Where Time Stands Still:
The Hidden History of Catalina Island
Unbeknownst to most save for perhaps the most knowledgeable of long-time California natives, the little sliver of land known today as Catalina Island is actually Santa Catalina Island, or sometimes just Catalina – but irrespective of its nomenclature, this rocky island off the coast of California sits in the Gulf of Santa Catalina and remains a vital part of the Channel Islands of California archipelago within Los Angeles County. Situated approximately 22 miles south-southwest of the City of Angels, Catalina Island’s highest point, Mount Orizaba, rests at 2,097 feet…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (no overt pun intended) when it comes to the rich legacy that comprises Catalina Island’s history.
The land was originally settled by Native Americans who referred to themselves as Pimugnans or Pimuvit, and who named the island Pimugna or Pimu, with the first Europeans to arrive on the island claiming it for the Spanish Empire. As time passed, territorial claims to the island transferred to Mexico and then to the U.S., during which the land was sporadically used for smuggling, otter hunting and gold-digging before successfully being developed into a tourist destination by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. starting in the 1920s. In the wake of this re-imagining of Catalina Island, the small town of Avalon was realized, along with the famous Casino Ballroom in 1929; indeed, the early 1900s was considered a golden age for Catalina, what with movie stars flocking to the island to relax and often hide from the eyes of uber-enthusiastic fans.
A veritable who’s-who visited Catalina Island in its heyday, including Charlie Chaplin, who fished off his boat here, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn, all of whom frequented the island – even Winston Churchill was said to have caught a marlin in 20 minutes while visiting Catalina. According to Catalina Island Museum Executive Director Michael De Marsche, John Wayne would “walk around, wave to the kids, walk into the local eatery or establishment, have a couple of drinks, come out with a handful of quarters and would throw them to the kids – who would then dive in the water after them.”
Sometime right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, residents and visitors of Catalina Island left in fear of an attack, and the island became a military base and training camp for soldiers, while hotels served as barracks for merchant marines. Soldiers were taught tactics in simulated war zones, swam through oil fires in the ocean, fired anti-aircraft machine guns and practiced “abandon ship” maneuvers on the sea. Once the island reopened, it blossomed as a resort town and jet-set destination for celebrities, yet again.
However, not all of these celebrities’ excursions ended well; tragically, in 1981, actress Natalie Wood drowned at night while on vacation with her husband, actor Robert Wagner (who was piloting their ship at the time) and actor Christopher Walken. The event was ruled an accident, but rumors abound of an “alcohol-fueled fight” between Walken and Wagner while Wood “screamed for help.”
Still, according to Museum Director De Marsche, Catalina Island hasn’t changed all that much, and that’s precisely what people love about it. “It’s like going back in time,” he says. “It’s a special town, a charming town, a town of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s.” Indeed, pictures of Marilyn Monroe on the island as a child can be seen in the museum, and visitors can even stand in the same spot she stood – which still looks the same as it did back then. Since the 1970s, most of Catalina Island has been administered by the Catalina Island Conservancy.
One of the island’s biggest claims to fame is the buffalo, brought to Catalina to film Zane Grey’s 1925 motion picture The Vanishing American, and the film crew left the majestic animals on the island after shooting concluded (ironically, it is reported that no buffalos actually made it into the film). Over time, the buffalo became a signature attraction for the island, and today there’s even a buffalo burger served at the Airport in the Sky, Catalina’s air field. There’s also a cocktail known as Buffalo Milk, which is a creamy soft drink made with vodka and crème de banana, topped with whipped cream and nutmeg; while the drink originated in the city of Two Harbors, it can be found in several places in the capital city of Avalon.
Today, Catalina Island shines like a chiseled rare gem just off the coast of California, beckoning as an escape where one can leave all the hustle and bustle of downtown L.A. behind and return to the slower pace of an island life. Boasting a rich and storied history where soldiers lived, films were made, couples fell in love and warm hospitality abounded, Catalina Island amazes with a rugged wilderness offset by majestic beauty, accessed by a passenger ferry from: Newport Beach, Dana Point, Long Beach or San Pedro, or via helicopter, private plane or private boat. As a regular weekly stop for some cruise ships, Catalina Island’s weather is described as having a “mild subtropical climate” with warm temperatures year-round, and it is because of this temperate climate that most visitors get around the island by foot, bike or golf cart.
What’s more, there is always something happening on Catalina Island throughout the year – from film festivals to fishing derbies and from fireworks to black tie balls and endurance races. There’s so much more to Catalina Island than just the main town of Avalon; for those who like to hike, bike, swim and explore, the island can provide an abundant supply of pleasant surprises and pure exhilaration. Visit the interior of the 35-mile-long island, explore the ocean both above and below water and, of course, enjoy the pleasantries of Avalon.
However Catalina Island is explored, it will take but one visit to this beautiful chunk of land in the Pacific to be completely swept away by its charm.
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