Drinks, Dice & Dolls: US Navy's Sin Ship

Violent El Niño storms have uncovered what’s left of the Monte Carlo, a ship that once hosted thousands of gamblers off the California coast.

Jamie Lantzy/Flickr

“It was a long ride for a quarter. The water taxi, an old launch painted up and glassed in for three quarters of its length … slid up and down the swell now with a sinister smoothness, like a cobra dancing … The red neon pencils that outlined the Royal Crown faded off to the left and dimmed in the gliding gray ghosts of the sea, then shone out again as bright as new marbles … Then all this faded into remoteness and another, older, smaller boat began to sneak out of the night toward us. It was not much to look at. A converted seagoing freighter with scummed and rusted plates, the superstructure cut down to the boat deck level, and above that two stumpy masts just high enough for a radio antenna. There was light on the Montecito also and music floated across the wet dark sea. The spooning couples took their teeth out of each other’s necks and stared at the ship and giggled.”

—From Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Sometime during the stormy night of Dec. 31, 1936, the SS Monte Cristo ran out of luck.

Battered by 15-foot waves, the gambling ship—a floating casino anchored in the Pacific Ocean three miles west of San Diego—tore loose from its moorings. Two caretakers, the only people on board, were powerless to control the ship, and by dawn on New Year’s Day, the storm had driven the Monte Cristo onto shore just south of the fabled Coronado Hotel.

Scavengers wasted no time looting what was left of the ship, which had broken apart in the night. They made off with roulette wheels, furniture, whiskey bottles, dice, slot machines, and the silver dollars that lay scattered across the deck. They even stripped out the long leaf Oregon fir used to build the upper-deck dining room.

Authorities confiscated what was left, because once the ship touched California soil—indeed, once it left international waters and crossed the three-mile limit—everything about it was illegal in a state that forbade the gambling and prostitution peddled on board.

No one came forward to claim the wreck, and there she's remained for almost 80 years, buried in sand and seawater, save for those rare occasions when an extremely low tide revealed glimpses of the derelict hulk.

Then came this winter’s violent El Niño-driven storms that abraded the California coast. Since last week, thanks to those scouring storms, the skeletal remains of the Monte Cristo are suddenly back in the public eye, one last ravaged reminder of an era when “the World’s Greatest Pleasure Ship,” as it was billed, offered “drinks, dice, and dolls” to 15,000 customers a week.

Even now, after the last storms, there’s not much left to see of the wreck. “Saltwater and the ebb and flow of the tide do a pretty thorough job on everything man-made in the ocean,” says local historian Joe Ditler.

And what the sea hasn't whittled, local authorities have. “At the lowest tide of the year, the City of Coronado brings a big utility truck down on the beach and workers cut away any metal shards or rebar that stick up,” Ditler says. “They've cut away tons over the years, and all you can ever see is the deck and the hatches that lead below, although they don't go very deep before you hit sand again.”

Despite its Ozymandian state, you can still get a good idea of the original ship's immensity: It was as long as a football field. “You can walk out on the deck and look into the hatchways,” Ditler says, “but there’s nothing exciting there other than an occasional fish or seashell.”

SS Monte Carlo was not unique. During the ’20s and ’30s, there were as many as 10 gambling ships—“sin ships,” they were called, and “hell boats”—up and down the coast from San Diego to Los Angeles. Run by gangsters, they had names like The Lux, The Rex, and the Johanna Smith, and all had been refitted for the gambling trade after former service in fishing fleets, the lumber business, and the military. Moored in international waters, they drew the ire of preachers and district attorneys, whose attempts to shut down the gambling inevitably proved futile.

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For most people, though, these floating pleasure domes shimmered with a sort of disreputable glamour, and they quickly became a staple of hardboiled detective fiction and films. Cary Grant starred in not one but two movies about floating casinos, Gambling Ship and Mr. Lucky, which later became a television series.

Open for business 24 hours a day, the ships catered mostly to middle-class customers. Inducements often included free water taxi rides, free drinks and meals, and live orchestras for dancing, all to get customers in the mood for roulette, poker, blackjack, chuck-a-luck, Chinese lottery, and the slots. Wireless radio transmission also allowed people to bet on boxing matches and horse and dog races.

Illegal alcohol sales were a big part of the ships’ allure, but they thrived even after Prohibition ended in 1933, and might be thriving yet had not the boundary for international waters been extended from three miles to 12 in the mid-20th century. That proved just too far for most people to go to gamble (the three-mile limit, by the way, was set originally because that was supposedly as far as a cannon could fire from shore).

The Monte Carlo was also not the only ship to meet a violent end. One of the ships in the gambling fleet caught fire and burned to the waterline, and another, employed by the U.S. Navy in World War II, was sunk by a German submarine.

The biggest of the gambling ships, the Monte Carlo was built for the U.S. Navy as an experimental ship constructed of concrete, which explains, Ditler points out, why “it’s taking the ocean longer than normal to eat away at it.” It was intended for service in World War I, but it was not completed until after the war ended. The U.S. Quartermaster Corps used the ship for two years, and then it was sold to a West Coast oil company. In 1932, she was sold again, rechristened Monte Carlo, outfitted for the gambling trade, and moored off the coast near Los Angeles. In 1936, eight months before the storm that ended her career, the Monte Carlo was moved down to San Diego, where rumors still circulate about a fortune still on board.

“I was told by a man who as a child retrieved an enormous amount of silver dollars off the wreck that first year, that he believed there was $100,000 in silver dollars still buried on the lower decks,” Ditler says. “Of course, no one can confirm that now, and he’s the only eyewitness I’ve interviewed who actually crawled on board the ship and retrieved items. I knew him quite well in his older years, and I have no reason to believe he made any of that up. I still have a silver dollar he gave me from the wreck.”