December 7, 2023 in California

From Ranchos to Resorts: How AVALON Became an Island Getaway

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Early History

The island of Catalina has been inhabited for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence indicates Native American settlements existed on the island dating back 8,000 years ago. The indigenous Tongva people were among the earliest known inhabitants. They referred to the island as Pimu or Pimugna and considered it a sacred place for rituals and ceremonies.

The Tongva lived in villages scattered across the island and sustained themselves through fishing, hunting, and gathering. They traveled between Catalina and the mainland in hand-carved wooden canoes, known as ti’at. The Tongva people called Catalina the ‘island of the magic people.’ Legends tell of a female shaman with supernatural powers who resided here. The Tongva inhabited Catalina up until the late 18th century.

The island’s natural harbors and abundant resources enabled a prosperous way of life for the Native people of Catalina prior to European contact. Their long legacy is remembered through many place names and archaeological sites across the island today.

Spanish Colonization

The island of Avalon has a long history of Spanish exploration and settlement. In the early 1500s, Spanish explorers first arrived on the California coast, drawn by rumors of great wealth and the search for the mythical Northwest Passage.

In 1542, Juan Rodr√≠guez Cabrillo led the first European expedition to explore what is now the west coast of North America on behalf of the Spanish Empire. Cabrillo claimed the area for Spain and named it “California” after a mythical island in a popular Spanish novel at the time. Although Cabrillo did not land on Santa Catalina Island itself, his voyage opened the way for future Spanish colonization efforts in Alta California.

The Spanish colonization of Catalina Island began in earnest in the late 1700s, as Spain rushed to establish missions, presidios and pueblos up and down the California coast. The goal was to Christianize the native population and establish permanent settlements in order to strengthen Spain’s claims to the territory.

In 1782, the Santa Catalina Island Mission was established near present-day Avalon by Franciscan friars. The mission system brought major changes to the native Tongva people’s way of life and decimated their population through introduced European diseases. The mission operated for around 60 years before being secularized by the Mexican government in 1834, though the lasting Spanish influence remained on Catalina Island.

Mexican Rule

After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, California became a Mexican territory. The Spanish missions began to decline, and the Mexican government secularized the missions by taking over the lands. During this time, the Mexican governor granted ranchos or large land grants to prominent families and individuals in California. The ranchos largely focused on raising cattle for hide and tallow trade.

While the Californio rancheros thrived under Mexican rule, conflict arose over the secularization of missions and land redistribution. Indigenous populations living on mission lands were displaced. American immigrants started arriving overland, often illegally squatting on Mexican ranchos. Tensions escalated between the established Californio rancheros and the newly arrived Americans.

The Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, resulting in California being ceded to the United States in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending Mexican rule in California. Although brief, the Mexican era left a lasting rancho legacy and land grant disputes for future American California.

American Acquisition

The island of Avalon was ceded to the United States following the Mexican-American War in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty ended the war and saw Mexico surrender almost half of its territory, including California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

The island was now under American control, though very little changed in the lives of the native islanders and Mexican landowners during this period. The treaty protected the existing property rights of Mexican citizens who suddenly found themselves living in U.S. territory. The cession of Avalon helped expand U.S. territory west towards the Pacific, fulfilling the country’s doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

The Ranching Era

Starting in the early 1800s, the land that is now Avalon was primarily used for cattle ranching under Mexican rule. Large ranchos were granted to Mexican settlers, with individual ranchos often exceeding 1,000 acres. The mild climate and grassy hills made Catalina Island ideal for raising cattle, sheep, and other livestock.

Some of the major ranchos on the island included Rancho Esperanza, Rancho Shatto, and Rancho Santa Catalina. Owners like Jose Maria Covarrubias amassed huge fortunes from cattle ranching and hide trading. Dozens of vaqueros worked on the ranchos, managing large herds of cattle.

The ranching era defined life on Catalina Island for several decades in the 1800s. Ranchos operated semi-independently, focused on the livestock and hide trades. Daily life revolved around cattle drives, branding, slaughtering, and preparing hides for trading ships. Rancheros and their vaqueros lived in small adobe homes, gathering around campfire meals of beef, beans, and tortillas.

Eventually, droughts, overgrazing, and a decline in the hide trade led to the end of the great ranchos. But ranching remained an important part of the culture and economy of Catalina Island even after California became part of the United States. The island’s long history of cattle ranching under Mexican rule left a lasting impact.

Tourism Beginnings

The natural beauty of Santa Catalina Island began attracting tourists in the late 1800s. In 1887, the first tourists arrived by steamship to the town that would become Avalon. Hotels and other amenities slowly started sprouting up to support the nascent tourism industry.

The Hotel Metropole opened in 1888 and was considered one of the finest hotels on the West Coast at the time. Several other hotels opened through the 1890s, like the Hotel St. Catherine, to house the growing numbers of tourists arriving for leisure.

Steamships like the SS Hermosa and SS Cabrillo brought tourists over from the mainland through the early 1900s. The vessels docked in Avalon Bay and tourists were shuttled ashore on smaller boats. Tourism was initially concentrated in the summer months.

As word spread of the island’s Mediterranean climate and striking scenery, tourism numbers steadily grew. New amenities like bathhouses, restaurants, and clubs opened to cater to these early island visitors. While still small-scale, tourism planted roots in Avalon that would later bloom into the town’s dominant industry.

Catalina Island Company

In 1919, the Santa Catalina Island Company was acquired by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. Wrigley invested millions of dollars into developing Catalina as a tourist destination. He built landmarks like the Catalina Casino and helped bring amenities like electricity to the island.

Wrigley also focused on bringing events and attractions to Catalina, like the Chicago Cubs spring training and the Catalina Island Jazz Festival. Building upon earlier tourism infrastructure, Wrigley helped transform Catalina into a premier Southern California vacation spot. Thousands of tourists arrived on ferries from the mainland to enjoy the island’s clean beaches, clear waters, and leisure activities.

Under Wrigley’s leadership, the Santa Catalina Island Company built hotels, restaurants, tours and shopping areas. The small town of Avalon was revitalized into a resort community. Wrigley’s development of Catalina helped support the island’s economy and laid the groundwork for Catalina to become the popular tourist destination it remains today.

Hollywood Connection

Catalina Island has had a long history of being a popular getaway and filming location for Hollywood celebrities and productions.

As early as the 1920s, stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford would take weekend trips to Catalina to escape the pressures of Hollywood and relax. The island offered seclusion and discretion for celebrities. Catalina was also an ideal filming location due to its varied landscapes, from rugged hills to sandy beaches. Some of the first films shot on Catalina Island include Treasure Island (1920) and The Sea Hawk (1924).

In the 1930s and 40s, the Art Deco Casino building became a hotspot for stars to dine and dance. Celebrities frequently spotted there included Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, and Errol Flynn. During WWII, the island was closed to tourism and became an important military base. But after the war ended, Catalina once again opened its shores to the Hollywood crowd.

Classic films shot partly or entirely on Catalina Island include Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), and Cleopatra Jones (1973). More recent films include Space Cowboys (2000) and The Descendants (2011). TV shows like Baywatch and Top Chef have also filmed episodes on Catalina beaches and landscapes.

To this day, Catalina remains an escape for celebrities like Justin Bieber, Jessica Alba, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Its proximity to Los Angeles, Mediterranean charm, and air of exclusivity continue to draw the Hollywood crowd. From early filmmakers to modern stars, Catalina Island has been a beloved getaway for the entertainment industry elite.

World War II

Catalina Island played an important strategic role during World War II due to its location off the coast of Southern California. The island was home to several military installations and was used heavily for training exercises by various branches of the armed forces.

The US Army took control of much of the island at the outset of America’s involvement in the war, designating it a closed military zone. Several coastal artillery batteries were constructed around the island to guard against potential attacks from the sea. Soldiers were stationed on Catalina to operate powerful long-range guns capable of firing several miles out into the Pacific.

The island also became an important center for amphibious assault training. Thousands of American troops prepared for beach landings and amphibious operations on Catalina’s shores. The terrain and topography of the island were ideal for training the types of amphibious invasions American forces would later conduct during island hopping campaigns in the Pacific.

Catalina was also utilized for aviation training during the war. Pilots conducted bombing practice runs on targets set up around the island. The clear airspace and proximity to coastal bases made it well-suited for aviation drills.

By the end of the war, the military had taken over nearly 90 percent of Catalina Island. The island played a vital, if often overlooked, role in preparing American forces for combat in the Pacific Theater. Its strategic location and diverse terrain provided an invaluable training ground during the early 1940s.

Modern Era

Since the late 20th century, tourism and environmental protection have defined Avalon and Catalina Island. As transportation improved, Catalina became more accessible to tourists from the mainland. Today over 1 million people visit the island every year, mostly arriving via the Catalina Express ferry service from major SoCal harbors.

Tourism focuses on outdoor recreation and Catalina’s unique island atmosphere. Scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, camping, and golf are all popular actvities. The iconic Casino building, built in 1929, acts as a civic auditorium and still hosts gala balls and events. Souvenir shops line the streets of Avalon’s downtown area. Yet due to strict development regulations, Avalon retains the quaint, small-town feel of early 20th century California.

Conservation efforts also began in the late 1900s to preserve Catalina’s endemic flora and fauna. Much of the island is protected wilderness overseen by the Catalina Island Conservancy. They work to restore habitats, monitor wildlife, and offer eco-tours of the island’s rugged interior. The Conservancy also protects the island’s cultural heritage by preserving historic buildings and archives. Thanks to their stewardship, the natural splendor that captivated past generations remains for today’s visitors to enjoy.

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