I found the first story in the press recently (Lost sunken gambling ship owned by the Mob reappears 80 years later off Coronado) The second story is taken from a much larger story I wrote on the history of the Star Dust Casino in Las Vegas, but the two are roughly related.
Lost sunken gambling ship owned by the Mob reappears 80 years later off Coronado
The SS Monte Carlo was an oil tanker launched in 1921 as the SS McKittrick but later became a gambling and prostitution ship in 1936 off the coast of Coronado, California.
Monte Carlo was anchored 3 miles off Coronado Beach in San Diego where it was in international waters, outside the boundary of state and federal law. During a storm on New Year’s Day in 1937 the anchor lost its hold and the ship drifted onto the beach in front of what is now the El Camino Tower of the Coronado Shores condos. No one claimed ownership because, once on shore, this gambling and prostitution ship was illegal.
The wreckage can be seen underwater at low tide, and is occasionally exposed during strong storm tides. There has been speculation that there may be $150,000 worth of silver dollar coins remaining in the wreckage, according to the late Bud Bernhard who retrieved hundreds of dollars from the shipwreck as a child. “I’m convinced there is $100,000 in gold and silver coins deep in that wreck.”, he once said.
It has become a very popular attraction off the coast of Coronado. The wreck emerged recently when the violent waves from El Nino removed the tons of sand covering the shipwreck.
“It’s pretty amazing! I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve been to this beach many times and I had no idea it was here,” said Jill Raschke. “Oh my gosh it’s the shape of a ship! It’s pretty awesome. I knew this was my only chance to see a shipwreck!” said Aimy Smith of Chula Vista.
To put everything in to context, we need to go back to the 1930s. Coronado and the rest of the US were emerging out of Prohibition in the 1930s. Gambling and prostitution remained illegal — that’s were California’s mob-owned gambling ships came in – as we know, the Mob doesn’t like to be told what to do, so they carried on with their trade. Anchored several miles off the coast in international waters, these “sin ships” had full casinos, dance halls and brothels. Even Hollywood made movies about them, like the movie “Gambling Ship” starring Cary Grant, that’s how popular they were in popular culture at the time.
Now this is where the SS Monte Carlo comes into play. “The ship was anchored off Long Beach in 1933, but they were still getting a lot of pressure from the police to not have the gambling organization going,” said Leslie Crawford of the Coronado Historical Association. Crawford is the author of “Images of America – Coronado.”
“So after a couple of years, they came down to San Diego in 1936. Just 3 miles off the coast of Coronado, the SS Monte Carlo set up shop. There were advertisements in the local Union Tribune advertising dining dancing and dames. Ferries would leave the Hawthorne Street dock every 15 minutes bringing patrons aboard,” Crawford said.
“All was running well… until New Years day in 1937 when a storm moved in. It was bad weather, high surf, rough seas…and the SS Monte Carlo was in trouble. At about 3 o’clock in the morning the chain broke so it started drifting. She ran aground where she lies today just south of the Hotel Del where the city took control of the ship,” Crawford continued.
Anything that was gambling-related they tried to confiscate, but the SS Monte Carlo sat on her beach grave just to fade away. As you can now see, the storm removed so much sand that the wreck re-emerged. Check out the video below of the wreck.
Tony the Hat
Born Anthony Cornero Stralla in an Italian village near the Swiss border in 1895, the Cornero family had owned a large farm there but his father lost it in a card game. More bad luck came when young Tony Cornero accidentally set fire to the family harvest, driving them broke and forcing them to immigrate to San Francisco in the early 1900s. At age 16, Tony pleaded guilty to robbery and did ten months in reform school, he moved to southern California and racked up another ten arrest in ten years which included three for bootlegging and three for attempted murder. He was ambitious, but as late as 1922, Cornero was still driving a cab before he decided to branch off into the rum running business. He started with a string of small boats and smuggled high priced whisky over the Canadian border and sold it to the wealthy and better clubs in Los Angles. At the same time, Cornero ran rum from Mexico to Los Angles, his freighters easily avoiding the understaffed coast guard. Next, Tony purchased the merchant ship, the SS Lily, which he stocked with 4,000 cases of the best booze money could buy and ran the booze into Los Angles under moonlight.
In 1931, Cornero decided to switch over to gambling and moved, with his brothers, to Las Vegas and opened one of the town’s first larger casinos, the Green Meadows, which was known for its staff of attractive and friendly waitresses. The Meadows turned a small, but healthy profit, and soon Cornero was investing his returns into other casinos in the state, mostly in Las Vegas. The money started to pour in, and before long, New York's Luciano, Lansky, Frank Costello sent around their representatives and demanded a cut in Cornero's action, but Cornero, who had always operated on the fringe of the national syndicate, refused to pay. Instead he had built up his own organization and was strong enough to turn the syndicate bosses down. The Syndicate, which had a small but powerful presence on the West coast, prepared for war and started by burning Cornero's Green Meadows casino to the ground. Realizing he could never win the fight, Cornero sold out his interest in Nevada and returned to Los Angles.
In 1938 Cornero bought several large ships and refurbished them into luxury casino's at a cost of over $300,000, and anchored them three miles off the coast of Santa Monica and had gamblers shuttled from shore by way of motor boats. Cornero's lead ship, The Rex, had a crew of 350, waiters’ waitresses, cooks, a full orchestra, and enforcers. The first class dining room served French cuisine only and on most nights, some 2,000 patrons flooded on to the ship to gamble, dance and drink the night away. Tony was hauling in an estimated $300,000 a night after expenses, and the money would have continued to pour in, had he not become the center of a reform movement in Los Angeles County.
State Attorney General Earl Warren ordered a raid on the Rex and several other of Cornero's off coast ships. Cornero and the California government fought a series of battles, with Tony's lawyers arguing that his ships were operating in international waters, and the California government taking the indefensible stance that it didn't care where they were they were, they were still illegal. Back and forth it went, until at one point, after raiders had smashed almost a half a million worth of gambling equipment on one of his ships, Cornero decided to fight back.
When the law men came to raid his ships, Cornero ordered his men to repel the attackers with water hoses. A sea battle went on for nine hours and the lawmen finally gave up. But Cornero was beaten and he knew it and he closed up his off shore operations. Tony tried to open a few gambling joints inside Los Angles, but Micky Cohen, the ruling bookie and dope dealer in the town, shut him down. When Cornero refused to back down, Cohen had his boys bomb Cornero's Beverly Hills estate. Fearing for his life, Cornero took his fortune and moved to Las Vegas.
After several years in Vegas, Cornero undertook his dream, to build the largest gambling casino-hotel in the world, the Stardust. Then he went broke. Tony went out like the gambler he was. Of the estimated $25 million he had earned his career as a gambler, Tony Cornero had less than $800 in his pockets when he died. "I got the Stardust for Chicago," Johnny Roselli bragged and for once, he may have been near the truth.