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A Not-So-Serious History
of Catalina Island

Santa Catalina is a 22-mile long rocky island about 22 miles south-southwest of Los Angeles. It has a resident population of only about 3,700, most of whom live in its only city, Avalon, but over a million tourists drop in for a visit every year. The island is a popular weekend destination for Southern California boaters.

In 1958, the Four Preps recorded the famous hit song 26 Miles (Santa Catalina). The song’s composer, Bruce Belland, once said, “It's really like 22.3 miles, but you try singing that. Think about that meter!"

Steamer at Avalon Bay wharf leading to the new Hotel Metropole in 1890

Before all that, though, before hiking permits, golf cart rentals, and mountain bikes with knobby tires, there were the original owners. By the time Spanish explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo “discovered” the island in 1542, the Pimugnan Indians had been there for 500 years. On spotting Cabrillo’s galleon, the Pimugnan paddled out to greet it, and were invited aboard, whereupon gifts and deadly diseases were exchanged with smiles all around. Cabrillo lingered for about 12 hours, shamelessly declared ownership of the island for Spain, thanked the Pimugnan for the fish lunch, and sailed off.

Happily for the Pimugnans, another 60 years went by before they were graced with their next visit from Europeans. This time it was another Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, who “re-discovered” the island and re-named it Santa Catalina (not that the Pimugnan cared; they continued to refer to their island as Pimu). After 48 hours, Vizcaino had seen enough. Just for good measure, the island was again claimed for Spain, a few more deadly diseases were traded for provisions, and Vizcaino departed, content in the knowledge that Catalina was again secured for the King.

Now the Pimugnan were left in peace for almost 30 years. Then in 1769, the Portola expedition arrived, and not having gotten the Cabrillo and Vizcaino memos, Portola once more claimed the island for Spain. This time, however, the Europeans and other visitors never quite went away, and the good old days for the Pimugnan were finito.

The Spanish, worried about encroachment by the Russians and British, began colonizing California in earnest, beginning with a franchised chain of missions up and down the coast (no mission was ever built on Catalina). Hoping to evade Spanish trade restrictions, or just seeking a little privacy, smugglers, pirates, and a variety of general all-around scoundrels quickly determined that Catalina’s many hidden coves were just the thing for a all manner of illicit activities. China Point, for instance, was used by smugglers of Chinese immigrants.

Oddly, China played another part in the history of the island. Apparently fur hats had become all the rage in China, and as a result, the island was overrun with Russian and Aleut otter hunters from Alaska. Once more, a thriving trade in deadly diseases developed, and in the end neither the otters nor the Pimugnan turned a profit. On the other hand, the Chinese did get their hats. Even today, the only substantial remaining population of sea otters is off the northern Channel Islands. As for the Pimugnan, the few who remained migrated, or were dragged kicking and screaming, to the mainland, where most came under the gentle influence of Mission San Gabriel. Soon, these expatriate Pimugnan were being referred to as Gabrielinos. Today there are no known fluent speakers of the Pimugnan/Gabrielino language.

Mexico fought and gained independence from Spanish rule in 1821, and California became a province of the new country. Then, in 1848, following the Mexican-American War, California was snatched up by the United States. After a brief flurry on mining activity, during which gold was hoped for but mere galena (an ore of silver, lead and zinc) was found, Catalina was inhabited mostly by sheep, cattle, and a few herders for about a quarter of a century.

Avalon around 1900 -- Not a yacht in sight!

In 1887, George Shatto, a young businessman from Michigan, bought the island and began developing it as a tourist resort. Selecting a beautiful sheltered valley with a wide, crescent shaped harbor on the northeast side, he surveyed out the town site that would become Avalon. Shatto enlarged an existing wharf to accommodate larger steamers, built the Hotel Metropole, and began selling town lots. Shatto's sister-in-law, Etta Whitney, chose the town’s name. It came from a Tennyson poem, Idylls of the King, in which a dying King Arthur says that he would be going to Avalon, a beautiful island valley where he would heal himself of his grievous wound.

This was all very romantic, of course, but alas, Shatto very unromantically fell behind in his mortgage payments. In 1892 the Banning brothers bought the island. The Bannings built all kinds of attractions, including roads to the interior, the first telephone and wireless telegraph systems, two dance pavilions, an aquarium, a Greek amphitheater, and a golf course.

Around this time the island became world-renowned for sport fishing. Elevating fishing from a job to a sport was a new idea, promoted in large part by writer and naturalist Charles Frederick Holder, who popularized the use of light tackle. He also founded Catalina’s Tuna Club, the oldest fishing club in the United States.

In 1913, Avalon became an incorporated city. In 1915, about the time all the cityhood excitement had died down, a devastating fire burned out of control for three days, destroying half of the town, including the Hotel Metropole. The Bannings went bust. But, to their credit, they had introduced glass-bottom excursion boats to the island, so they departed with their heads held high.

Next, the island came into the enthusiastic hands of William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum magnate, who bought the island sight unseen but was soon stuck on it (sorry, couldn’t resist). Among other things, William enlarged the fleet of cross-channel steamers, adding the S.S. Avalon and the S.S. Catalina, which he built specifically for the Catalina run. Unlike his predecessors, he didn’t go broke; he did, however, die. And so, in 1932 his son Philip assumed control of the island.

Philip enlisted the help of artists Otis and Dorothy Shepard to imbue Avalon with an early California ambiance (that would be Spanish, not Pimugnan, ambiance). Design elements included extensive use of tile, fountains, wrought iron, bell towers, a serpentine wall, soft lighting, and palm and olive trees. Wandering troubadours serenaded wandering tourists.

Now we come to that landmark of all Catalina landmarks­─the Casino. Prominently visible from land and sea, the round, Art Deco structure rises the equivalent of 12 stories, and is surrounded by water on three sides. Built as a tourist attraction, the Casino’s name derives from the Italian usage of the word meaning “a social gathering place” rather than the Las Vegas lose-your-shirt meaning. The building has never been used as a gambling establishment.

The site chosen for the new casino was out at the end of Sugarloaf Point, and at the very tip of the point there was a bullet-shaped rocky outcrop called Sugarloaf Rock (What in the world is a sugarloaf, by the way? Is it a thing shaped like Sugarloaf Rock?).

The original, smaller Sugarloaf Casino shot from atop Sugarloaf Rock

Many people believe that back in the days of the Bannings, Sugarloaf Rock had been blasted away to clear a site for the first casino, Sugarloaf Casino, a mildly impressive octagonal structure used as a ball room and Avalon’s first high school. In fact, old photos of both the original and today’s casino show that they were built adjacent to Sugarloaf Rock, which was removed later on, mostly to improve the ocean view and to provide a level open area at the front of the current casino.

Sugarloaf Casino remained on the site from 1920 to 1928, but eventually the Wrigleys decided it simply wasn’t grand enough and had it razed to make way for today’s casino. Some further blasting was done to create a larger pad for the new building, and by 1929 the casino we all know and love was completed.

The new Avalon Casino rises on the site of the old Sugarloaf Casino beside the now defunct Sugarloaf Rock

The Casino houses the Avalon Theater on the first level, which seats up to 1,150, and is the first theater ever designed for sound movies. It is said that the acoustics are so good that a speaker on the stage can speak in a normal voice without a microphone and be heard throughout the room. The ballroom on the second level can accommodate up to 6,000 dancers and is so well insulated that theater patrons directly below cannot hear either the band or the 12,000 dancing feet on the floor above.

Wrigley designed the Casino with ramps rather than stairs, an idea taken from his experience with Wrigley Field, the Chicago Cubs stadium. The ramps allowed large numbers of people to more efficiently enter and exit (the Chicago Cubs team was also owned by Wrigley, and from 1921 to 1951, excepting the war years, the Cubs used Catalina for spring training)

.During World War II, the island was closed to tourists and several branches of the military trained on the island, including the Merchant Marine, Army Signal Corp, OSS, and Coast Guard. When the island reopened after the war, the use of wartime amphibious planes such as the Grumman Goose ushered in a new era of travel to the island. Eventually, both the steamers and flying boats would give way to the helicopters and smaller but faster boats that are used today.

Finally, what’s with that bison herd on Catalina? They certainly didn’t hike to the island from South Dakota. The generally accepted explanation is that they were brought to the island in 1924 for the silent film version of Zane Grey's western tale, The Vanishing American. There’s only one problem─none of the scenes in the movie appear to have been filmed on Catalina. Perhaps the Catalina scenes were cut from the final version, but the island’s absence from the movie does put the history of the bison in doubt. One other oddity─many of the bison aren’t entirely bison; 45 percent have a domesticated cow as an ancestor. Who knew? They all look so bisonish.

Here are a few other fun facts: 

Catalina and its surrounding area are widely known within the UFO community as a "hot spot" for UFO and USO (unidentified submerged object) activity, a reputation enhanced by a famous 1966 video of a “silvery orb” flying low over the backcountry hills of the island. The video is the kind of UFO video we’ve come to expect─a miserably grainy shot of a very distant airborne speck. “Silvery orb” is mostly in the eye of the beholder. 

In 1936, Ronald Reagan, a young radio announcer for WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, traveled to Catalina to cover the Cubs during spring training. While there, he took a screen test and was offered an acting role. So, if Wrigley hadn’t brought the Cubs to Catalina, Ronny might never have become a movie star, or president for that matter. 

During World War II, a young Marilyn Monroe briefly lived in Avalon with her first husband, James Dougherty (whose husband status was also brief), a lieutenant in the Merchant Marine. Monroe was often a babysitter for neighborhood children. Today, those former kids have an unbeatable story to tell at cocktail parties. “Marilyn Monroe used to cook my dinner and follow me to bed. No, really, I’m not kidding. Hey, are you calling me a liar! Why, if you weren’t my wife’s brother I’d…”  

Down through the years, the Wrigley family has clung to its belief that the island should be preserved rather than developed extensively. In 1975 they donated 88% of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to preserving Catalina in its natural state. The Santa Catalina Island Company, founded by William Wrigley, owns another 11% of the island, and only a skimpy 1% of the real estate is independently owned. As a result, only the city of Avalon is open to the public without restrictions.

So, even though the island’s fate is in steady hands, you can’t help but think that the Pimugnans, or Gabrielinos, are still pretty cranky about the way things worked out.

 


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