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Victorian Era Catalina Island Drew Vacationers

Victorian Era Catalina Island became the place to see and be seen in the late 1800s. Just twenty miles across the water from Los Angeles, boats could carry hundreds of visitors each day of the season. By 1890 Los Angeles hit a record high population of 50,000 residents and Catalina Island became ripe for development.

More Leisure Time Plus Improved Transportation Opened Untouched Places

With the expansion of railways and working class holidays in the 1840s, seaside resorts sprouted from small coastal towns across Britain. In America, places like Coney Island eventually bloomed into tourist attractions like the pleasure piers in Europe. Eventually electricity brought exciting new forms of entertainment to Boardwalks. Evening entertainment flourished in the new electric lighting. By the 1890s the era of high-concept amusement parks was in full swing.

Developers on the west coast saw the potential for Catalina Island to become a world-class Seaside Resort. Part of the chain of islands extending along the Californian coast from Santa Barbara nearly to San, Catalina is 22 miles long by 8 miles wide.

Developer George Shatto purchased the entire island from the James Lick Estate for approximately $200,000 in 1887. He built the Hotel Metropole on the shoreline in Avalon that same year. Shatto dreamed of creating a tourist resort at the bay while leasing mine and ranching rights on other areas of the island. But Shatto defaulted on his loan a few years later and its ownership reverted to the Lick estate.

The sons of Phineas Banning bought the island in 1891 from the James Lick estate. They established Santa Catalina Island Company to further develop the island.  They built numerous facilities, turning it into a highly desirable destination. The Glenmore hotel, sister to the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, was built in 1891.

Half the buildings in Avalon were destroyed in a fire in 1915 when a new round of development began.

November 30, 1915 [SBMP]: “Avalon, beauty of the sea, is burned. Half the town of Avalon, on Santa Catalina Island, was destroyed by fire today… The steamer Hermosa arrived at San Pedro Harbor shortly before noon with guests from one of the hotels destroyed at Avalon. The vessel left immediately with provisions and supplies for the island. It was stated that many of the 500 people from Avalon were homeless.” (Islapedia)

Islapedia: Original News Clips From Victorian Era Catalina Island

Among its thousands of topics, Islapedia, the comprehensive encyclopedia of the eight California Channel Islands includes hundreds of original news clips from Victorian Era Catalina Island. Following is a sampling.

May 18, 1882 [LAT]: “For Catalina! The well-known schooner, Sierra, will make regular trips between the ports of San Pedro and Catalina, commencing about June 1st. Parties desiring to visit the island sooner than that time can do so by applying to Captain H. Lonneis, San Pedro.” (Islapedia)

July 4, 1882 [LAT]: “The coming on of hot weather puts everyone who can get away in motion for the seaside resorts. Catalina Island will this year receive a large delegation, and the first invoice has already gone forward, to be soon followed by a numerous one.” (Islapedia)

July 6, 1882 [LAT]: “A party consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Adams, Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Adams, Jr., Master Theodore Coulter, Masters Amos and Miss Effie Virgen, J. D. Ardis, J. H. Ardis, Miss Lida Ardis, A. M. Harter and J. A. Foster, went over to Catalina yesterday for a two weeks’ stay. It is a merry party, and embraces a wedding couple, Frank E. Adams, Jr., and his young wife, nee Miss Emma Virgen, who were married at Trinity M. E. Church Sunday evening…” (Islapedia)

July 7, 1882 [LAT]: “Thomas Strohom, of the First Street grocery store, leaves this morning with a party of others for a weeks’ recreation on Santa Catalina Island. They have provided a liberal and varied amount of provisions and are evidently bent upon having a good time.” (Islapedia)

July 8, 1882 [LAT]: “A large party from Los Angeles and another from Santa Ana went yesterday to Catalina Island to spend a few days and escape the summer heat.” (Islapedia)

July 14, 1882 [LAT]: “There were about seventy-five excursionists who went over to Catalina Island on the steamer Newport on the 7th instant, where they arrived about dark all right, and are now enjoying themselves hugely.” (Islapedia)

July 16, 1882 [LAT]: “Colonel Banbury, Mr. Woodbury, Mr. Washburn and Mr. Giddings, of Pasadena, and Mr. G. A. Brandis, of Los Angeles, returned yesterday from a very enjoyable trip to Catalina Island. They caught 1225 barracudas, three Jew fish and a large number of yellowtails in about three days. About two hundred campers are now on the island. There are an abundance of sheep and some wild goats. A few years ago about 150 quail were let loose on the island which have multiplied to such an extent that they are wonderfully abundant everywhere. A large number of fishermen are engaged in the work of catching and drying barracuda, which are shipped to San Francisco, realizing four cents per pound. The party speak in the highest terms of the sailing qualities of the clipper yacht Ida, and of the uniform courtesy and ability of her commander, Captain Hillyer. There is no boarding house on the island, but a large number of cots and camps, all the occupants apparently enjoying a right royal good time. In the sweet bye and bye ye Times scribes will perhaps have an opportunity of knowing how it is themselves.” (Islapedia)

August 14, 1887 [SBDI]: “The sale of Catalina Island for $200,000 to a Los Angeles syndicate has been confirmed by the Trustees of the Lick Estate.” (Islapedia)

September 6, 1887 [LAT/Classified]: “Yacht Aggie! The yacht Aggie will make an excursion trip to Catalina Island every Wednesday. Fare for round trip $4…” (Islapedia)

February 23, 1889 [MDP]: “A heavy English syndicate is reported ready to operate mines on Santa Catalina Island.” (Islapedia)

July 11, 1895 [SBMP]: “A cable to Catalina Island is one of the projects that is just now interesting Los Angeles citizens.” (Islapedia)

August 20, 1899 [CT]: “Santa Catalina Island a private kingdom… There is not a lawyer on the island, no justice of the peace, no jail. Withall, several saloons are open from dawn until midnight. Disturbances, however, are rare… The steamer hold takes the place of a jail, and deportation is the punishment…” (Islapedia)

1900 Santa Catalina Island Census: Los Angeles County Enumeration District 101, contains 487 names. (Islapedia)

Catalina Messenger Pigeons Delivered Tweets

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.

The Los Angeles Times debuted as the Los Angeles Daily Times in 1881. The newspaper was delivered by boat every afternoon, but by the time it arrived news was already stale. Not to mention, if any vacationers needed to send or receive more urgent messages, they were out of luck. The Zahn brothers, Otto Johann and Oswald Francis, saw a golden opportunity. In 1894 the Banning brothers gave permission to the Zahn brothers to place a pigeon loft at the Hotel Metropole in Avalon.

January 11, 1893 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon is preparing for a lively season the coming summer… Four carrier pigeons were brought over last Saturday to be domiciled here and trained for service as messengers between Avalon and San Pedro.” (Islapedia)

August 25, 1894 [LAH]: “The Little Harbor Inn is going a good business, having a number of husets, while all the excursionists around the island stop there. Arrangements are being made by which the innkeeper is to be notified. Thus, when a big party starts off in the morning to go around the island, a pigeon will be sent to Little Harbor with a message to prepare dinner for so many. In this way communication will be kept up all over the island.” (Islapedia)

Some Did Not Appreciate Victorian Era Catalina Island’s Development

In her 1903 publication, History of Catalina Island for the Historical Society of Southern California, Mrs. M. Burton Williamson pulls no punches. She had been visiting Catalina long before it became the who’s-who destination.

Her sentiments will ring true to this day to anyone who has watched a lovely natural environment become an overbuilt playground for people with little sense of what once was its raw natural beauty.

“This the Isle of Summer as it has arisen from the hand of nature, but man—restless, struggling man—has invaded the island and a new environment is replacing the primitive one.

The fame of the nervy jew fish and albacore has given the island an international reputation and the unrest of the summer visitor is fast converting the land of sweet idleness into a fashionable watering place.” (p. 15)

“Many years ago when I visited the little crescent-shaped vale of Avalon, it was only a diminutive, quiet tent town, nestled between towering peaks. In other canons a little solitary shack of a home, and at the isthmus the deserted barracks of the U.S. government, used during the Civil war, was standing in solitary abandonment.” (15-6)

On my last visit in 1902 the automobile rushed along the shaded avenues of transplanted trees to the golf rounds, and up the steep hills the wireless telegraph had caught a soundproof resting place. A teeming crowd of restless humanity surged up and down the beach in front of Avalon, with her numerous hotels and stores, and her cottages dotted the hillsides, only reached by steep flights of steps.

“Instead of a two-masted yacht landing her dozen passengers, two and oftener three, steamships daily filled from the upper to the lower deck with a crowd of passengers, puffed up to the pier with the haste of a time limit. P. 16

“Even the shore has felt the change. Dredging, so as to enable boats of deeper caliber to land, has changed this gently receding beach to one of more abrupt declension. The dead shells no longer are stranded upon the beach; they lie amid the sands, rarely uncovered by the tide.

Bath houses, rustic seats and fishing stands, hung with fish whose single weight runs up into the hundreds of pounds, encircle the water front almost to Sugar Loaf rock.

Where years ago tiny golden fish played in and out under the skiff as we rowed over the water… on my last visit to Avalon an expert diver went down into the water to seek for missing diamonds dropped overboard by a hotel visitor as she returned on a vessel from a pleasure trip to the isthmus.

But while diamonds and dollars pervade the Avalon of other days, and have sought a landing place at the isthmus—which, no doubt, will be joined by the rushing trolley car—yet the hills, with their rugged sides, cannot be irrigated in a day, and so will long jut out alluring peaks to tempt the lover of Nature to seek the solitude of uncultivated slopes.”

Racing Nellie Bly
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