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Catalina Pigeons Delivered Big News

Catalina Pigeons delivered the twitter feed of their day between Santa Catalina Island and Los Angeles. Yes, a boat arrived each afternoon bringing news from the L.A. Times, but it was already stale. But the island’s population blossomed into the thousands during the summer season and those vacationers wanted to be in the know. In the 1890s an underwater cable across the twenty miles was not economical and wireless was not yet available. The Zahn brothers recognized the market potential that semi-isolation created.

The Rise Of The Catalina Pigeons

Santa Catalina Island is in the chain of islands extending along the Californian coast from Santa Barbara nearly to San Diego. Known simply as Catalina, The rocky island is 22 miles long by 8 miles. It lies roughly 20 miles from Los Angeles.

Developer George Shatto purchased Catalina in 1887 hoping to created a tourist resort. He built the Hotel Metropole on the shoreline in Avalon that same year. The sons of Phineas Banning  bought the island in 1891 from the James Lick estate and established Santa Catalina Island Company to develop the island as a resort.  The Banning brothers gave permission to the Zahn brothers, Otto Johann and Oswald Francis, to place a pigeon loft at the Hotel Metropole in Avalon.

Among other entrepreneurial activities, the Zahns bred and trained homing pigeons. In addition to their deal with the Bannings they reached an agreement stating that as long as Western Union did not build a telegraph line to Catalina, their pigeons would not compete with the messenger service on the mainland.

The Zahns established a home for their pigeons in Avalon and began training the Catalina Pigeons. Each day they moved the birds a short distance away from their home base and freed them. Pigeons soon returned to their home. A day or two later the same birds were taken a longer distance from home and again freed. This process was repeated at short intervals, with the distance increased each time. Eventually the pigeons flew without fail to the desired point of communication back to its nest-box.

The Zahns experimented with various means of attaching messages to the pigeons. They settled for variations of writing  messages on onion skin that was rolled into tight pellets and placed in small celluloid tubes. These were attached to the carrier’s leg with wire.

Islapedia, the comprehensive encyclopedia covering the eight California Channel Islands, posts original communications carried by the Catalina Pigeons between Los Angeles and Catalina.

February 6, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “The carrier pigeon service between Los Angeles and Catalina Island is getting in shape, and promises to be quite a feature during the coming season… Otto Zahn arrives on Tuesday’s boat to arrange for a plant of 100 carrier pigeons, to be used in the increasing demand for messages across the channel.” (Islapedia)

May 31, 1895 [LAT]: A visit to the Zahn loft on Hope Street, just above the Normal School, is full of interest. Here are some sixty homers, forty-five of which are in active training service, and will this summer transport the news daily from Catalina to The Times. The Zahn brothers, who own these valuable and intelligent pets, are glad to welcome visitors and tell all about the wonderful little birds. They began raising homers three or four years ago as a matter of amusement, but the birds have proved not only interesting but valuable to their young owners. During the season four birds are shipped daily to Avalon At 3 p.m. each day the birds are liberated, bearing The Times message, written on the thinnest of tissue paper, which is folded into a soft, compact roll and securely tied to the pigeon’s foot. When liberated the pigeons (usually two or more are sent together) circle about the island a few minutes to get their bearings, then strike off over the water in an air-line for Los Angeles. When they arrive here they fly at once to the loft, entering through a little opening guarded by wires connected with an electric bell in the Zahn residence. AS the bird pushes aside the wire the bell instantly goes off, announcing to the young owners that the homer has arrived. The message is removed then, and the bird liberated among his fellows in the loft where he is generously fed. The Zahn brothers have another loft at Avalon containing some forty homers who will this season be brought over in couples and quartettes to San Pedro, where they will be liberated each morning bearing back to the island the bulletin of the morning news as printed each day on the first page of The Times, comprising the briefed telegraphic, Pacific Coast and local news. By this method the bulletin will reach Avalon several hours before the newspapers will arrive by steamer.” (Islapedia)

Naysayers Predicted The Birds Would Flop

Many people believed that land-birds could not be trained to fly over so long a stretch of water. Even if they did, the Catalina Pigeons would be maimed or killed by hunters or birds of prey like hawks.

Some predicted an occasional bird might reach the home loft with the message intact. But it would be fool hardy to place any dependence on the Catalina Pigeons.

Negative predictions were unfounded. According to Joe Razes of the American Pigeon Museum, sending messages with homing pigeons is one of the oldest methods of long-distance communication. The earliest documented use of pigeons by an army was by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago.  Pigeons were used with great success throughout WWI and WWII. Stories of  hero pigeons flying into fire are legion.

The First Catalina Pigeon Soared To Success

On July 12, 1894, they put a small, feathered squadron into service between Bunker Hill in Downtown Los Angeles to Avalon, on the Catalina Island.

De Witt C. Lockwood of the DigitaHistoryProject writes:

A message written on a bit of tissue-paper by one of the fanciers to his brother, who was waiting at home to receive it, was duly attached to the leg of Orlando, a high-class homer. Then the bird was released. Every eye followed him as he flew, now skimming along the tops of the surrounding hills, and then darting in a straight line far up the canyons.

All at once he disappeared. A look of amusement appeared on the faces of the incredulous crowd, and this was followed by a shout of laughter when somebody discovered the delinquent Mercury quietly reposing on the pent- roof of the hotel.

The merriment was short-lived, however, for Orlando suddenly darted upward. He circled round and round, going higher and higher with each revolution until he became a mere speck in the blue vault above. Then he was seen to shoot off in a direct line for Los Angeles and home.

Orlando made the first official flight of approximately 50 miles from Catalina Island to Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles in just 54-55 minutes. By boat, the trip took four to five hours. The best time was approximately fifty minutes. The average time was one hour and fifteen minutes.

While a World War I pigeon could fly about 200 miles in one flight, the World War II birds could easily double that distance, and some could travel 600 miles. Over short distances these birds could approach 60 miles per hour, though 35 to 40 miles was a more typical average cruising speed.

July 12, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “July 11. By Zahn’s Carrier Pigeon Service to the Times. Otto J. Zahn, the well-known breeder and flyer of homing pigeons, arrived on yesterday’s steamer, and will perfect arrangements at once for the regular daily service between The Times and Catalina Island. Orlando, the celebrated homer, which has a record of fifty-five minutes over the fifty-mile route across the channel to Los Angeles, is the bearer of this message. (Although a fog hung over the channel all day long, he and two other birds found their way over with apparent ease.) ‘ (Islapedia)

May 31, 1895 [LAT]:On June 1, The Times will inaugurate its second season of carrier pigeon service from Catalina Island. The service last year proved eminently satisfactory, the regularity and precision with which the Catalina correspondence was daily delivered by these winged messengers rivaling the modern telegraph. In one instance the swift homer Del Mar covered the air-line distance of fifty miles between Avalon and this city in as many minutes, thereby making a distinct record for himself, as thirty miles per hour is the average speed attained by carrier pigeons. (Islapedia)

Message Received!

The pigeons carried communications ranging from private messages to urgent business and medical requests.  On the mainland the messages were either forwarded by wire or delivered in person.  Their younger brother, Lorenzo Zahn, assisted in delivering the messages once they arrived in Los Angeles. The Zahns also contracted with the Los Angeles Times to fly daily news from Avalon to Los Angeles during the three-month summer social season.

May 31, 1895 [LAT]: “Ever since Noah let loose from the window of the ark the carrier pigeon which returned at eventide with the satisfying proof in its beak that the waters were drying off the face of the earth, these graceful couriers of the air have been acknowledged as the earliest exposition of the modern telegraph. Although the speed of electricity has outstripped these winged messengers, there have been frequent instances during war years and on shipboard when the carrier-pigeon, even in these days, held a distinct advantage over recent science. (Islapedia)

According to Donald B. Holmes in Air mail, an illustrated history, 1793-1981 the message rate was determined by the number of words and later by the size of the paper on which the note was written.  The  rates varied with the season and time.  Generally the service cost 50¢ to $1 per message for regular flights at 10:00 am, 2:30 pm. Additional rates were charged for special delivery times.

All Flights Canceled

In three seasons of operation only a few letters failed to come through. In one instance, the Catalina pigeons refused to set out on their assigned delivery until the following day. It was later determined that they were afraid of a storm over  Los Angeles.  A farmer killed a pigeon  mid-delivery. Another pigeon arrived a day late with a gunshot wound in its wing. Another disappeared and was never found.

“An instance of failure occurred in the case of a female bird which, in the height of the busy season, deliberately took a two weeks vacation. At the end of that time she returned home, and proceeded to engage in a desperate encounter with another bird of the possession of her former nest-box. Such shiftlessness could not be overlooked, so the truant messenger was promptly taken off the circuit and put on the” retired list.” (DigitalHistoryProject)

In 1898 the Zahn brothers ended the post because the service was not as profitable as hoped.

According to Islapedia, “Although the delivery record was impressive, the Zahns operated their flock for four years before selling the business to pigeon fancier, G. H. Humphreys.”

In 1902, the world’s first telegraph station was installed, and the pigeons were no longer needed.

On March 25, 1903  Catalina got the country’s first “wireless newspaper.” Named The Wireless, it delivered the latest news sent wirelessly from Los Angeles via Morse Code. It sold for 3 cents a copy, according to Islapedia.

It was a ground-breaking experiment that had amazing implications for the future of mass media.  Like today’s Internet-based newsletters, each news piece had minimal text allowing the maximum number of topics to be covered in each edition. Readers could get more details later in the day when the full Los Angeles Times arrived by boat.

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