For thousands of years, Santa Catalina Island has welcomed a wide variety of inhabitants, including Native Americans, Spanish explorers, smugglers, hunters, fisherman and more. It’s no doubt that Catalina Island has touched the souls of all who have been fortunate to encounter her gorgeous vistas, secluded coves and lush landscape.
One of three southern Channel Islands, Santa Catalina is 21 miles long, 8 miles wide at its widest point and lies just 20 miles off the coast of Southern California. The island is named for Saint Catherine, as the island was “discovered” by the explorer Sebastian Viscaino on the eve of Saint Catherine’s Feast Day of 1602.
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of inhabitants from as far back as 7,000 years ago. While not much is known about these early residents, historians can place Native Americans who had migrated from Nevada, Utah and other parts of California to the island at approximately 1000 AD. They utilized the island’s abundant ocean and plant resources and maintained contact with the mainland and neighboring Channel Islands using large, plank canoes. Their villages were located at the sites of today’s Avalon, Little Harbor, White’s Landing and Empire Landing and Two Harbors.
With the Spanish effort to colonize California, visitors as diverse as Spanish missionaries, sea otter hunters and smugglers looked to the island as a hospitable haven. By the 1820s, the island’s Native American population had essentially disappeared, falling victim to disease or relocation to the mainland. Today, their modern-day descendents are working to uncover and preserve their heritage.
Throughout the 1800s, Catalina changed hands many times and was controlled at various times by the Mexican government, came under American rule in 1848 and was privately owned by a variety of individuals, including Thomas Robbins. By 1887, George Shatto purchased the island for development as a tourist resort. He established the town of Avalon on the northeast side of the island, enlarged the existing wharf and built the Hotel Metropole. He had Avalon officially surveyed and sold the first lots for development.
In 1892, the Banning brothers purchased the island from Shatto and in 1896 built roads, installed the first telephone and wireless telegraph systems and built several tourist attractions: dance pavilions, a band stand, an aquarium, a Greek amphitheater, an inclined railway from Avalon to Lover’s Cove and the Catalina Island Golf Course. Fishing expeditions, stagecoach sightseeing trips and glass-bottomed boat tours were offered on the island as well. Around the turn of the century, the island became world-renowned for sport fishing.
After a fire burned nearly one-third of Avalon in 1915, the Banning brothers sold the Island to William Wrigley Jr. Under his tutelage, the island saw many infrastructure improvements, including a power plant and reservoirs that brought fresh water to the interior of the island.
The Wrigley family’s purchase ushered in a golden era for Catalina in the 1920s and 30s, when the Island came to be a sought-after tourist destination. The Wrigleys promoted the island through events such as the 1927 Wrigley Ocean Marathon swim, golf tournaments and hosting The Chicago Cubs for spring training. The casino was open nightly for dancing and many films of the era were filmed on the island, introducing the rich and famous to the island. In the 1930’s and 40’s, Big Band music was broadcast live from the Avalon Ballroom in the Casino to a nationwide audience. Catalina has hosted such Hollywood luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Errol Flynn, Orson Wells and John Wayne. In 1924, a film company brought 14 bison to the Island to make a movie and left them behind. Today this famous herd remains and is maintained by the Catalina Island Conservancy. Presidents, politicians, artists, authors and many thousands of tourists visited Catalina during this storied era.
With onset of World War Two, the island was closed to tourists and served as a training base for the Merchant Marine, Army Signal Corp, OSS, and Coast Guard. Marilyn Monroe lived on the island for a time while her husband, James Dougherty, was stationed on the island as a member of the Merchant Marines. When the war ended, the island again became a popular destination using the newly acquired amphibious planes used during the war.
In 1975, the Wrigley Family donated 88% of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit corporation with a mission to “preserve and restore Catalina to its natural state in perpetuity so that future generations can continue to enjoy this unique part of California’s heritage.” Today, bald eagles, native Santa Catalina Island fox and the orange-crowned warbler are a few of the current species being targeted for assistance by the Conservancy. Visitors are invited to explore Catalina’s vast natural beauty by foot, bike, horseback, jeep or bus.