Volume 12, Number 3, Sept 1990, p.5

Zora's Column: Santa Catalina Island

by Zora Sweet Pinney

Island hopping might be a new conservators' tradition. Last year Hawaii, this year Catalina and next year some of us will be going to the AIC meeting in Puerto Rico.

Edward and I have been sailing our boat to Catalina for over twenty years and visiting the island for over fifty (50), so Editor Emeritus Chris Stavroudis asked me to give you a little background. I wouldn't write it without Edward, so this is a column by both of us.

It was only fifty years after Columbus sailed into the Caribbean that Juan Cabrillo landed on Santa Catalina Island, claiming it for the King of Spain. As the years passed, a succession of explorers and adventurers passed through. Some were Spanish and some were not. In 1806, Captain O'Cain and his crew of Aleut hunters from Alaska made a deal with the Russian-American Fur Company to obtain sea otter pelts to be sold in the Orient. The sea otter fur trade brought difficult times for the island's native Chumash Indians. Ultimately, the Chumash people were removed to the California mainland, where they were decimated by disease and other misfortunes.

After Catalina became U.S. territory in 1848, there was a series of owners. The lowest price paid for the property was $1000--not much for the island's 48,438 acres.

When we first visited, it was owned by the Wrigley family (of chewing gum fame). Today, most of the island is controlled by the Catalina Conservancy, which received the property as a gift of the Wrigley interests.

The Isthmus (about half a mile across), also known as Two Harbors, is the narrowest section of the island. Silver, lead and zinc were discovered and mined there in the 1860s. Still in existence in the middle of the isthmus are Civil War barracks where Union soldiers were stationed to thwart any Confederate occupation attempts. The barracks building is now the Isthmus Yacht Club. An old, non-functioning windmill from the Civil War period is still a fixture. Filmed here were "King of Kings," "Old Ironsides," "Treasure Island" and "Rain."

The modern story of the island began with the formation of the Santa Catalina Island Company by the entrepreneurial Banning brothers. It was later acquired by William Wrigley, Jr. The Wrigleys kept the island in relatively primitive condition, except for the little city of Avalon. Even today, between 400 and 500 buffalo roam the island unhindered, as well as wild boar and mountain goats. They are all descendants of small herds left years ago by film makers and others.

The Casino in Avalon was completed in 1929. It was one of the great dance floors in the West and still has "big band" performances on special occasions. The height of a 12-story building, it is of cantilever construction and has no interior columns to support the dome ceiling. In it is a 1200 seat theater with a pipe organ. Aquatic murals were painted directly on concrete walls at the theater entrance and were recently treated.

Located in the Casino building is the Catalina Museum exhibiting Indian artifacts, indigenous minerals, flora and fauna. Antiques, photographs and memorabilia of Catalina's past are also on display, including examples of ceramics made in the old pottery just east of Avalon. (We have a lamp base that we bought at the pottery many years ago.)

Toward the west of Avalon is Descanso Bay. It was the site of the old St. Catherine Hotel which was the very posh, "in" place for celebrities to go and be seen until it was dismantled in 1966. We understand that there have been plans afoot to replace it for many years, but so far nothing has materialized. For those of you who might be sailors, avoid mooring or anchoring here--the surge is awful!

The inland bus tour (the longer one) is a wonderful experience. The driver is sometimes able to point out indigenous plants and animals that you might not otherwise observe. The tour usually stops at the old Butterfield stagecoach station for coffee and doughnuts, and the guide talks about the area and its history. The bus tour also may include a stop at the Arabian horse ranch, sometimes with a demonstration rider, and a visit to the Airport- in-the-Sky, where you can enjoy the view from the nearly 2000- foot height.

In Avalon Canyon, very near the hotel where we will be meeting, there are riding stables and even a pony riding ring if any of you are bring your young ones.

Sea transportation from Long Beach and San Pedro is provided by Catalina Cruises (213/514-3838 or 775-6111) and Catalina Express from Long Beach, San Pedro and Redondo Beach (213/519-1212).

FYI: Avalon's name came from Tennyson's "Idylls of the King." As King Arthur lay dying, he said he was going:

...to the island-valley of Avilion [Avalon]:
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea, Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."

See you there...

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