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 of years.

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 Island.

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 distinctive 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.

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