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22 Interesting Things About Avalon and Santa Catalina Island

Avalon Harbor, Santa Catalina Island

Overlooking Avalon. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

1. Santa Catalina Island was discovered on October 7, 1542, by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first Spaniard to explore the California coastline. He named it “San Salvador” after one of his ships. Sixty years later, another Spanish explorer, Sebastián Vizcaíno, arrived off the island on St. Catherine's Day (of Alexandria), November 24, 1602. He renamed the Island "Santa Catalina" in honor of the saint.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Painting by Bernardino Luini (1475-1532) at the National Art Musuem of Azerbaijan via Wikimedia Commons.

2. According to Spanish maritime archives, Cabrillo died from gangrene in 1543 and was buried on an island recorded as “Isla Capitana.” Some historians argue that this was Santa Catalina Island, as opposed to San Miguel Island, another one of the Channel Islands, alternatively said to be Cabrillo’s final place of rest. This debate may go on forever, as there exists no definitive historical identification of “Isla Capitana” and no identified gravesite for Cabrillo.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo

Image of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo by an unknown artist. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

3. In 1805, Santa Catalina Island became the first place in the Los Angeles area visited by Americans. The American vessel Lelia Byrd, captained by William Shaler, had earlier been caught smuggling in San Diego, escaped, and was trying to avoid being re-captured by Spanish authorities. The ship stopped on what is now Santa Catalina Island's Two Harbors to conduct repairs.

Captain William Shaler, circa 1805

Captain William Shaler.

4. In 1924, a motion picture company brought a small herd of 14 bison to Santa Catalina Island for inclusion in the silent film version of Zane Grey's western novel, The Vanishing American. The bison never made it into the finished film, but they were popular with visitors, so the herd was allowed to stay. Because the bison are part of Santa Catalina Island’s culture and lore, the Catalina Island Conservancy maintains the herd and, by means of relocation and contraception, keeps their number at no more than a sustainable 150.

Santa Catalina Island Bison

Santa Catalina Island bison. Photo courtesy of Tucker Axum III.

5. The waters that surround Santa Catalina Island are where some of California's largest record catches have been made of Striped Marlin (339 lbs., 1985), Barracuda (14 lbs., 7 oz., 1957) and Spiny Lobster (16 lbs., 1 oz., 1968).

Striped Marlin

Striped Marlin off the coast of Puerto Carrillo, Costa Rico. Photo by Jackie Mora, 2007, CC-SA-3.0, at U.S. Fisheries, NOAA.

6. The Avalon Bird Park, opened in the 1920s by William Wrigley, Jr., became a major tourist attraction on the island. It featured nearly 8,000 birds at its peak. Some of the park was constructed with framing material from the orginal Sugar Loaf Casino that was demolished in 1918. The park was said to be the source of bird sounds used in the 1939 classic film Wizard of Oz (including the spooky Haunted Forest sounds). The park closed in 1966 and its remaining birds were relocated to the then newly-opened Los Angeles Zoo.

Entrance to Avalon Bird Park Today

Entrance to Avalon Bird Park today (long closed). Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

7. There are not many motor vehicles on the island. In fact, Avalon is the only incorporated city in the lower 48 states that cannot be reached by car. In 2015, less than 900 cars and trucks were permitted on the entire island and only 484 were permitted for personal use. Most personally-owned cars on the island are quite small (such as a Smart Car). Residents who want a personal use vehicle on the island (even an autoette – a golf cart) must be added to a waiting list that extends out about 20 years. The majority of personal use vehicles on the island, especially in Avalon, are the ubiquitous autoettes, for which there were 1,116 permits issued as of October 2018.

Autoettes on Metropole Avenue, Avalon

Autoettes parked on Metropole Avenue in Avalon. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

8. The famous Catalina Casino has never been a place of gambling. The word “casino” is actually Italian for “gathering place,” so the Casino served as a movie theater and venue for dance and music. During the 1930's and 1940's, big band performances were broadcast live from the Casino’s Ballroom by the major radio networks to a nationwide audience.

Catalina Casino

Catalina Casino. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

9. From 1921 to 1951, the Chicago Cubs held their spring training on Santa Catalina Island. The team owner was also the owner of Santa Catalina Island at the time, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr.

Chicago Cubs on Santa Catalina Island, Circa 1930s

Circa 1930s, postcard showing the Chicago Cubs on their training field on Santa Catalina Island.

10. The Catalina Island Country Club and Golf Course was first built in 1892, making it the oldest operating golf course west of the Mississippi River.

Catalina Island Country Club and Golf Course

Greens of the Catalina Island Country Club and Golf Course. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

11. Santa Catalina Island is actually part of Los Angeles County (along with San Clemente Island to the south). On June 26, 1913, Avalon became the 13th city to incorporate in Los Angeles County, predating 75 other incorporated cities in the county. The island also falls under the Long Beach Unified School District that operates two schools on the island (in Avalon, K-12, and Two Harbors, K-5). Some teachers choose to commute daily to the island from the mainland, waking at 4 a.m. to catch the ferry. The district pays their transporation expenses and offers a stipend if they agree to live on the island.

Map of Los Angeles County

Map of Los Angeles County showing Santa Catalina Island in lower left corner. Los Angeles Almanac image.

12. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department provides police services for the island (averaging 176 arrests per year between 2019 through 2020, mostly on assault and alcohol-related charges). A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge holds court at the Catalina Courthouse every other Friday. The judge hears misdemeanor and restraining order cases. For all other court cases, islanders must ferry to the mainland for their day in court.

Catalina Courthouse

Catalina Courthouse on Sumner Avenue. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

13. For four years, from 1894 through 1898, Otto and Oswald Zahn operated the Catalina Pigeon Messenger Service, a mail service by pigeons flying between Avalon and Downtown Los Angeles. The pigeon service allowed what was, perhaps, the world’s first suburban newspaper edition, as the Los Angeles Times provided daily news copy to an island newspaper called Wireless. Although mail is no longer brought in by carrier pigeon, the Postal Service still does not deliver mail directly to island residents. Residents must pick up their mail at the U.S. Post Office Arcade, located in the Atwater Building between Metropole and Sumner Avenues.

Orlando, an Avalon Carrier Pigeon

Orlando, a carrier pigeon operating between Avalon and Los Angeles. Courtesy of Islapedia, Pigeons.

14. During World War II, the U.S. Government declared Santa Catalina Island a Federal Military Zone and closed the island to tourists. A number of military camps were established on the island, including a U.S. Coast Guard unit at Two Harbors, a U.S. Army Signals Corps station in the island’s interior (with watch stations for enemy ships and aircraft along the windward side of the island), a U.S. Navy underwater demolition training camp at Emerald Bay, and an Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA) training operation at Toyon Bay. The island also served as a U.S. Maritime Marine training center, training 35,000 recruits before the end of the war. The only civilians then allowed on the island were residents working for the military and family members of military personnel.

Merchant Marine Gunnery Training, Avalon

U.S. Merchant Marine trainees conduct gunnery practice outside Avalon Casino. Courtesy of American Merchant Marine at War.

15. From 1943 through 1944, among the military family members mentioned above was a 17-year-old woman named Norma Jeane Dougherty, née Mortenson. She lived in Avalon with her U.S. Merchant Marine husband, James Dougherty, who was stationed there for training. After James shipped out to sea, Norma left the island to stay with her in-laws and find work. She was later discovered by Army photographer David Conover at an aircraft drone factory in Van Nuys and went on to become a model and the famed actress named Marilyn Monroe.

Norma Jean Dougherty at Radioplane Co., 1944

Norma Jean Dougherty (Marilyn Monroe) photographed at Radioplace Co. in Burbank, mid-1944. Photo by David Conover for U.S. Army magazine Yank.

16. In May, 1978, Santa Catalina Island was the last telephone exchange in the “Ma Bell” nationwide telephone system where residents still picked up a telephone and heard an operator say “Number, please?” The 16 island operators manually connected about 1,200 off-island calls every day. The following month, the island finally switched over to a computerized electronic switching system.

Avalon Telephone Switchboard

Avalon telephone switchboard on display at Catalina Island Museum. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

17. According to 2020 U.S. Census, there were only 3,875 residents on all of Santa Catalina Island (most residing in Avalon). However, because the island is a popular destination for throngs of tourists and boaters, it receives as many as 15,000 visitors in a weekend and more than one million visitors each year.

Summer Visitors in Avalon

Summer visitors in Avalon. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

18. From 1922 through 1950, a popular attraction in Avalon was an “Indian museum” decorated with Native American skeletal remains. The owner, “Dr.” Ralph Glidden (no actual evidence of educational degrees or diplomas of any kind) was an amateur anthropologist who dug up and desecrated Native American gravesites across Santa Catalina Island in search of human remains and artifacts. He then sold his finds to museums and other institutions across the country. Glidden even claimed (without evidence) to have uncovered remains of blue-eyed giants who had once inhabited the island. When his grave-robbing racket could no longer support him, he opened his macabre “museum” and charged 35 cents for admission. After Glidden’s death in 1968, his artifact collection was purchased and donated to the Catalina Island Museum and the human remains were moved to UCLA.

Macabre Museum in Avalon

Photo of interior of Glidden's macabre museum in Avalon on display at the Catalina Island Museum. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

19. Is Santa Catalina Island actually within the territory of Mexico? In 1894, a special commission of the Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics determined that the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican American War, never explicitly ceded the islands off the coast of California (including Santa Catalina Island) to the United States. Consequently, they concluded, Mexico had a legitimate claim to these islands. Since then, the issue has been periodically raised inside Mexico until as late as 1984 (including a 1972 staged “takeover” of Santa Catalina Island by the Mexican American activist group, Brown Berets). The Mexican government itself, however, has never lodged a diplomatic protest or asserted any claims over the islands. In fact, in 1978, Mexico explicitly recognized U.S. sovereignty over islands off California as part of a maritime treaty between Mexico and the United States.

Flag of Mexico

Flag of Mexico. Photo by Amigos3D at Pixabay.com.

20. Speaking of Mexico, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, 64 percent of Avalon’s residents are Hispanic or Latino - mostly of Mexican descent, according to census estimates. Avalon’s significant Hispanic/Latino population is largely due to an immigrant workforce said to be the backbone of the city’s hospitality and tourism economy. Nevertheless, the island does have a Mexican legacy. It was, in fact, once part of Mexico (as was all of California - see fact #19 above) and was a Mexican land grant.

Hispanic Restaurant Worker

Hispanic restaurant worker. Photo by Elevate at Pexels.com.

21. One of the rarest trees on the North American continent is found on Santa Catalina Island. It is the Catalina mahogany or Santa Catalina Island mountain-mahogany, found nowhere else on earth. Once plentiful across the island, grazing by introduced herbivores such as goats, mule deer and pigs on seedlings reduced the species’ non-hybrid population in the wild to only six trees. The species is protected under federal and state law and is listed on the “Red List” of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Catalina Mahogany

Leaves of Cercocarpus traskiae at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in Escondido. Courtesy of Stickpen via Wikimedia Commons.

22. If you need to fuel up a motor vehicle in Avalon, you will have to do so at the town’s sole gasoline station, the Pebbly Beach Gas Station. If you are not an islander, you will experience sticker-shock. In March 2019, regular gasoline there was $6.56 per gallon as compared to a mainland average then of $3.29. That’s what happens when fuel must be shipped by barge over 20 miles of ocean. The good news for Avalon drivers is that they typically don’t have to drive far and, on average, only need to fill-up their autoettes but once a month.

Pebbly Beach Gasoline Prices, 2019

Gasoline prices in Avalon. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

For more of the fascinating story of Avalon and Santa Catalina Island, visit the Catalina Island Museum (217 Metropole Avenue, Avalon). It is, in the Almanac's opinion, one of the finest city museums in Los Angeles County.

Catalina Island Museum

Also see: Queen of Catalina

Rosie and Earl Cadman, Avalon

See our Santa Catalina Island postcards:

Santa Catalina Island