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Local News

Where in the World is the SS Lompoc?

A ship shapes history, then disappears into obscurity — but its Santa Barbara connection is not lost.

The SS Lompoc lies at anchor in the East Bay in an undated file photo. In 1952, the Lompoc was damaged in a deadly fire that started on and sank a tanker docked nearby.
The SS Lompoc lies at anchor in the East Bay in an undated file photo. In 1952, the Lompoc was damaged in a deadly fire that started on and sank a tanker docked nearby. (David Boone photo / www.tugboatpainter.net)

Back in the 1970s, an often-seen bumper sticker asked, “Where is Lompoc?”

The answer was supplied underneath in smaller letters: “In Northern Santa Barbara County.”

What was also true, but far less known, was that Lompoc was in many places across the Pacific Ocean, as well as up and down the coast.

That would be the SS Lompoc, listed in maritime journals as a “T2-SE-A1 class tanker ...” It logged in at 16,765 tons, dead weight.

In November 1946, Union Oil Co. renamed the ship for the North County’s oil-producing area. The vessel had been christened Jordan Valley when it was built a year earlier by Kaiser Shipbuilding Co. in Portland.

Before continuing the account of SS Lompoc, it should be noted that there had been another tanker with the same name. Built in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1914, it was somewhat smaller and slower than its successor. It seemed to have spent most of its time on the far side of the Atlantic and was broken up for scrap just 20 years after its launching.

No such fate was in store for the Kaiser-built Lompoc, perhaps because it made big news several times in its first 20 years.

On July 12, 1952, for example, SS Lompoc and the steam tanker Victor H. Kelly were docked at the Union Oil facility at Oleum, north of Richmond. Both vessels were transferring crude oil after arriving from Los Angeles. A fierce fire started on the pier and spread fast to the Kelly, which sank alongside what remained of the dock. Three crew members died in the fire.

The Lompoc was also damaged, but was towed into San Pablo Bay and was later repaired by Todd Shipyards; it was then returned to service.

Twelve years later, in 1964, SS Lompoc became the first deep-draft tanker to enter the port of Anchorage in winter, doing so after a Sea-Land Container ship, ironically named Anchorage, had made its own history by ramming its way through heavy ice unaided.

In a roundabout way, Santa Barbara County later contributed a ship’s officer to Lompoc’s roster. Patrick Joseph Morris had been born just a few months after the Oleum fire. He is a son of Edward and Betty Maher Morris, both Santa Barbara High and UCSB graduates. Betty Morris was the daughter of former Santa Barbara Mayor Patrick J. Maher, who served in the position from 1936 to 1945.

By 1974, the younger Morris had graduated from the California Maritime Academy, then spent almost 24 years in the U.S. Merchant Marine, “the majority of them on tankers,“ he recalled recently from his Vallejo home.

“Checking my records, I can see that my introduction to the ship was June 3, 1980, being temporarily assigned as First Engineer,” Morris added.

Even though he spent less than five months on the ship, still owned by Union Oil, he remembers viewing from seaboard the destruction caused by the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980.

“Basically, during my time aboard we went up and down the Pacific coast, with the farthest destination to the north being Anchorage,” he recalled. “I remember buying and bringing back a lot of Alaskan crab and salmon.”

It was in that short assignment that Morris joined the linguistic ranks of NBC and comedian W.C. Fields.

“I learned to pronounce the ship’s name as Lom-Pock,” he admitted.

Regardless of the pronunciation of its — and the city’s — name, the ship gained some further prominence with the issuance of a first-day commemorative cover (envelope), postmarked from Lompoc on April 25, 1996. That date commemorated, minus a few months, the 50th year since SS Lompoc became Union Oil property.

Where is the ship now? Has it joined its World War I namesake on the scrap heap?

So far as maritime records are concerned, at this writing it is still in service somewhere. It was converted in 1985 to a hopper barge, which is described in one source as “loading material dumped into it by a dredger and discharging the cargo through the bottom.”

Hmmmm, did it ever help clear Santa Barbara Harbor?

— Bob Wakefield is working on his third name — Bob Johnson at Santa Barbara High, 1946-1949; Bob Wiener upon entering the Air Force in 1950. A 1957 UC Santa Barbara graduate, he was an educator for 33 years, retiring in 1990, but writing for fun since.

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