As deserving the names, it’s also an island rich in history with some good times and some hard times, some good events and maybe a few that weren’t so good. But it’s also a fascinating history one that was rarely boring.
Although Catalina had once been populated by the Gabrielino/Tongva tribe, who called the island Pimu or Pimugna, all had died or moved to the mainland by the mid-1800s.
In 1602, the island was rediscovered by Spanish explorer, Viscaino, who landed here on Saint Catherine’s Feast Day (St. Catherine of Alexandria). He named it Santa Catalina Island in her honor.
A German immigrant, Augustus William Timms began to run a sheep herding business on the island in the 1860s. He would bring people over to the island on his boat, the Rosita, for bathing and fishing and the small settlement soon was called Timms Landing by most (although some used the name Dakin’s Cove up until the eventual sale of the island). By 1883 Timms Landing had three buildings and thirty tents.
In any historical sketch of the seaside resorts around the city of Los Angeles, mention of Catalina, the Magic Isle, could hardly be omitted.
While Santa Monica and other beaches on the mainland were easily accessible in the pioneer days, the trip to Catalina was rather a serious matter. There was no daily steamer plying between San Pedro and the island in those early days, nor was there any regular means of communication between the island and the mainland. But the magical attractions of the island were well understood by the scant population of Southern California in those pioneer days.
The way of enjoying the pleasures of island life at that time was to form a party more or less numerous, anywhere from half a dozen to a score. These provided themselves with tents in families or in little cliques of bachelors or bachelor maids, the latter, of course, under a chaperone. These were taken to San Pedro by stage, and from the embarcadero over to the island in a big sailboat or yawl hired for the occasion.
These campers would find a good deal of difficulty in returning to the mainland for provisions, and so a complete outfit was generally taken of canned goods and other non-perishable foods to last for ten days or two weeks, while the party was to remain on the island. California cook stoves and other camp paraphernalia were prominent features in these outfits for camping upon the island.
Of course, there were small boats there, which could be hired to row and fish. There were more wild goats on Catalina at that time than at present, and there were no restrictions about either shooting or fishing.
There was no more ideal camp life in the world than that enjoyed by the few adventurous spirits among the pioneers, who, spurning accessible Santa Monica, crossed the twenty-mile channel, cut themselves off from the world for two or three weeks and lived upon camp rations during the whole of their stay on the island.
The sea easily furnished one-half of the food of the encampment, and it would be hard to conjure up in one’s mind a more tempting and delicious breakfast than that of fish, fresh caught from the salt water, and broiled upon the coals an hour after they came out of the sea.
It is about twenty years since the Banning brothers bought the island from the Lick estate and established means of easy communication between the mainland and the island. Since then Avalon, with its fine hotels and other features of town life, has grown up upon the beautiful bay. But the features of life upon Catalina at the present time do not come within the scope of historical reference.
—A Backward Glance Down The Surf Line,, Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1906
In 1887, real estate speculator George R. Shatto bought Catalina Island for $200,000 from the estate of James Lick. Shatto developed the town site (including laying out streets) and his sister, Etta M. Whitney, gave it the name of Avalon, apparently naming it after a mythical island valley in the Tennyson poem Idylls of the King, the paradise where King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table went to heal their wounds. A 1903 edition of Webster’s Dictionary gives the meaning of Avalon as “Beautiful Isle of the Blest,” and “Bright Gem of the Ocean,” so perhaps she was right.
Shatto saw Avalon as a vacation destination and soon set up a steamer service to the mainland. To house the visitors, Shatto built the Metropole Hotel along Avalon’s shoreline, while he also began to sell tiny, inexpensive lots. Tents were erected as vacation cottages on many of these lots and Avalon soon had a tent city (dubbed “Catalina’s White City” by newspapers), a precursor of sorts to those that would be established at Coronado, Long Beach, Redondo and other seaside cities. However, echoing the boom and bust nature of real estate in southern California in the late 1880s and early 1890s, Shatto went broke, defaulted on his loan, and the island was returned to the Lick estate.
In 1892 the Banning brothers of Wilmington (William, Joseph and Hancock) bought the island from the Lick Estate. They continued the work to make Catalina a prime destination spot for tourists. They established the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1894 and began to improve the town. They built a dance pavilion, an aquarium, and enlarged the Steamer Wharf. Twice they enlarged the Hotel Metropole (1893 and 1897). The tent city, located on a tree-less plain, now saw avenues planted with eucalyptus to provide shade. The sewer system was improved and an electric lighting plant established. Within time the tent city had six hundred tents and 175 cottages, all wired for electricity.
How happy the children were to land at the little town of Avalon, and to know that they were to have a month at this beautiful place! They hurried down to the beach and their first choice of amusements was the glass-bottomed boat. These boats have “water-telescopes,” which are only clear glass set in boxed-in places. The glass seems to make the ripples still, so that you can look down, down to the bottom of the ocean, twenty or thirty feet below you. The boatman rowed the children out in the bay, where the water, now green, now blue, was always clear as crystal. On the rocks and sand at the bottom starfish and crabs crawled slowly along or clung to some stone. The purple sea-urchins, queer round-shelled creatures covered with thorny spines, crowded together, and the ugly toad-fish hid in the green and brown seaweeds. Blue, purple, and rainbow-colored jellyfish floated on top of the waters, while gold perch with red and green sunfish swam through the seaweed “like parrots in some hot country’s woods,” Retta thought. In the shallow places on the rocks those curious sea-flowers, the anemones, looked like pink or green cactus blossoms. The children never tired of the water-telescope in all their stay at the island. At night the warm ocean waters seemed on fire, since they are full of very tiny, soft-bodied creatures, each of which gives out a faint, glowing light. Every day the fishermen brought in new and strange fishes. The black sea-bass, heavier than the fisherman himself and longer than he was tall, were wonderful, and they could hardly believe that such big fish were caught with a rod and line.
—Ella M. Sexton, Stories of California, 1903
By 1913 Avalon had a summer population approaching 10,000 people and elaborate plans were in the works to improve and enlarge the facilities even further including a new hotel, the Hotel Saint Catherine.
Improvement was needed since competition for the tourist dollar in SoCal was fierce. Abbot Kinney’s Venice Pier and Fraser’s Million Dollar Pier in nearby Ocean Park had long attracted throngs of people from Los Angeles. In addition, Henry Huntington was now running his electric “red cars” to Redondo Beach where he had built the world’s largest plunge, a huge pavilion, and various attractions along El Paseo (not even counting Redondo’s long-time famous fishing wharves). By 1909 Huntington was attracting a million visitors a year to Redondo Beach, by 1910 two million. Competition was also fierce with Long Beach given its huge Pine Street Pier and Pike Amusement Zone.
The trip to Catalina was longer and more expensive. People wanted better and better attractions and facilities and the Banning’s planned to provide them. Their dreams would end with the huge fire that swept through Avalon on November 29, 1915 destroying much of the town.
Debts related to the fire, as well as a dip in tourism during World War I, meant a decline in revenue for the brothers and in 1919 they sold shares of their holdings to various people. William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum czar, bought the controlling interest.
Wrigley and his family would spend millions of dollars over the next 50 years developing Avalon and Catalina. Additional steamships were added to Avalon’s fleet in the early 1920s (the SS Avalon and SS Catalina), 1929 saw Catalina’s Casino open, and Wrigley brought his baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, each spring to Avalon for their spring training.
In 1932, following the death of his father, Philip K Wrigley took over the Santa Catalina Company and continued to improve the infrastructure of Avalon. Tourism remain a healthy industry excepting the World War II years when Catalina was closed to tourists and used for military training.
In 1975 Philip Wrigley deeded the Wrigley shares in the Santa Catalina Company to the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. The conservancy maintains about 88 percent of the island outside Avalon and has done so since the mid 1970s.
The Santa Catalina Company still controls most resort properties and operations in the City of Avalon. Included are the Casino Ballroom, Catalina Island Golf Course, the Descanso Beach Club, the country club and the interesting new museum on Metropole Street.
A number of piers have graced Avalon’s Harbor since the late 1800s. Records talk of piers in the bay as early as 1895 and mention a fishing pier in 1905. The Green Pleasure Pier was basically a gift to the city, being sold to Avalon for the princely sum of $5 in 1909. It had originally been built by the Freeholder’s Association, a group of local businessmen, and conceived as an alternative landing spot in opposition to an attempted monopoly by the Banning brothers who had built a pier parallel to the beach in 1905 (and tried to corner most of the tourist business). The other pier was the large Steamer Pier that set near the Hotel Metropole and which eventually was washed out.
[An alternate history says, “In February 1909, the Freeholders Improvement Association of Avalon applied to the War Department to build a pleasure wharf, which the Santa Catalina Island Company would construct and maintain. Permission was granted and the pier was completed in the same year. In 1914, the pier was transferred to the City of Avalon.” I‘m still trying to pinpoint the exact history!]
Apparently the original pleasure pier was destroyed by a winter storm and replaced by today’s Green Pleasure Pier. Whatever its origin, the pier is still the center of beachfront activities. The pier may be best remembered as the site where many of the huge marlin, tuna, swordfish and black sea bass were weighed and photographed during the days when Catalina was the “Mecca” for big game fishermen. Boatman’s lockers set on the pier, as did a weigh station, and the weigh station is still there.
During the ‘20s, and up until nearly WWII, a number of fishing barges operated from the pier. Included were the Earl Wood’s Barge (1925-1931), Samar (1932-34), the Baitwell (1930s), and the Empress (1936-1940).
Fishing Schooner ‘Samar’
Fishing—Dining and Dancing—Open Day and Night
Take Speed Boat on Pleasure Pier. 25c Round Trip
Every Monday night is “Avalon Night”
Special Rate $1.00
Including Transportation, Fishing, Dinner, Dancing, Etc.
—Catalina Islander, August 30, 1934
Tsunami records do report a small pier being washed away at Catalina on April 1, 1946 but it isn’t clear which pier was destroyed.