built a small number of these ships. The ships did work, though, and in 1921 the U.S. Quartermaster Corp put Tanker #1, which had been built in Wilmington, North Carolina, into service.

Tanker #1, later to become the Monte Carlo, in 1921. Credit Long Beach Historical Society.

In 1923, Tanker #1 was sold to the Associated Oil Company of San Francisco and renamed the McKittrick. The ship would spend the next nine years as an oil tanker operating along the Pacific Coast of the United States.

In 1932 the ship was sold again to Ed V. Turner and Marvin “Doc” Schouwiler, and here’s where the story takes a bit of a turn. The ship was renamed the Monte Carlo and converted into a gambling ship. The new owners towed it to sea, off the coast of Long Beach, and anchored the ship there outside of the State’s jurisdiction. With the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and gambling and alcohol being illegal in California, the ship did great business, with water taxis heading to the ship every 15 minutes from Long Beach. In one weekend alone, 1,700 people visited the ship.

The Monte Carlo was one of a number of gambling ships located off the coast of California at the time and the largest. The ship was 300 feet in length and forty-four feet across.

The Monte Carlo off the coast of California. Credit Long Beach Historical Society.

Alcohol became legal again in 1933 with the end of prohibition, but gambling and several other activities one could partake in on the ship remained illegal in California. It probably didn’t help matters that they were advertising the ship’s activities in local papers, with some of them being very thinly veiled.

The government hated these ships off the coast and did all it could to try and put a stop to them, even raiding the Monte Carlo twice and seizing all of the ship’s gambling equipment. However, the ship owners were acquitted of all charges, and the court ordered the gambling equipment returned. 

In 1935, after the ship shut down for the night after a busy Fourth of July weekend, four masked men armed with guns boarded the Monte Carlo and stole over $22,000 in silver and currency and over $10,000 in watches and jewelry. 

The perpetrators were eventually caught due to the work of undercover police. They were sentenced to federal prison for eight years, but the crime remains one of the biggest acts of piracy on the seas off California to this day.  

Why Is There a Shipwreck on a Coronado Beach?

The SS Monte Carlo as it begins to become visible again on Coronado Beach.

In 1936, tired of harassment from Los Angeles area authorities, the Monte Carlo was towed south to be anchored off Coronado, thinking the San Diego area would be more tolerant of their activities, and to take advantage of the large Navy presence there.

On November 1, 1936, the Monte Carlo hosted a huge party and then closed for the winter. Two caretakers were left on board to watch after the ship. On December 30, a huge storm hit San Diego, and twelve-foot-high waves began pounding the Monte Carlo. At about 3:30 am on New Year’s Eve, the anchor chains snapped, and the Monte Carlo was adrift.

The caretakers onboard started panicking and began shooting off emergency flares, but no one saw them. The ship continued to drift, and by morning it had run aground.

The Coast Guard was able to rescue the two caretakers, and shortly after, the wooden deck house on the ship broke apart, and it, along with the furniture and gambling equipment inside, began to wash ashore.

One man, a local Navy sailor, attempted to swim out to the ship and climb the anchor chains, but a wave hit him, and his body was never found.

The government seized all of the gambling equipment, and the ship’s owners never bothered to claim the ship; they just left it on the beach where it ran aground. The ship’s concrete hull had broken in half, making it impossible to float it away. Eventually, the ship just sank into the sand and was buried.

Where to Find the SS Monte Carlo

The SS Monte Carlo now lies just a few hundred feet south of the Hotel Del Coronado, just north of the Navy base, on what is commonly called Shipwreck Beach.

I don’t think Shipwreck Beach is an official name for this beach, but if you search it on Google, the beach will come up. 

The wreck is just off the beach, underneath the waves and sand most of the time.

When Is The Best Time to See the SS Monte Carlo?

The SS Monte Carlo just before low tide.

Normally you can’t see the shipwreck, as it is either buried under the sand or underwater. Still, in the right conditions, the wreck reemerges, and you can even climb on it and visit the ship where so many Californians went to get around the law generations ago.

The first thing you need is something you can plan for, and that is a low tide. You actually need an extremely low tide of at least -1.8 feet. Tides that low only happen in the winter.

Then, of course, you need the super low tide to come during daylight hours. This limits the chances to see the ship to only a few days a year, but there is still one more thing that is needed to get your best view.

As the shipwreck is buried by the sand, the last thing that is necessary for it to be visible again is a strong storm to wash away the sand. Timing a storm with low tides is what makes seeing the shipwreck unpredictable.

Generally, December through January are the times when the ship has become most visible over the years. Count yourself lucky if you see it, as it sometimes goes a decade without being exposed.

Seeing The SS Monte Carlo

A photographer stands on the SS Monte Carlo.

You cannot miss the shipwreck when the tide is low after a storm. It really stands out on the beach, plus you’ll likely see a crowd of people staring at it. 

As the tide gets lower, you can start approaching the ship. I recommend waiting until the tide is nearly at its lowest to try and board, as the water around the shipwreck can still be fairly deep, and you’ll still have to deal with waves. The last thing you want is a wave slamming you against the ship’s concrete hull.

Even at the lowest tides, you will have to get your feet wet to get out to the ship. You want to be sure to wear shoes in the area, too, as the concrete and metal of the ship are probably not something you want to be walking on with bare feet.

Once the tide is low enough, hop aboard the ship and look around. Just watch your feet.

What’s Inside The SS Monte Carlo?

When the ship ran ashore, the deck house broke apart, spilling a lot of the furniture and gambling equipment onto the beach. The authorities and scavengers recovered other items in the days after the crash. I would imagine that the ship was mostly cleaned out, but some items were possibly left in the hulls, but no one knows for sure.

Some people believe there may still be treasures like silver down in the ship’s hulls. I’m not sure, the ship was closed for the season when it was grounded, and I can’t imagine they would have left much in the way of valuables on board, but who knows?

Getting a chance to see the SS Monte Carlo reemerge from the sand and sea is an amazing sight, and if you get the chance to see it, don’t let it pass by. You never know when you’ll get another chance. 

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