If you’ve lived in San Diego for even a few years, you’ve probably heard about the Coronado shipwreck. It appears every so often just south of Hotel del Coronado typically just after a big storm and during particularly low tides. And then, after a few days, like a ghost ship, it vanishes — swallowed up once again by the sand and surf.
But other than a quick mention of it on the local TV news when it appears, the thrust of which is usually, “Maybe you want to check out this curiosity for yourself before it disappears,” very few locals know much about the SS Monte Carlo ship.
(This post was written with help from my husband, a Harvard history major and attorney, who studied the impact these gambling ships bore on current laws. He’s since been an enthusiast of this topic, even collecting poker chips from these ships.)
So, What Was the SS Monte Carlo Ship?
In short, the SS Monte Carlo was a concrete oil tanker that was converted into a gambling and prostitution ship in the 1930s. Like several other similar vessels, it operated just off the coast of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Later, in 1936, it moved south to Coronado. Hollywood icons like Clark Gable and Mae West are rumored to have visited the ship in San Diego, but the new location wasn’t quite as busy or lucrative. Gaming on board included roulette wheels, blackjack tables, poker games, and slot machines.
It’s also thought that the dice were shaped to favor the house. And, there are some neat anecdotes of deckhands benefitting from chips falling below deck through the casino’s wooden floors.
During a strong winter storm on New Year’s Eve in 1937, the SS Monte Carlo broke free from its anchor, ran aground on Coronado Island on New Year’s Day in 1937, and was immediately abandoned. No one claimed ownership because the vessel was illegal once onshore.
Most stories of the gambling ship are from people who witnessed her demise. Coronado residents and Hotel del Coronado Tent City guests benefited from some of the wares that washed up on the beach including lumber, booze, silver slot machine coins, and gambling paraphernalia.
The shipwreck (or at least its hull) has remained just offshore from the Coronado beach for over 80 years now, long since looted of anything interesting or valuable, only to briefly appear every so often for what feels like a fleeting moment.
What’s a Gambling Ship?
In short, starting in the late 1920s (at the end of Prohibition), Los Angeles-area gangsters began converting old ships into floating casinos, with booze and prostitution as well.
They would then anchor them three miles offshore so that these illegal activities would be out of the local city authorities’ reach (and jurisdiction) and international waters. This was a way around all the trouble bootleggers were having on-shore at the time, including arrests and prison terms.
The proprietors of these gambling ships would run customers out to them for free in speed boat-style water taxis.
As you may imagine, not only were these gambling boats popular with some, but they also scandalized many more of the upright citizens in the Southland and infuriated the local city authorities.
How Did it All Come to an End?
Eventually, the outcry over these “floating craps games” reached a crescendo.
Two things happened in the late 1930s. First, local authorities began boating out to these ships, forcibly boarding them, throwing the gambling equipment into the ocean, and arresting people.
According to contemporaneous accounts, that led to scenes that seem almost comical in hindsight, as the proprietors tried to fight off the invading authorities with water hoses.
This outcry also led to lawsuits about how far into coastal waters terrestrial state and local authority extended.
Furthermore, in 1948, the United States government enacted legislation making gambling illegal in US territorial waters. This limit was considerably further than three miles from shore, making the water taxi/speed boat shuttles to these gambling ships impractical.
They could no longer anchor and operate just beyond the law. Their era was over.
But by this time, the SS Monte Carlo had already been a shipwreck in Coronado for 11 years. It’s demise was, prosaically, merely weather-related.
As an epilogue, in 2012, a story ran about a local Coronado man who found over $400,000 worth of silver slot machine coins inside the hull of the SS Monte Carlo. He was able to recover it in a pre-planned, semi-professional scavenging operation (that is an April Fool’s tale — note the story’s date).
Where Is the Coronado Shipwreck Located?
The Coronado shipwreck is located south of Hotel del Coronado, in front of the El Camino Tower of the Coronado Shores condos. If walking toward the condos from the hotel, the El Camino Tower is the furthest oceanfront building south in the complex.
This beach is also locally nicknamed Shipwreck Beach and is easy to find. Look for the tall concrete buildings that look like condos south of the hotel, and you’re there.
You may see signage on the beach that indicates that there is an underwater obstruction. This is a warning for people who may otherwise swim here.
Street parking can be difficult in Coronado. You can day park at Hotel del Coronado or try Strand Way, which is a surface street on the Glorietta Bay side of the main Silver Strand Blvd. that takes you further south to Silver Strand State Beach.
When Can I See the USS Monte Carlo Shipwreck?
The USS Monte Carlo shipwreck is exposed during very low tides in the winter after El Nino storms. The low tide reveals the wreckage area, but the storm needs to kick up enough turbulence that sand covering the shipwreck is somewhat washed away.
This is why if the shipwreck is visible, you’ll likely hear about it on San Diego news channels. If the ship is exposed, you’ll see people walking on the wreckage.
I’ve listed the SS Monte Carlo shipwreck on my list of things to do in Coronado due to popular demand. However, you should understand that seeing it in person on your San Diego vacation is unlikely.
LOW TIDE IN CORONADOYou can check tide calendars to see when tides are low across the California coast. Even if you can’t see the shipwreck, there are neat San Diego tide pools in front of Hotel del Coronado that all ages love.
How Can I Learn More About the SS Monte Carlo Shipwreck?
(As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.) If you have further interest in the history of these Los Angeles-area gambling ships of the 1930s, my husband highly recommends the book Noir Afloat: Tony Cornero and the Notorious Gambling Ships of Southern California by Ernest Marquez.
You can read more anecdotal details about the SS Monte Carlo, as related by descendants of the original owners in their quest to learn more about the ship after reading Noir Afloat.
You can also read this 1965 article from LA Magazine which also goes into detail on how laws changed because of these ships. (It speaks mostly about the SS Rex. We have a poker chip from this ship.)
And, around roughly the same timeframe, there was a similar operation off the coast of Rosarito in the Coronado Islands, Mexico that we’ve also written about.