From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Santa Catalina Island, often called Catalina Island, or just Catalina, is a
rocky island off the coast of the U.S. state of California. The island is 22
miles (35 km) long and eight miles (13 km) across at its greatest width. The
island is located about 22 miles (35 km) south-southwest of Los Angeles,
California. The highest point on the island is 2097 ft (639 m) Mt. Orizaba,
at 33°22′29.7″N 118°25′11.6″W / 33.374917°N 118.419889°W / 33.374917;
Part of the Channel Islands of California archipelago, Catalina falls under
the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County. Most of the island is owned by the
Catalina Island Conservancy.
The total population as of the 2000 census was 3,696 persons, with almost 85
percent living in its only city of Avalon (pop. 3,127, with another 195
south of the city outside of the city limits). The second center of
population is the unincorporated town of Two Harbors, in the north, with a
population of 298. Development occurs also at the smaller settlements Rancho
Escondido and Middle Ranch. The remaining population is scattered over the
island between the two population centers. The island has an overall
population density of 49.29/mi² (19.03/km²).
Prior to the modern era, the island was inhabited by people of the
Gabrielino/Tongva tribe, who, having had villages near present day San Pedro
and Playa del Rey, regularly traveled back and forth to Catalina for trade.
The Tongva called the island Pimu or Pimungna and referred to themselves as
the Pimugnans. Archeological evidence shows Tongva settlement beginning in
7000 BC. Chief Torqua was probably the last chief of the people of Santa
Catalina for whom "Torqua Springs" is named. These Pimugnans had settlements
all over the island at one time or another, with their biggest villages,
most likely, being at the Isthmus and at present-day Avalon and Emerald Bay.
The Gabrielino/Tongva are renowned for their mining, working and trade of
soapstone which was found in great quantities and varieties on the island.
This material was in great demand and was traded along the California coast
and as far south as Baja California.
The first European to set foot on the island was Portuguese explorer Juan
Rodriguez Cabrillo, sailing for Spain. On October 7, 1542, he claimed the
island for Spain and christened it San Salvador after his ship (Catalina has
also been identified as one of the many possible burial sites for Cabrillo).
Over half a century later, another Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino,
rediscovered the island on the eve of Saint Catherine's day (November 24) in
1602. He renamed it Santa Catalina to honor the feast day of St. Catherine
During the next 300 years, the island served as home or base of operation
for many visitors, including Russian otter hunters, Yankee smugglers and
itinerant fishermen. Among these visitors, the Aleuts of Russian Alaska
probably had the largest effect on the island and its people. These
otter-hunters from the Aleutian Islands set up camps on Santa Catalina, and
the surrounding Channel Islands, trading with the native peoples in exchange
for permission to hunt otters and seals around the island for their pelts.
The Aleuts brought diseases to the natives of Santa Catalina Island, for
which they had no immunity. This, ultimately, led to the demise of the
Pimugnan people. Although these hunters had been known to lead attacks on
the native people of surrounding islands, such as the massacre that took
place on San Nicolas Island, there is no evidence of such an event on Santa
Catalina. Smuggling also took place on the island for a long period of time.
Pirates found that the island's abundance of hidden coves, as well as its
short distance to the mainland and its small population, made it suitable
for smuggling activities. Once used by smugglers of illegal Chinese
immigrants, China Point, located on the south western end of Catalina, still
bears its namesake.
Franciscan monks considered building a mission there, but abandoned the idea
because of the lack of fresh water on the island. By the 1830s, the entire
island's native population were either dead, or had migrated to the mainland
to work in the missions or as ranch hands for the many private land owners.
Mexican land grant
Governor Pío Pico made a Mexican land grant of the Island of Santa Catalina
to Thomas M. Robbins in 1846. Thomas M. Robbins (1801 - 1854) a sea captain
who came to California in 1823, married the daughter of Carlos Antonio
Carrillo. Robbins established a small rancho on the Island, but sold it in
1850 to José Maria Covarrubias. A claim was filed with the Public Land
Commission in 1853 and the grant was patented to José Maria Covarrubias in
1867. Covarrubias sold the island to Albert Packard of Santa Barbara in 1853
and by 1864 the entire island was owned by James Lick.
The island experienced a brief gold rush in 1860s, but very little gold was
actually found. In 1864, the federal government, fearing attempts to outfit
privateers by Confederate sympathizers in the American Civil War, put an end
to the mining by ordering everyone off the island. A small garrison of Union
troops were stationed at the Isthmus on the island's west end for about nine
months. Their barracks stand as the oldest structure on the island and is
currently the home of the Isthmus Yacht Club.
By the end of the 19th century, the island was almost uninhabited except for
a few cattle herders. At that time, its location just 20 miles (30 km) from
Los Angeles—a city that had reached the population of 50,000 in 1890 and was
undergoing a period of enormous growth—was a major factor that contributed
to the development of the island into a vacation destination.
The first owner to try to develop Avalon into a resort destination was
George Shatto, a real estate speculator from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Shatto
purchased the island for $200,000 from the Lick estate at the height of the
real estate boom in Southern California in 1887. Shatto created the
settlement that would become Avalon, and can be credited with building the
town's first hotel, the original Hotel Metropole, and pier. His
sister-in-law Etta Whitney came up with the name Avalon, which was taken
from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "Idylls of the King," about the legend of
King Arthur. He laid out Avalon's streets, and introduced it as a vacation
destination to the general public. He did this by hosting a real estate
auction in Avalon in 1887, and purchasing a steamer ship for daily access to
the island. In the summer of 1888, the small pioneer village kicked off its
opening season as a booming little resort town. Despite Shatto's efforts, he
defaulted on his loan after only a few years and the island went back to the
The sons of Phineas Banning bought the island in 1891 from the estate of
James Lick and established the Santa Catalina Island Company to develop it
as a resort. The Banning brothers fulfilled Shatto's dream of making Avalon
a resort community. They built a dance pavilion in the center of town, made
additions to the Hotel Metropole and steamer-wharf, built an aquarium,
created the Pilgrim Club (a gambling club for men only), improved the
standard of Avalon's beach by erecting a sea-wall and adding covered benches
or "spoonholders", building a bath house, adding new steamships to the run,
and setting up close to one hundred tents throughout Avalon's canyon (often
called "tent cities"). These tents were created so that, if the expense of a
hotel was too much, a visitor could rent out a tent for as little as $7.50
per week, which was quite a bargain at the time. To this day, many homes in
Avalon are still in possession of the same tents that stood in that spot
over a century ago. Although the Banning's main focus was in Avalon, they
also showed great interest in the rest of the island and wanted to introduce
other parts of Catalina to the general public. They did this by paving the
first dirt roads into the island's interior where they built hunting lodges
and lead stagecoach tours, and by making Avalon's surrounding areas (Lovers
Cove, Sugarloaf Point and Descanso Beach) accessible to tourists. They built
two homes, one in Descanso Canyon and the other in what is now Two Harbors,
the later now being that village's only hotel. Just as the Bannings were
anticipating construction of the new Hotel Saint Catherine, their efforts
were set back on November 29, 1915, when a fire burned half of Avalon's
buildings, including six hotels and several clubs. The Bannings refused to
sell the island in hopes of rebuilding the town, starting with the Hotel
Saint Catherine. The hotel would be located on Sugarloaf Point, the unique,
picturesque, cliff-bound peninsula at the north end of Avalon's harbor. It
was blasted away to begin the construction of the hotel with its annex being
in Descanso Canyon. These plans failed because of lack of funding and, in
the end, the entire hotel was built in Descanso Canyon. The Bannings were in
huge debt from the fire of 1915 and World War I's negative effect on tourism
in general. In 1919, the Banning brothers were forced to sell the island in
One of these shares went to chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. He was
convinced to invest in Santa Catalina Island and, before his purchase, he
traveled to Catalina with his wife, Ada, and son, Philip, and immediately
fell in love with the island. He bought out every last share-holder until he
owned all of Santa Catalina Island.
The Wrigleys and the casino
When William Wrigley Jr. bought controlling interest in the Santa Catalina
Island Company in 1919, he devoted himself to preserving and promoting it,
investing millions in needed infrastructure and attractions.
When the island was bought, two ships, the Hermosa II and the S.S. Cabrillo
were the only steamships that provided access to the island. Wrigley
understood that transportation to and from the island was vital to Catalina
s growth. He envisioned great steamers, some of the greatest the world had
ever seen. He purchased the S.S. Virginia, and with some adjustments, it was
renamed the S.S. Avalon. He foresaw the design of another steamship, the S.S
Catalina which was launched on the morning of May 3, 1924. These steamships
would deliver passengers to Catalina for many years.
In the 1920s, in an effort to generate tourism on Catalina, Wrigley tried to
convince Gertrude Ederle, who had just become famous as first woman to swim
across the English Channel, to swim from Catalina to the mainland. She
declined, so he launched the 1927 Wrigley Ocean Marathon: offering $25,000
to the first person to cross the channel, with $15,000 for the first
finisher of "the fair sex." Out of a field of 102, only one man completed
the swim, Canadian swimmer George Young, who finished 15 hours and 44
minutes after the start. The two women who came the closest were awarded $2
Tourism was encouraged by the construction of an Art Deco dance hall, called
the Casino, in 1929. Surrounded by sea on three sides, the circular
structure is the equivalent of 12 stories tall.
Wrigley built a home in Avalon to oversee his plans. One of Wrigley's first
priorities was to create a new and improved dance pavilion for the island's
tourists. Before the Banning brothers sold the island, Sugarloaf Point was
blasted away to start the construction of the Hotel St. Catherine. In the
end, the hotel was built in Descanso Canyon. However, Wrigley used this
cleared spot to build the dance hall which he named Sugarloaf Casino. It
served as a ballroom and Avalon's first high-school. Its time as a casino
was short, however, for it proved too small for Catalina's growing
population. In 1928, the Casino was razed to make room for a newer Casino.
Sugarloaf Rock was blasted away to enhance the Casino's ocean-view.
The lower level of the Casino houses the Avalon Theater. The upper level
houses the world's largest circular ballroom with a 180-foot (55 m) diameter
dance floor. French doors encircle the room, and balcony views are
The gorgeous Catalina Island Casino is a two million dollar "Palace of
Pleasure" located midway between Hotel St. Catherine and the town of Avalon.
It is the only building of its size in the world erected on a full circular
plan. A mammoth motion picture theater is on the ground floor and, above,
the world's largest circular ballroom.
From 1927 through 1937, pottery and tile were made on the island at the
Catalina Clay Products Company, and these items are now highly sought-after
collectibles. The Chicago Cubs, also owned by Wrigley, used the island for
the team's spring training from ca. 1921-1951, absent the war years of
During World War II, the island was closed to tourists and used for military
training facilities. Catalina's steamships were expropriated for use as
troop transports, the U.S. Maritime Service set up a training facility in
Avalon, the Coast Guard had training at Two Harbors, the Army Signal Corp
maintained a radar station in the interior, and the Office of Strategic
Services (a precursor to the CIA) did training at Toyon Bay. Emerald Bay, on
the Island's west end was used by the Navy.
Catalina's airport, the "Airport in the Sky" (AVX), was completed in 1946.
The 3,250-foot (990 m) runway sits on a mountaintop, 1,602 feet (488 m)
above sea level. Until the time of the airport's construction, the only air
service to the island was provided by seaplanes.
In September 1972, 26 members of the Brown Berets, a group of Chicano
activists, traveled to Catalina and planted a Mexican flag, claiming the
island for all Chicanos. They asserted that the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty
between Mexico and the United States did not specifically mention the
Channel Islands. The group camped outside of Avalon and were viewed as a new
tourist attraction. Local Mexican-Americans provided them with food after
they used up their own supplies. After 24 days a municipal judge visited the
camp to ask them to leave. They departed peaceably on the tourist boat, just
as they had arrived.
In 1975, Philip Wrigley deeded the Wrigley shares in the Santa Catalina
Island Company to the Catalina Island Conservancy that he had helped create.
The Conservancy now stewards 88 percent of the island. The mission of the
Catalina Island Conservancy is to be a responsible steward of its lands
through a balance of conservation, education and recreation. So far, the
successes include the opening of California's first permanent desalination
plant in 1991.
In May 2007, the city was threatened once again by a wild fire. Because of the help of 200 firefighting recruits brought over by Marine hovercraft and helicopter, only a few structures were destroyed.