Only 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles lies one of the most popular tourist destinations of Southern California, Catalina Island. This rocky island that is part of the Channel Island chain, 8 miles wide and 22 miles long, has a very colorful history. The island, originally inhabited by Native Americans known as the Pimugnans, was discovered in 1542 by Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo who was sailing for Spain. Though he claimed it for Spain, it remained untouched until 500 years later when it was rediscovered by Sebastian Vizcaino.
During the next two centuries, the island was used for otter and seal hunting even though trading with other countries was forbidden by Spain. Russian traders were among those who frequented the island since there was little enforcement of the prohibition of trading. Because of the many hidden coves and Catalina's close proximity to the mainland, smuggling was a common occurrence in the area. In the 1860's even gold-digging was attempted, which never panned out.
The island remained under the control of Spain and later Mexico until it became a part of California which eventually became a state. In 1846 Governor Pio Pico gave a Spanish land grant of Rancho Santa Catalina to Thomas Robbins. It remained his property until he sold it to Jose Maria Covarrubias in 1853. Covarrubias sold this grant to Albert Packard of Santa Barbara. Packard, in turn, sold the island to James Lick in 1864 who controlled it for the next 23 years. In 1887 George Shatto purchased the island for $200,000 and created the city of Avalon. Shatto was a real estate speculator from Grand Rapids, Michigan and was able to take advantage of the real estate boom of California at the time. In developing Avalon the first hotel on the island and the pier were built. Sadly, Shatto was not able to keep up with his loan. He defaulted on the loan, and the island went back to the Lick Estate.
The Banning Brothers made a valiant attempt to perpetuate the efforts of Shatto and made Avalon a resort community with more development. Unfortunately, a fire burned several hotels and facilities, creating a huge debt for the Banning Brothers that they could not overcome. In addition World War I caused a severe decline in visitors and tourists who had been coming to the island. In 1919 the Bannings had to sell shares in their enterprises due to the downturn in the economy. It was at that time that William Wrigley Jr, of Wrigley chewing gum, enters the picture to purchase shares. He made his move to buy out most of the shareholders which give him controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company.
Under Wrigley's ownership, he endeavored to promote various activities and events that included the completion of the Catalina Casino in 1929. In addition, he brought the Chicago Cubs, also owned by him, to the island for their spring training season starting in 1921. The Cubs continued to call Catalina its spring training home until 1951, with exception of the war years. From 1942 to 1945 the island was closed to tourists because it was being used as a training camp for the military.
When William Wrigley Jr. passed away, his son Philip Wrigley took over the Catalina Island Company and continued to improve the infrastructure projects that his father had started. However, with the outbreak of World War II, the island took on a different role starting with the steamships being taken over to transport troops. The following agencies and entities established themselves in several locations on the island: Avalon was used to house the Maritime Service; Two Harbors became a training area for the army; the interior of the island became a radar station under the Army Signal Corp; Toyon Bay was used for the Office of Strategic Services; and Emerald Bay became the location for underwater demolition training.
In 1975 Philip Wrigley deeded the 42,135 acres of the Santa Catalina Island Company to the Catalina Island Conservancy. Wrigley had assisted in the formation of the conservancy, and with the transfer of land to the Conservancy 90% of the island was under their umbrella. The remaining property remained under the control of the resort property owners. In 2007 a fire in Avalon destroyed several structures, but the assistance from the LA County firefighters, the US Navy, and the US Marine Corp kept the losses to a minimum. After some rebuilding, the tourists continued to flock to the island.
Catalina's mild Mediterranean climate with the low annual precipitation continues to entice visitors year round. A visitor can find several of the 400 plant species that are only found on Catalina Island. Besides plants, there are five native mammals which include the island fox, the California ground squirrel, the Catalina harvest mouse, the Santa Catalina Island deer mouse, and the ornate shrew. In 1924 bison were introduced to the island when a movie company brought them to be a part of a Western movie called The Vanishing American. The bison were left on the island to save money at the completion of the filming, which had run over budget. The bison population has now grown to over 150.
Protecting the cultural and natural heritage is the cornerstone of the private nonprofit Conservancy. Catalina Island is a beach and water lover's paradise with more than a million visitors each year. The variety of activities include scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, sunbathing, boating, glass bottom boat trips, golf, hiking, sightseeing, and much more. There is just about something for everyone. One fact worthy of note is that motor vehicles are restricted, and most residents and visitors use golf carts and bicycles.
Unfortunately, the Casino no longer operates as a casino. However, on the plus side, the former casino is now a museum that provides a good look at the cultural heritage with more than 100,000 items in the collection. This an ideal way to get a good view of Catalina's past and present. Making a trip in the future is worth the time and won't soon be forgotten.
Visit FASGallery.com to see several images featuring Catalina Island. Search on Catalina.