At Our Leisure on Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, ca. 1900

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

School’s back for most students, Labor Day’s just around the corner, and that means summer, though not technically over for almost another month, is basically coming to an end for a lot of us.

Still, there might be time for some of you to catch the boat for Catalina Island, a favored weekend destination for southern Califonians for many years.  As the photo posted here demonstrates, a great deal has changed in picturesque Avalon, the sole town on the island, since the image was taken some 115 years or so ago.

Incidentally, William Workman and his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, acquired mining rights on a couple of places along the southwestern section of Catalina in the 1860s, though there is no indication of how much digging was done and if anything was found.

The image was probably taken after Catalina was sold to the Banning brothers (Hancock, Joseph, and William, sons of Los Angeles Harbor developer Phineas) after capitalist George Shatto, who only owned the island for five years, buying it just after he came to Los Angeles during the great Boom of the 1880s, defaulted on a loan he took out to buy Catalina.

Shatto, however, did build one of Avalon’s best known early landmarks, the first incarnation of the Hotel Metropole, at the upper center of the image.  Completed just after he purchased the island for $200,000 during the boom year of 1887, the Metropole proved to be a popular hostelry for tourists and it was expanded twice within a decade by the Bannings.  It remained successful until it was consumed by a fire in 1915 that destroyed a substantial portion of Avalon.  There is a modern Hotel Metropole on the same site today.

Another key structure is at the lower right.  Known as Holly Hill House, or the Look Out Cottage, the Queen Anne-style structure is the island’s oldest, being built by Peter Gano in 1889.  Gano, a civil engineer who worked on water systems in Pasadena and Altadena during the boom years, bought the property from Shatto for $500.  A bachelor, Gano lived in the home until the 1920s.  Some forty years later, a fire destroyed the signature cupola, but it was rebuilt and the home retains much of its original elements and character.  Years ago, my wife and I took a tour of the home, which was for sale at some $6.5 million a few years back.

Note the wide, but unpaved Crescent Avenue following the namesake shaped beach and that there is a simple fenced section on the eastern portion of the shoreline.  Apparently, the photo was taken early in the morning (judging from the shadows next to buildings), because the waterfront area was virtually deserted.

Avalon 1890s
This circa 1900 view of Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, by G&M Photo, from the Homestead’s collection, shows the rapidly growing tourist haven under the ownership and management of Hancock, Joseph and William Banning, sons of Los Angeles Harbor entrepreneur Phineas Banning.

Along the shoreline was the single pier–another was built not long after the photo was taken–at which a steamer, owned and operated by the Banning Transportation Company, is in port.  Compared to today, the number and size of the craft in the harbor were substantially fewer and smaller, for sure!

Further up is the bath house, about where the Avalon Tuna Club is situated now.  Beyond is a portion of the rocky outcroppings towards Sugarloaf Rock, which is just outside the right margin of the photo.  Over the years, these formations were blasted away until Avalon’s signature structure, the Casino, was completed in 1929, just in time for The Great Depression.

On the hills at the western end of Avalon, across from the photo, is a dirt road climbing up from town.  Now known as Chimes Tower Road, for the unique feature built by William Wrigley, Jr., who, in 1919, succeeded the Bannings in ownership of Catalina, in 1925, the road was used for stage trips up into the hills above town and beyond.  Today, walkers and hikers, with permits, can use the route to take a scenic loop around Avalon.

In 1926, famed western novelist Zane Grey built a sprawling Pueblo-style residence along the road near the top of the hill.  His view was the finest in town, aside from that of the Wrigleys, who built their mansion (now a bed and breakfast) near where this photo was taken.  Grey was a famed fisherman and was president of the aforementioned Tuna Club.  One of the novelist’s sons went to a military academy with the sons of Walter and Laura Temple and a letter survives from the eldest Temple boy, Thomas, describing a vacation spent with the Greys on Catalina.  Later, the Grey home became a hotel and my wife and I stayed there several years running some years ago.  The hotel closed, however, and the half-acre compound was up for sale in 2011 at $17 and then $12 million.

Also observed in the photo are a number of tents scattered throughout Avalon, indications of where tourists who didn’t have the money or desire to stay in one of the established hotels could camp out and enjoy the island.  Camping is still to be found today further to the south of town, closer to the Wrigley Memorial, or out at Two Harbors on the west end of Catalina.

Finally, the estimated date is because a short-lived funicular railway, built below where the photographer stood and near the Holly Hill House, and the Avalon Bowl amphitheater, part of which may be in process at the bottom center in a cleared away space near some structures, were both constructed in 1904 but are not in the image.

In the 1970s, Wrigley descendants deeded most of the island to a conservancy, while the Santa Catalina Island Company maintains control over much of the resort operations there.  There have been many debates about how much more development Avalon can sustain and recent issues with polluted water in the water next to the town have led to upgrades in the sewer systems.  Still, Catalina remains a very popular destination for tourists, if on a very different scale than when this great photo was taken.

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