|CATALINA ISLAND HISTORY
by Stacey Otte, Executive Director
& Jeannine Pedersen, Curator
Humans have been living on the rugged island for over 7,000 years.
Part of the chain of eight Channel Islands off the coast of central
and southern California, Santa Catalina Island was first discovered
by the European explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and claimed for
Spain in 1542, dubbing the Island San Salvador. Sixty years later,
explorer Sebastian Viscaino reclaimed the island and gave it its
current name in honor of St. Catherine's Feast Day. While this
brought the island to the attention of the rest of the world,
Native Americans had been making the island home for thousands
Dubbed the Gabrielino once the Indians were removed to San Gabriel
Mission and surrounding areas in Los Angeles, these people lived
a life in balance with the Island's natural rhythms. Gathering
plants and sea life, they had an abundance of resources on the
Island that supported a population of about 1,000 people scattered
throughout the coves, hills and valleys of the Island. But even
so, trade with other islands and mainland tribes was important
to their lifestyles. Sturdy wooden plank canoes plied the channel
on a regular basis, carrying goods to and from the Island. The
Island was a rich source of a soft, carveable stone called soapstone
or steatite. Steatite was prized for utilitarian purposes such
as bowls and ollas as well as decorative and ceremonial reasons.
In later years, the Indians developed an elaborate and extensive
trade network up and down the California coast with the coveted
material. Catalina also became the center of a dynamic religious
tradition that featured a powerful god named Chiningichinch. By
the 1820s, the proud and independent island natives were removed
to the mainland to be incorporated into the mission systems. Many
lived in or near Mission San Gabriel, but it also appears that
many worked on ranchos or moved further south.
In 1822, with Mexico revolting against Spanish domination, California
and the Channel Islands came under Mexican rule. A little over
20 years later in 1846 Governor Pio Pico awarded Catalina Island
in a land grant to its first private owner, Thomas Robbins.
The mid 1800s was an interesting time in Island history. Ranching
and mining were the predominant activities as early settlers explored
ways to make a living on Catalina. While miners were caught up
in gold rush fever, expectations had to be scaled back on the
Island. Gold was exchanged for silver, and silver on the island
was found in a blend of minerals called galena. Silver was extracted
from the ore, but it was costly, ultimately causing the demise
of the mining industry on the Island. Cattle and sheep ranching
were successful for many years, but left their mark on the Island.
Even today, native grasses and plants are still crowded out by
aggressive non-native species brought in during the ranching days.
During this time, ownership of the Island passed through two other
private owners: Jose Maria Covarrubias in 1850, followed by Albert
Packard in 1853. In 1864, James Lick (of Lick Observatory fame)
bought the Island. The country was mired in the tragedy of the
Civil War and even the Island didn't escape its grasp. The Island
was taken over by the army in 1864 and a barracks and home were
built at the Isthmus. In claiming the island, the military removed
most of the ranchers, miners and squatters on the Island, leaving
only a few well-established ranchers. The small army corps was
on the Island for less than a year as the army pondered the best
use for the island. Military correspondence shows that they considered
the island as a reservation for Native Americans from northern
California, among other uses. But after nine months, they pulled
out and left the Island to an absentee owner who allowed the ranchers
and speculators to move back in.
And then in 1887 the Island's trajectory made a dramatic shift
when developer and entrepreneur George Shatto purchased the Island.
Hailing from Michigan, Shatto quickly developed interests in Los
Angeles during the height of the real estate boom. When Charles
Sumner presented the opportunity to buy a beautiful island just
off the coast, Shatto snapped at the chance. Although ultimately
lacking the financial resources to fully develop the Island, he
was the first owner to begin the settlement of what his sister-in-law
soon named Avalon. Building the first pier and first hotel, he
began regular boat service to what he hoped would quickly become
a major tourist destination. Despite his initial efforts, he defaulted
on his loans and the island was sold in 1892 to the Banning brothers,
son of the founder of Wilmington, California, General Phineas
Banning. Brothers William, Joseph and Hancock already provided
steamship transportation to the Island and were well aware of
its potential. They quickly developed activities and attractions
and increased promotion of their new resort. Avalon was soon home
to an aquarium, incline railway, ampitheatre, glass bottom boat
tours, and more. They had many successful seasons as the Island's
popularity grew, but much of their real estate in Avalon was destroyed
in a devastating fire in November of 1915. This major loss, coupled
with reduced tourism during World War I, led to the sale of the
In 1919, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. was offered the
chance to participate in a group investment the purchase of Catalina
Island. Based on a quick look at a postcard, he jumped at the
chance. A few months later he and his wife made their first visit
to the Island. Their love affair with Catalina commenced, and
Wrigley quickly bought out his other partners, making him the
sole owner of the island.
Wrigley's financial resources and marketing expertise allowed
him to push Catalina into the forefront of the nation's attention.
Ever concerned about the quality of life for residents (and a
quality experience for visitors) he invested millions of dollars
into developing better and faster transportation, bigger hotels
and a much-expanded freshwater reservoir. He also brought over
his beloved Chicago Cubs for spring training. During this time
the Island reached its heyday. Visitors sailed across the channel
in beautifully appointed steamers and the Casino played host to
the hottest Big Bands of the time and was open nightly for dancing
during the summer season. Dozens of movies were filmed on the
Island and celebrities were a common sight. Sportfishing, glassbottom
boat rides, tales of flying fish and wild mountain goats enticed
visitors from across the nation.
His son, Philip K. Wrigley, seamlessly followed in his father's
footsteps and his contributions can still be seen and felt today.
Perhaps the most evident is the re-design of downtown Avalon.
In 1934, he directed designers Otis and Dorothy Shepard to give
Avalon a cohesive, Early California feel. This re-design included
planting palm trees, building a serpentine wall, installing fountains,
redoing signage all throughout Avalon and developing a bright
and distictive color palette used in many building projects. 'Pier
Green' is still delightfully evident today. Perhaps Philip K.
Wrigley's most lasting contribution was the creation of the Catalina
Island Conservancy, which was given 88% of the Island in the mid-1970s
to protect from overdevelopment and conserve native species.
The onset of World War II brought significant change to the Island.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the Island
was closed to tourism. Soon after the Island's steamships were
requisitioned by the United States military to be used as troop
transports and visitation to the Island ceased. The Santa Catalina
Island Company offered use of the Island to the United States
government. Several branches of the military answered the call
and by 1943 the United States Maritime Service, United States
Coast Guard, Army Signal Corp, and the Office of Strategic Services
had operations on the Island. The United States Maritime Service
took over Avalon and set up a training station for its many recruits.
The United States Coast Guard also had a training station at the
Isthmus. The Army Signal Corps had a sophisticated radar station
in the interior of the Island and the Office of Strategic Services
(now known as the CIA) had a small training facility at Toyon
Bay. Government use of the Island continued until the end of the
war. At that time, the steamships were returned and the Island
was once again open to tourism.
The island today is still known as a world class destination and
is full of activities for visitors. It is what it is thanks to
generations of owners who had the vision to see the potential
of the Island as world class tourist resort, while also building
a close-knit community of residents. Each owner built on the foundation
left by the previous ones, helping to create the Island we all
know and love today.