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Santa Catalina Island

Every now and then, I think that I might be too “Northern-California centric,” since I live in the “extended” Bay Area (which means that Livermore is about as far east as the weather folks on San Francisco TV stations cover). That is why I want to write a little today about a trip we made to Santa Catalina Island a few years ago. I recommend reading the (extensive) Wikipedia article that I just cited, which goes into the history (including smuggling, deaths of movie stars, occupation by Chicano activists, shipwrecks, Chicago Cubs training, OSS (precursor to the CIA) activity, and all of the other sordid history that you would expect from an island off the coast of California! :-) There is just not enough space here.

The name Santa Catalina was given to the island by Sebastián Vizcaíno, when he rediscovered the island (the first European on the island was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, sailing for Spain, who called the island San Salvador). Vizcaíno rediscovered the island on the eve of St. Catherine’s Day (November 24) and named it Santa Catalina to honor St. Catherine of Alexandria.

Santa Catalina Island, often shortened to Catalina Island or just “Catalina” is one of the Channel Islands of California and is 22 miles (35 km) long and 8 miles (13 km) wide at its greatest width. The highest point on the island is Mount Orizaba (648 m; approximately 2126 feet, which is located at the coordinates 33° 22′ 29.7″ N, 118° 25′ 11.6″ W. Most of the Island is owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy (a private, nonprofit organization) and the island is under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County. The total population in the 2000 census was 3696 people, with almost 85% living in its only city of Avalon (population 3127). Another 195 live south of Avalon outside the city limits. A second population center is Two Harbors, in the north, with 298 people. According to Sunset magazine, Catalina is a geographic anomaly. Unlike the other 7 Channel Islands, Catalina did not break away from the mainland, but was formed by the upward thrust of tectonic plates.

We visited Santa Catalina Island as a “side trip” in a 3-day trip to Disneyland that I won at a company holiday party. We often joked that I was not “supposed” to win the trip, since the drawing was a “must be present to win” kind of thing, and the person whose name was drawn first was not present! I was the lucky “runner-up.” We made the trip to Catalina by boat from Long Beach, home of the Queen Mary.

Since we spent only about an afternoon on Catalina, and since there is so much history and romantic charm wrapped around the island, this entry will just touch on a few topics (and not even talk about the delicious meal we had there, on the pier). The three most impressive parts of our visit, to me, were the town of Avalon, itself, the Casino, and the tour bus ride to the “Airport in the Sky” (AVX) with its 3250-foot (990-m) runway sitting on a mountaintop at 1602 feet (488 m).

The settlement that would become the town of Avalon was created by George Shatto of Grand Rapids, MI, who purchased the whole island for $200,000 in 1887. He also built the first hotel, the original Hotel Metropole and pier. Shatto’s sister-in-law, Etta Whitney named the settlement Avalon after Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s poem, “Idylls of the King,” about the legend of King Arthur. The name of the town seems just about perfect for the idyllic and charming community that we observed firsthand.

Skipping ahead through some more history, we find that the chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley, Jr., bought controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Company in 1919. Wrigley devoted himself to preserving and promoting the island. Tourism was encouraged by the construction, in 1929, of the circular Art Deco Casino, named after the Italian word for “a public meeting place.” There is no gambling at the Casino. The Casino was 140 feet (43 m) high when it was built and is equivalent in height to a 12-story building and surrounded by the sea on three sides. The Avalon Theater, on the first floor, has superb acoustics and seats 1150 people. The upper level of the Casino houses the world’s largest ballroom with a 180-foot (55-m) diameter circular ballroom, with a capacity of 6000 people! Not mentioned in the Wikipedia article is the fact that the cantilevered construction of the ballroom means that there are no pillars or other “internal” supports, so that the ballroom is a vast, open space. The ballroom is reached by ramps, rather than stairs, an idea from the Chicago Cub’s stadium, Wrigley Field (which you may remember is the home address given by The Blues Brothers to the Chicago Police). :-) The floor of the ballroom (ceiling of the theater) is constructed to allow the resiliency needed for dancing and soundproofed so well that folks in the theater cannot hear a band and 6000 dancers overhead. The ballroom is surrounded by French Doors which lead to a balconey (part of the cantilevered construction) with spectacular views. William Wrigley, Jr.’s son Philip K. Wrigley, in 1975, deeded the Wrigley shares in the Catalina Island Company to the Catalina Island Conservancy that he helped to create. The Conservancy contains 88% (about 42,000 acres) of the island’s area.

Since the public has free access to only the town of Avalon (there are permits governing access to other parts of the island), we took the opportunity to ride the tour bus to the airport to see more of the island, including bison introduced in 1924 for a silent film.

All in all, the beautiful island of Catalina left us with a desire to go back and to learn more, with the understanding that preservation and restoration efforts on the island may limit some desires and leave others unfulfilled.

-Bill at Cheshire Cat Photo™

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