by Douglas Love, Chairman, California History Board.
“Twenty six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is a-waitin’ for me.” If you grew up in California during the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, every summer the local AM radio station played the 1958 hit by the Four Preps extolling Santa Catalina Island and its romantic charms. For over one hundred years, Santa Catalina Island has been a playground for the wealthy, the famous and the common folk of California and the rest of the world. The island has a unique and storied history, filled with schemers, scandal and wealth and it still draws thousands of visitors a year.
The first inhabitants of the island were the Pemun’ga. The Pemun’ga were closely related to the Tongva of the mainland in what is now Orange County. The Pemun’ga lived by fishing the island’s abundant waters and gathering vegetables and fruits in the canyons. They traded with other Native groups on the mainland. Archeological evidence shows that the island was inhabited for at least twenty five hundred years.
In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to sight and visit the island. He named the island San Sebastian. In 1602, Sebastian Viscaino “rediscovered” the island and gave the island its present name. In 1762, the Spanish colonization of California began and soon European contact with Santa Catalina Island increased. By 1799, the Russian-American Company had sent expeditions as far south as Santa Catalina and the results were disastrous for the native populations . European diseases, rapes and murders decimated the Pemun’gan people. The last natives were forcibly removed from Santa Catalina by the Spanish in 1820’s.
After the removal of the Pemun’gan people, the island was largely uninhabited until the last Mexican governor of Alta California, Pio Pico, granted the island to Thomas Robbins in 1846. In 1850, Robbins sold the island to Jose Maria Covarrubias and in 1853, the island was again sold. During the 1850’s and 1860’s the island changed hands several times and it was eventually purchased by James Lick in 1864. During this period, the island was primarily used for ranching. The United States Army also built a barracks on the island at Isthmus Cove in 1864. The barracks were abandoned in less than a year. The building still stands and is the oldest building on the island.
George Shatto purchased Santa Catalina from the estate of James Lick in 1887 and began with plans to develop the island. Shatto founded the island’s only city, Avalon, and began selling lots. The island’s inaccessibility and lack of fresh water doomed Shatto’s plans and he defaulted on his loans in 1891. William and J.B. Banning purchased the island in 1891 and began the development of Catalina as a resort. The Bannings built the first hotels on Catalina and initiated regular steamer service to the island. Tourism blossomed as did the sale of lots in Avalon. A devastating fire in 1915 and a decline in tourism during World War I forced the Bannings to sell the island in 1919.
William Wrigley Jr. purchased the island in 1919 from the Bannings and the modern Catalina we know today began. The Wrigley family built many of the landmarks of Catalina Island including the Casino, the Memorial Bells and the Wrigley Mansion. It was during this period that Santa Catalina became a getaway for the Hollywood elite. John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were frequent visitors. Zane Grey took up residence on the island and sports fishermen from around the world flocked to the clear waters and world class fishing grounds. The Casino hosted balls during the Big Band Era and of course, the island was the spring training home of the Chicago Cubs. During World War II, the Navy and US Merchant Marine had training facilities on the island. USC maintains an oceanographic station on the island today. Natalie Wood also drowned off of Santa Catalina in 1981 under mysterious circumstances. The Wrigleys owned the island until 1975 when it was deeded over to the Catalina Conservancy, which now owns 96% of the island.
Today, Catalina remains a tourist destination. Cruise ships make regular port calls to Avalon and sailors and cruisers make Santa Catalina Island a regular stop. The island still draws fishermen and divers from around the world. Yes, the glamor and glitz of the 30’s and 40’s has faded a bit but on a warm summer night, with the lights of the Casino reflecting on Avalon Bay, if you listen closely, you can almost hear Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey tearing it up in the Grand Ballroom.
Getting there: There is regular ferry service from Los Angeles/Long Beach to Santa Catalina as well as helicopter service. Visit http://www.catalinachamber.com/get-here/directions-to-terminals/ for further information.