History and Cultural Heritage on Catalina Island  

Catalina Island History and Culture

Catalina Island has a rich history going back over 7,000 years. It has been home to Native Americans, Spanish explorers, Mexican landowners, American industrialists, Hollywood celebrities, and more. The island has transformed many times over through various owners and visions. Today, Catalina continues to honor its storied past while welcoming over a million visitors annually.

What is the history of Catalina Island??

The Earliest Inhabitants

Catalina Island has been inhabited for at least 7,000 years. The earliest inhabitants were Native Americans, known as the Pimugnans or Pimuvit. They lived in villages across the island and on smaller neighboring islands like Santa Barbara.

The Pimuvit sustained themselves through fishing, hunting, and gathering. They crafted tomols—seaworthy canoes made from redwood logs—to fish and trade with tribes on the mainland. The Pimuvit also created shell beads as a form of currency for trading.

In the early 1800s, over 1,000 Pimuvit people lived in the two largest villages, Náawq’y and Náawq’ymu. Unfortunately, diseases brought by Spanish colonizers and missionaries decimated the Pimuvit population. By the 1830s, most villages were abandoned. Descendants of the Pimuvit still live in California today and retain a cultural connection to Catalina.

Catalina Island History and Culture

Claiming Catalina for Empire

The first documented European to discover Catalina was Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Sailing for the Spanish Empire in 1542, Cabrillo sighted and claimed the island for Spain, naming it San Salvador after his ship. Other Spanish explorers later renamed it Santa Catalina in honor of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

Catalina was remote and lacked natural resources, so the Spanish didn’t establish settlements. However they did use the island for harvesting food, water, and other supplies for ships sailing along the California coast.

After the Mexican War of Independence ended in 1821, Catalina became part of Mexico. The Mexican governor of California, Pío Pico, began granting ranchos and land deeds on Catalina to boost development. One of the first to own acreage was his brother-in-law John Michael Covarrubias in 1839.

The Banning Years

By the late 1800s, Catalina Island was divided between a few major landowners, such as Covarrubias and James Lick. Lick eventually bought out all other claimants until he owned nearly the island.

After Lick died in 1876, his estate unsuccessfully tried to turn Catalina into a ranching and farming hub. In 1887, they sold the island to the Banning Brothers—William, Hancock, and Joseph—who planned to transform Catalina into a tourist destination.

Catalina Island History and Culture

The Banning brothers established the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1894 to develop their vision. They built hunting lodges in the island’s interior, created the first utility systems, and constructed a dance pavilion in Avalon Bay. Tourists could ride stagecoaches into the high country for hunting or relaxing in the bay.

In 1909, the Bannings erected the iconic Pleasure Pier. This floating concrete wharf gave Avalon a place for steamships to dock and tourists to promenade. Unfortunately, a catastrophic fire in 1915 burned down half of Avalon’s buildings.

The setback forced the Bannings to sell their beloved island just a few years later, in 1919. But their early infrastructure and hospitality laid the groundwork for Catalina’s future.

Transforming into the “Island of Romance”

In 1919, chewing gum mogul William Wrigley Jr. took over Catalina Island after buying a controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company. Wrigley had grand ambitions to turn Catalina into “the people’s island.” He invested millions into civic improvements, attractions, and hotels, including:

History and Cultural Heritage on Catalina Island  
  • The majestic Catalina Casino with its famous circular ballroom in 1929
  • Bird Park, the world’s largest aviary at the time, also opened in 1929
  • The Catalina Country Club and making Avalon the Spring Training home for Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs baseball team

Wrigley also pushed for infrastructure enhancements like expanding Avalon’s freshwater reservoir and building an improved boat and barge landing facility. Under Wrigley’s leadership in the 1920s and early 1930s, visitors flocked to Catalina to gamble, dance, hike, swim, and more.

Hollywood starlets like Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and Natalie Wood partied at night and filmed movies on the island during the day. Catalina gained fame as the “Island of Romance” and an oceanfront playground.

Even during the Great Depression, Wrigley kept investing in the island he loved. After he died in 1932, his son Philip K. Wrigley took over until 1975. The Wrigley family’s stewardship transformed Catalina over decades through intelligent planning, landmark amenities, and a commitment to hospitality.

Protecting the Island for the Future

History and Cultural Heritage on Catalina Island  

In 1975, Philip K. Wrigley made a momentous decision that would forever preserve the majority of Catalina Island in its natural state. Along with his wife and sister, Wrigley deeded 42,000 acres—88 percent of Catalina—to the non-profit Catalina Island Conservancy that the family established in 1972.

Since then, the Catalina Island Conservancy has stewarded the interior and wildlands of Catalina through conservation, education programs, and responsible recreation. Visitors driving or hiking into Catalina’s rugged backcountry can explore one of the last remaining unspoiled Channel Islands.

The Conservancy also protects Catalina’s endemic plants and animals, like the Catalina Island fox and over 400 plant species that grow nowhere else in the world. Thanks to decades of the Conservancy’s dedicated conservation science and land management, the island’s vulnerable ecosystems are on the path to recovery.

A Legacy of Conservation

Today, over a million tourists visit Catalina Island annually to relax in Avalon, kayak the coves, ride the zipline, inland camping, tour the famed Casino, and more. The island offers both small-town charm and outdoor adventure against a backdrop of Mediterranean style and California coastal beauty. Visitors also come to learn about Catalina’s storied past. 

Catalina Museum for Art & History

History and Cultural Heritage on Catalina Island  

The Catalina Island Museum exhibits 7,000 years of island history. The Art Deco Casino gives tours showcasing its movie palace past. Descendants of the Wrigley family continue the legacy their ancestors began by operating the Catalina Island Company and its hotels, tours, restaurants, and activities.

While Catalina continues to evolve as a world-class vacation spot, its cultural institutions and preservation ensure the island’s history is not forgotten. For residents and visitors alike, Catalina’s storied past is always the backdrop of island life today. Exploring Catalina offers a chance to discover California’s coastal history and natural splendor.

What are some of the historic landmarks on Catalina Island?

Catalina Historic Landmarks

Beyond its natural beauty, Catalina Island is filled with manmade landmarks that reveal chapters of its past. Some of the most iconic historic buildings and sites include:

Airport in the Sky

History and Cultural Heritage on Catalina Island  

This airport, 1,602 feet above Avalon, was built in 1946 to accommodate larger planes. The runway sits on a high plateau with sheer cliffs on both sides, allowing for exhilarating takeoffs and landings.

Avalon’s Bird Park

Built by William Wrigley Jr. in the 1920s, this lush park was once home to thousands of exotic birds worldwide. Though no longer an aviary, it is a beautiful botanical garden.

Catalina Island Casino

Catalina Casino is not a gambling hall but a historic circular entertainment complex. The 12,000-square-foot world-famous Casino ballroom opened in 1929 with the island’s first theater for talking motion pictures.

Catalina Chimes Tower

History and Cultural Heritage on Catalina Island  

This picturesque tower was built by the Wrigleys in 1934 to bring the tradition of ringing English Sunday church bells to Avalon. The iconic white tower still rings its bells each day.

Catalina Island Country Club

This clubhouse, built in 1921 by William Wrigley Jr., served as the spring training facility for his Chicago Cubs until 1951. It continues to be an event venue today.

Catalina Island Yacht Club

Founded in 1924, this was the first private yacht club established in Catalina. The original clubhouse overlooks Avalon Harbor and remains an important island institution.

Mt Ada – Wrigley Mansion

History and Cultural Heritage on Catalina Island  

Perched high above Avalon, William Wrigley Jr. originally built this historic mansion in 1921 as his private Catalina residence. It has dazzling 360-degree views.

Green Pleasure Pier

Built by the Banning Brothers in 1909, the iconic Green Pleasure Pier remains Catalina’s original seaside strolling venue. Its 1,100-foot length has served island visitors for over a century.

Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden

History of Catalina Island

This monument and garden honors William Wrigley Jr. and contains native Catalina plants. The memorial structure was built with Catalina Rock in 1935.

Incline Electric Railway

Constructed in 1928 to deliver luggage, this railway up a steep canyon ran until the 1970s. Visitors can still see the tracks winding through beautiful native plants.

Old Ben Park

Established in 1953 by Phil Wrigley as a place for “boys and girls to play in supervised safety.” This park still offers fun play structures and picnic sites.

The Tuna Club

History and Cultural Heritage on Catalina Island  

Founded in 1898, this exclusive angling club popularized big game sportfishing. The Tuna Club still exists today and recognizes record-breaking catches.

Overlook Hall

This 1915 structure was Catalina’s first clubhouse. After surviving a major fire, it became the island’s central gathering spot for decades, known for its afternoon teas.

Union Barracks

These adobe buildings were constructed during the Civil War in 1862 to house Union troops keeping an eye on Confederate sympathizers in Catalina. Restored barracks stand in Avalon Canyon today.

Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel

Western author Zane Grey built this adobe-style lodge in 1926 which became the hub for his fishing escapades. The renovated hotel retains its rustic 1920s charm.

Now that you know Catalina’s historic landmarks, let’s discuss some ways to experience art and culture on the Island.

5 Unique Ways to Experience Art and Culture on Catalina Island

Beyond its natural allure, Catalina Island has a thriving arts and cultural scene rooted in its storied past. Here are 5 unique ways to connect with Catalina’s creative spirit:

  • First Fridays at the Museum – On the first Friday evening of every month, the Catalina Island Museum hosts special events like lectures, live music, and curator talks. It’s a lively night to mingle with locals and learn about Catalina’s history.
  • Catalina Casino VIP Backstage Tour – Experience the iconic 1929 Catalina Casino on a guided tour of restricted backstage areas not seen by the public. 
  • Avalon Diving History Exhibit—This exhibit highlights the Undersea Exploration Era from 1933-1964. Visitors can see equipment from spearfishing pioneers and hear stories of their underwater adventures off Catalina’s coast.
  • Catalina Tile-Making Class – Design and craft a signature Catalina tile at this workshop. Use plazes and local clay to make Catalina-inspired tile art with guidance from a master tilemaker.
  • Murals and Art Around Avalon – Take a self-guided walking tour of over 30 art installations and public murals throughout Avalon. The outdoor works showcase Catalina’s history, culture, and natural beauty through visual storytelling.

With a rich history extending back over 7,000 years, Catalina Island has experienced constant change. Today, most of the island is protected wilderness thanks to forward-thinking conservation. Tourism sustains the island, with visitors able to engage with Catalina’s art, culture, and storied past in myriad ways. Exploring Catalina offers a chance to discover California’s coastal history and natural splendor.

Still have questions? Check out these answers to some commonly asked questions. 

What is the ancient history of Catalina Island?

The earliest inhabitants were the Pimuvit Native Americans who lived in coastal villages and sustained themselves through fishing, hunting, and gathering for thousands of years.

What is the history of the Catalina Island Company?

The Santa Catalina Island Company was founded in 1894 to develop tourism on the island. The Wrigley family took control in 1919 and heavily invested in infrastructure and attractions.

What are 3 interesting historical facts about Catalina Island?

Interesting facts include American Bison being imported for a 1920s film, the Chicago Cubs training there from 1921 to 1951, and over 500 movies filmed on the island, such as Mutiny on the Bounty.

What is the geological history of Catalina Island?

Catalina Island emerged from the ocean millions of years ago due to tectonic plate movement. Ancient skeletons show the island’s long natural history.

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