Some 10,000 southern Californians locked up their houses last weekend, left their cars behind on the shore and headed out to sea to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday on a rugged, largely uninhabited island named Santa Catalina.
Why they went is, in some ways, a wonder. The sun is not so hot on Catalina as it is on the mainland, the beaches are not nearly so ample. The narrow streets of its single town are crowded with mainland tourists and, worst of all, there is not very much to do.
Yet Californians of every stripe have been coming to Catalina for decades. If they have a boat, they cross the 20-odd miles of water to put in at one of a dozen picturesque and isolated coves. If they don't, they take a steamer or a seaplane to Avalon, the only city on the island. Many of the tourists do not know or care that Catalina is a virtual fiefdom; that its lord is Philip K. Wrigley, the chewing gum man; that the island suffers acutely from a shortage of fresh water; or that—now that an economically feasible method for obtaining fresh water from the sea is in sight—the island may some day soon surpass Bel Aire and Beverly Hills as a fashionable suburb of Los Angeles across the way.
Meanwhile, for the yachtsman, Catalina is a South Sea island at his doorstep—and at the Isthmus, his particular haven, he will even find a backdrop made familiar by many movies filmed there. For the casual visitor, Catalina falls into two distinct parts—Avalon, and the rest of the island, known locally as "The Interior." The interior is difficult to get to except by tour bus. Avalon, on the other hand, is a pleasantly drowsy little shore town set in the mouth of a canyon. Stores and houses are close together for, on privately owned Catalina, land is precious. The architecture ranges from wooden frame to colorful Catalina tile. There are few cars because there is no place to drive them. Then the blue water and the white walls and the empty streets give Avalon the air of a Mediterranean fishing village, with a touch of New England.
July 9, 1961
On summer weekends, however, the Mediterranean atmosphere is heavily overlaid with Coney Island. Groups of bare-chested, bare-footed high school boys pad up and down Crescent Avenue, checking out groups of sun-suited, bathing-suited girls. Harried parents, clutching their kiddies and handbags and blankets, stumble through the sand to find a spot on the postcard-size beach. Women wander into waterfront stores to pick over the piles of straw hats and souvenirs. Jukebox music grinds out of the bars and pushes across the beach to the water's edge. A little boy asks a strange man to hold his ice cream cone and Coke while he looks for his mother. Out on the pier two kids fight over a fish they found in a garbage can, while elderly men, faithful kibitzers at their side, play gin rummy on green wooden benches. And Avalon's oldtimers, uniformed in faded denims and dark blue cap'n's caps, assure each other that the pesky tourists are getting worse every year.
High spot of any Avalon day is the arrival of the big steamer. When it docks at noon, up to 2,000 eager tourists, dressed in everything from bikinis to business suits, crowd off the gangplank. Most of them have been here before, and know just how to spend the four hours before the steamer goes back. There are bus trips to the interior, to the Bird Park, to the buffalo range and up along Avalon Terrace Drive. There is the seaside stroll to the Casino, where Miller and Goodman and Dorsey used to play, and to the take-off point for glass-bottomed boat trips through the undersea gardens. There is horseback riding and every kind of vessel for hire, from 50¢-an-hour paddleboards to $85-a-day fishing boats. There is golf at the neat, attractive Visitors' Country Club, "where your presence is your membership." For puttering around Avalon streets there are bicycles for hire, Vespa cars with wicker seats and creeping electric carts with tiller steering.
One of the few places in Avalon where the tourist cannot go is the Tuna Club, a sport-fishing sanctuary protected by years of tradition and a sign on the door saying MEMBERS ONLY. The Tuna Club regards itself as the last bastion of true sporting spirit in the world of salt-water fishing. Its rules prohibit the use of any other than linen line and explicitly limit not only the test strength of line but also the size of pole in each tackle category. Eight types of fish, all found in the Catalina channel, are sought for the club's special records: tuna, martin, swordfish, black sea bass, yellow-tail, white sea bass, albacore and dolphin. There is an elaborate system for awarding the club buttons and fame medals—the only way to become an active member is to catch a "button fish." In the early years the club presidency went to the man who caught the biggest tuna, the vice-presidency to the one who caught the greatest number, and so on down the line.
The first waves of Catalina tourists, 30 to 35 years ago, were southern California families out for a day in the fresh air. They packed a picnic lunch, climbed aboard their own boat or a steamer and headed for a spell of good old American fun. The war, which quickened the pace of life everywhere, changed the wholesome picture of Catalina tourism. In the postwar years, bars did the best business but the Casino, which formerly had drawn crowds of a few thousand, had trouble even staying open. "We got away from the family aspect," said Mayor Roy Taylor recently, astride a stool in his Chi-Chi bar. "The travel posters showed bathing beauties instead of families, and people started coming over for thrills. There was a lot of drinking and carrying on. It was bad for the island."
Emphasis on the family has now returned, carefully nourished by promotional literature and outdoor attractions. Alcoholic blasts are largely confined to the big weekends, and the bars thrive on moderation. The Avalon Music Bowl, unused for 33 years, has reopened under new management, and will once again put on front-line bands and entertainers five nights a week. One skeptic of this effort is Duke Fishman, squat, bald part-time actor and a lifeguard at Avalon Beach since 1934. "In the old days," says Duke, "the dance was the big event. We'd dress up, have a little to drink and then go up to dance. But the younger crowd now doesn't care about dancing. They walk around in shorts and bathing suits, and they aren't happy unless they've got a beer in their hand all the time."
Catalina has been the property of the Wrigley family since 1919, when William Jr., founder of the gum company, bought it for some $3 million. Before that the island was variously an Indian settlement, a Mexican colony and a way station for smugglers. It was discovered in 1542 by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese sailing from Mexico under the Spanish flag, then rediscovered by Sebastian Vizcaíno in 1602 and named Santa Catalina. For the next couple of centuries it was inhabited only by wild animals, primitive Indians and occasional groups of Spanish explorers. In the early 1800s the hunters and traders began arriving. Russian expeditions came down to hunt otter along the east, or windward, coast, and American fur traders swapped trinkets for skins with the Indians.
When Mexico broke away from Spain in 1821 she took Catalina along. The island came into American hands for the first time, so the story goes, on July 4, 1846, during the Mexican War, when it was signed over to a Santa Barbara storekeeper named Thomas Robbins. The last Mexican governor stopped off at Robbins' house on his flight from the Americans and, in his final official act, wrote out a grant to Catalina on a crumpled piece of butcher paper. The treaty of 1848 brought the island officially within U.S. limits, and nine years later a federal district court upheld Rob-bins' claim to it.
After Thomas Robbins died, Catalina i changed hands repeatedly, once for as little as $1,000. By 1887 the price had reached $200,000, the amount paid by Los Angeles Real Estate Man George Shatto. Shatto took the first steps toward development of Catalina as an economic entity. He laid out the city of Avalon (named by his sister from Tennyson's Idylls of the King), subdividing acres and selling the lots for $100 to $500. He built the Hotel Metropble, which catered to the first vacationers, and tried unsuccessfully to promote livestock and mining operations in the interior.
Shatto's fortunes failed and the island was purchased by the three Banning brothers (one judge and two army captains), who formed the Santa Catalina Island Company to run it. Under their management Avalon developed into an active resort and attained its present political status of a sixth-class city in California. But in 1915 a fire swept much of Avalon, including the hotel and a tent area that had sprung up around it. This put a financial squeeze on the Bannings, and when William Wrigley Jr. came along four years later, they were happy to make a deal.
Under Wrigley rule Catalina has developed slowly. The family has retained control of all the back country, plus one third of Avalon's business and residential district, leasing out a few hotels and tourist operations. The reason for this slow progress, say Wrigley partisans, is lack of water, without which serious development is impossible. A few islanders and a few more mainlanders claim water could have been provided and the island developed long ago if Wrigley had wished. This faction insists that Wrigley wants to hold onto Catalina as a personal plaything.
Reaction of Wrigley associates to this charge ranges from amusement to fury. Malcolm Renton, vice-president of the ruling Santa Catalina Island Company, smiles with weary patience when the subject is raised. "Why would Mr. Wrigley or anyone else want to sit on valuable property? Mr. Wrigley is a businessman and Catalina is a business operation," Renton said recently. "He is definitely interested in developing it, but we can't develop without water."
Joe Guion, a longtime Catalina resident who runs a sporting goods store, put the question in historical perspective. "William Wrigley Jr. envisioned this place as a wonderful resort," said Guion, "but P.K. is not the promoter his dad was. He has a different attitude toward the island. He's not interested in making it a resort, but a community of homes. But he's under no economic pressure to promote it that way. He's in a high tax bracket already; he certainly doesn't need the money."
Whatever the degree of Catalina's difficulty, water has certainly been responsible. Even in years of normal rainfall (13 inches), the supply is just adequate to provide for the winter population of 1,500 and then carry the island through the tourist season. When the rainfall is scant, as it has been this year, water becomes the prime concern all over the island. Drinks are mixed without ice and restaurants ask before serving water with meals. Walls carry signs like STOP THE DRIP so WE CAN DRINK. In times of real stress anyone found wasting water is subject to a $300 fine and 90 days in jail.
Catalina's fresh-water supply depends on a half-dozen small reservoirs and a couple of unpredictable wells. William Wrigley Jr. poured more than a million dollars into hillside drilling operations, and when he died in 1932, his son Philip took up the search. "We've tried all kinds of miracle schemes," admits one Island Company official, "including a few divining rod maneuvers. And we've been taken for a ride more than once."
The great hope for augmenting Catalina's meager water supply is salt-water conversion. "We know that's the solution," says Renton, "but so far the cost has been prohibitive."
Wrigley's men believe a series of individual conversion units, scattered around the island perimeter, would be best suited to Catalina's rugged topography. One of the most promising systems is a freezer unit, which produces fresh water from salt water by a process involving evaporation and freezing, now under construction by Fairbanks, Morse & Co. "Most distillation methods depend on steam," a Fairbanks executive pointed out recently, "but a freezer system can be operated by electric power and Catalina has enough of that." How about cost? "Salt-water conversion normally runs from $1.75 to $10 per thousand gallons. We expect to do it for less than $1 per thousand." Fairbanks, Morse hopes to begin production of its conversion machine in less than a year.
Despite the apparent promise of a few conversion systems, some Island Company insiders insist salt-water conversion on a major scale is still a long way off for Catalina. "Those cost-per-thousand figures are based on huge quantities of water and low mainland electricity rates," says Gene Haney, public relations man for the company. "By the time you include those items, plus the cost of installing the plant and pipelines, they don't mean much."
If Catalina gets water at a workable price, P. K. Wrigley stands ready to whack up the family heirloom into residential plots, and offer them on a long-lease basis. This fall, Catalina will take a firm step toward suburban status, when Los Angeles Airways inaugurates turbine-helicopter service from downtown L.A. to Avalon. The flight will take about 30 minutes—less time than many L.A. area businessmen now spend driving to work. Without such rapid transportation, Catalina can never develop into the type of Los Angeles adjunct its owner has in mind; steamers, which leave from mainland piers, take a little over two hours to cross the channel, and the two airlines now making infrequent flights with antiquated seaplanes leave from L.A. International Airport or Long Beach, both a good distance from downtown business areas.
Even in a rainy year, much of Catalina would seem undesirable to many for permanent living. The entire island is a series of canyons banked by steep and sparsely vegetated hills. The predominant tree is the scrub oak, which may stand stooped and alone in the middle of nowhere or packed into dense thickets. Some spots, of course, are natural home sites: they command a sweeping view of the ocean and on clear days the mainland, and they are blessed with enough leafy trees to set them apart from surrounding wasteland. But for the most part the island is clothed in the muted grays and browns of the desert, rolling away in grizzled, sun-baked hills.
Prize location on the island, for both present and future, is the Isthmus, a narrow spit of rolling land some 15 miles from Avalon. Isthmus history traces back to sun-worshiping Indians, who lived almost entirely on abalone and whose artifacts are still found throughout the area. In the Civil War a California regiment was stationed there to shoo off smugglers who stashed illegal Chinese immigrants in Catalina's lonely caves, and keep watch over a disorderly gang of miners that were working that end of the island. Today the regiment barracks have been converted into a clubhouse and sleeping quarters for the Isthmus Yacht Club. About 50 of the several hundred movies made over the years at Catalina, including Rain and the original Mutiny on the Bounty, have been filmed on Isthmus Cove's palm-shaded, crescent beach.
Where Avalon has been the mecca of the middle-class, one-shot tourist, the Isthmus bounded by two excellent harbors—has long attracted the boating crowd. Near the turn of the century, yachtsmen sailed over from the mainland for lively weekends at the large frame house (now a girls' camp) built by one of the Bannings. On a big weekend these days the harbors are jammed with up to 500 boats. Owners pay a landing fee of $20 a year or a single-trip charge of $2 per adult and SI per child. About 75 harbor moorings are privately owned; the rest are rented by the island company for $7.50 to $12.50 for a three-day weekend.
Around the Isthmus, along the calm northwest shore, are the island's best boating and fishing waters. Barracuda, bonito, yellowtail and halibut are hauled in by sport and commercial fishermen alike. The company has leased several coves and mooring sites to extensions of mainland boat clubs; it has applications for many more but is holding off until the basic facilities can be put up.
Catalina has plenty of wildlife besides fish and tourists. Buffalo (nobody calls them bison) roam the island in two herds. The first was left there 30-odd years ago after the filming of a western. The second was introduced a few years later in hopes of supplementing the original, but the two herds refused to mingle. Wild boar were brought from neighboring Santa Cruz Island in the mid-'30s, mainly to keep down the rattlesnakes. Deer have proliferated from the original sick and wounded specimens sent over to recuperate by the California Fish and Game Commission.
The most prolific and vexing animals on Catalina are the mountain goats. They were brought in as milk producers by the Spanish settlers, and they have been multiplying ever since. Land Manager Doug Propst would cheerfully gun them down to manageable size, but P. K. Wrigley will have none of that. "Mr. Wrigley has a soft spot for the goats," says Propst. "I guess he figures they're a Catalina tradition. We just try to fend them off from the good grazing land, and hope they'll run out of food or fall off the cliffs into the ocean."
Catalina's hunting program, curtailed for the present by drought, is scheduled for revival in the fall of 1962. The company is undertaking a game management program and hiring a full-time man to run it. "This will be honest-to-God hunting," says Propst, "not the put-and-take type of thing. It'll be a bit expensive, too. We're aiming at the high-caliber hunter, the guy who can come over and spend $50 to $60 a day at it. We'll have deer, quail and wild boar to shoot at. And if things work out we may import wild sheep or antelope or exotic game birds."
Islanders, who are fiercely proud of their own quiet way of life, are especially conscious of the difference in sheer human numbers between booming southern California and static Catalina. Says Public Relations Man Gene Haney: "We think there are things more worthwhile than participating in the population explosion. We're happy to be as we were 20 or 40 years ago. We want to keep clean and painted and rebuilt, but we don't aim to turn things upside down."
Neither, apparently, does P. K. Wrigley. "Our view of Catalina's future," said P. K. recently, "is no different from what it was 40 years ago. My father always had faith in the growth potential of California, particularly southern California and the Los Angeles area. He believed L.A. would grow to be the biggest city in the world and that Catalina would be part of the whole development."
When will development come to Catalina? "I can't say. But we're ready to go as soon as the water situation is solved. We're like the fire department—we have a nice shiny engine backed into the fire-house and no place to go."
TO VISIT CATALINA
GETTING THERE: The big steamer, S.S. Catalina, leaves weekdays at 9:45 a.m. from Wilmington. Phone MGRS. Inc. (NE 6-4711) in Los Angeles. Other steamers leave daily from Long Beach at 9:30 a.m., from Balboa at 9:45 a.m. (both Island Transportation Co., Balboa Island, OR 5-1549) and from Wilmington at 6 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. (Island Boat Service, Wilmington, SP 5-2011). Figure $7.50 round trip. For airplanes, call Avalon Air Transport (Los Angeles, NE 6-9137) and Catalina Channel Airlines (Los Angeles, NE 6-6890) about flights from Long Beach and L.A. International airports: cost from $12 to $19 round trip.
STAYING THERE: Pavilion Lodge (W. F Olsen Sr., Avalon 465), $15-$18 per day. Las Casitas (Bill Behrschmidt, Avalon 226), cottages $14 and up per day. St. Catherine Hotel (Joe Arno, Avalon 711), $10-$16 per day.
EATING THERE: Nothing fancy, but the Visitors' Country Club Restaurant serves steaks, chops, sea food; Prego has Hungarian and Italian dishes: and Scari's, a general menu—all $4-$6 per person.
SIGHTSEEING THERE: Bus and boat tours all advertise on docks: tickets available there.