Sin Ship: The Story of the SS Monte Carlo Shipwreck on Coronado Beach

The SS Monte Carlo was the flagship of the mob’s gambling fleet, where a host of illegal pleasures could be found floating just outside the law.
Monte Carlo shipwreck
Shipwreck of the SS Monte Carlo on Coronado Beach

Beneath the sands of San Diego’s Coronado Beach lies the concrete and iron remains of a 300-foot ship called the SS Monte Carlo. Built in 1921, the oil tanker found a new life in the 1930s as “the world’s greatest pleasure ship,” the largest of several notorious mob-owned “sin ships” anchored in international waters three miles off the coast of California. There, wealthy patrons, including some of Hollywood’s glamorous elite such as Clark Gable and Mae West, could indulge in liquor, gambling and prostitution outside the jurisdiction of Prohibition-era US laws.

On New Year’s Day in 1937, a violent storm wrenched the Monte Carlo from her moorings and set the ship adrift. Eventually the iniquitous floating den ran aground on the Coronado shore, where the activities for which it was known were illegal. Not surprisingly, no one stepped up to claim ownership.

Authorities soon confiscated the slot machines and other gambling paraphernalia from the wreck. Scavengers ran off with whatever was left, and then the Monte Carlo was left to ruin, swallowed by the sand and surf, eventually forgotten.

Wreckage of the SS Monte Carlo

$100,000 in Gold and Silver Coins

In the days after the Monte Carlo grounded, crowds gathered on the beach to get a look at the monstrous stranded ship. A man named Bud Bernhard, a teenager at the time, was offered $20 by a small group of men to survey the damage on board. These men, he later learned, were the owners.

Bernhard swam out to the wreck, climbed up the anchor chain, and explored the devastated interior. He found a hoard of gold and silver coins inside, but reported to the men that everything was destroyed. Over the next several weeks, he returned many times to fill his pockets with silver dollars.

In later years, Bernhard said he was convinced there was $100,000 in gold and silver coins still remaining in the buried hulk.

Weird Book Club
For more on the gambling ships of Southern California, check out Noir Afloat by Ernest Marquez. There is an entire chapter devoted to the SS Monte Carlo.

These days, the Monte Carlo can sometimes be seen underwater at low tide. On rare occasions, El Nino storms will wash away the sand and expose the ship, as seen in the drone footage below from earlier this year.

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