In the early 1990s, when I was planning director for the Port of Long Beach, I went on an inspection tour with port engineers into the bowels of the Queen Mary. This was a few years after Disney gained control of the Queen Mary leasehold through its two-phased purchase of the Wrather Corporation in 1987 and 1988. To be clear, Disney’s primary interest in the Wrather Corporation purchase was to gain control of the Wrather-owned Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, not the Queen Mary.
Disney was not pleased with the condition of the ship. The Port of Long Beach maintained a cathodic protection system on the exterior of the ship to prevent corrosion of the exterior of the hull. In the years before Disney took over, though, water from leaky pipes, sewer pipes, and air conditioners collected in the bottom of the ship and was left there as “ballast.” Debris from projects undertaken inside the ship either fell or was intentionally discarded into the water, resulting in a corrosive soup in the bottom of the ship. The ship was rusting from the inside out.
It was at this time that I went with the engineers to inspect the inside of the hull. I can’t remember exactly where I was but we were just inside the bottom of the hull, possibly down by the propeller shaft, and I leaned my arm on a piece of the structure that was perpendicular to the hull. The metal broke and fell to the bottom of the ship. We were below the water line — I couldn’t wait to escape. The port engineers, with the help of a naval architectural firm, Rados International, produced a report detailing the necessary repairs. The inspection report called for $6 million in immediate repairs with approximately $30 million in additional repairs that would be needed over time.
Disney made a valiant effort to arrest corrosion — pumping out the water, cleaning out the debris, and reballasting the ship with drilling muds in the hope that would arrest the corrosion. The major concern was the removal of the watertight bulkheads — any flood or fire inside the ship would quickly spread. On Sunday, Sept. 30, 1992, Disney shut down the Queen Mary Hotel, laid off the employees and turned the keys for the ship back to the port. With financial participation from the port, the city selected Ehrenkrantz and Eckstet to develop plans for revitalizing the waterfront on both sides of Queensway Bay. Recognizing the challenging location of the Queen Mary as a visitor attraction, one proposal would have moved the Queen Mary to the city side of the bay.
At the same time, the port sought and received numerous proposals for the ship. The most financially attractive was a $20 million offer to purchase the ship from Hong Kong interests. That proposer would be responsible for the expense of repairing the watertight bulkheads to make the ship seaworthy for a tow across the Pacific. But by now it was 1992. Many of our city leaders saw the loss of the Queen Mary as another big negative to a city that was reeling from the news that the Long Beach Naval Station would be shuttered. Losing the Queen Mary would mean losing the city’s icon.
The city wanted to keep the ship; the port wanted to sell it. The issue was resolved by the port transferring Pier H, the recreational corridor along the west side of the river, to the city's control along with the $6 million that was to be used for the most urgent repairs. The revenue from the leasehold in Pier H (hotels and restaurants) would hopefully help the city deal with the more long-term repairs.
Making the Queen Mary work financially for a private developer was always a challenge. Developers have been lured in by the prospect of reusing the property adjacent to the ship — not the ship — but the continued challenge of ship maintenance soon snuffs out the desire or ability to make a serious investment, and today the waterfront property remains woefully underutilized.
It has been 30 years since I took my trip down into the bowels of the Queen Mary. The January 2017 marine survey indicates that what we feared in the early 1990 has happened again — the area inside the ship’s hull is flooded. According to this study, if the ship continues to corrode internally at the current rate, the ship will become structurally unsafe in 5 to 10 years. It is now seven months and counting.
Operators have been losing money for decades. Do we really expect the future to be any different? The real decision facing the city is not which department manages the leasehold; it is deciding what to do with the ship as the once-perceived asset is becoming a financial and environmental liability. Some tough decisions need to be made quickly. If the Board of Harbor Commissioners has to make them, so be it. But then we need to give them the full authority to make those decisions. Kicking this can back and forth across the Queensway Bay is not the solution to the city’s problem
Geraldine Knatz is the former director of the Port of Los Angeles and prior to that was managing director at the Port of Long Beach.