Santa Catalina Island Homing Pigeon Service
Up until 1894, the only way for Avalon to communicate with the mainland was to send messages to the mainland via the late afternoon steamship. The island was then owned by the Banning brothers, who had thought about laying cable between the mainland and island, but found it too expensive of an enterprise.
It was then that two brothers, Otto and Oswald Zahn stepped up (or more correctly, flew up) to meet the needs of the community and its visitors. The Zahns created a homing pigeon service from Avalon to downtown Los Angeles. Once the carrier pigeon arrived in Los Angeles they could forward the message to any point reached by wire or in some cases, a boy on a bicycle. It was one-way service only since Avalon had become an important destination for society people of wealth, mostly from the East. Therefore they were not interested in what went on in small-town Los Angeles but Los Angeles was very interested in the goings on in Avalon to the extent that the “Los Angeles Times” assigned a reporter to Avalon’s social scene. The “Times” also reported on the pigeon service, printing the names of the birds and posting their flight times. The Homing Pigeon Service eventually started their message service from Los Angeles to Avalon.
The Santa Catalina Island Homing Pigeon Service billed themselves as “The only regularly organized service of the kind in the world.” Rates began at 50 cents per message when they were forwarded with the daily news at 2:30 P.M. The rate was 1 dollar when sent at 10:00 A.M. Messages forwarded at other hours were subject to special charges. The message was governed by size, not by number of words. Messages were written on onion skin paper and measured 4 inches across and 10 inches in length.
The brothers had been racing homing pigeons for a year before they decided to make them useful by providing mail service from the island. Using the old South Hope Street loft, in downtown Los Angeles, as a starting base, the brothers experimented with their idea by releasing the birds five miles west. Each time expanding the distance of the flights until they reached San Pedro. The final step was to release the birds further and further out to sea until they finally released one from Avalon. It circled over the town, rising higher and higher above the haze then headed home. An hour and a half later, it rang the bell in the Hope Street loft. The Santa Catalina Island Homing Pigeon Service was ready to go.
“Orlando” was the first pigeon to fly. The fastest of the pigeons, Orlando was clocked at 48 miles per hour on a 50-minute training flight (the others average about 30 miles per hour.) The town was out in full to witness this first flight including Avalon’s “hermit”, Chicken Johnny.
Catherine MacLean Loud, an early Avalon resident, was at opening day and recalls this event in this exert from her personal notes written in 1894:
“Orlando,” the first messenger released, was a dark bluish gray with white spotted wings, and an iridescent blue-gray to copper on his neck. He was a solid piece of flesh with strong sinews. Orlando was patient during the ceremony of fitting the little roll, with it important message, to his leg. A ribbon of tissue paper was gummed to the higher feathers of his tail. This was for identification and protection from hunters. Orlando, when prepared, was placed in a cage and carried across Crescent Avenue from the north side of the little steamer pier to the front of the Hotel Metropole. The crowd, children and dogs all followed. At the raising of the lid of the cage, the pigeon seemed in no hurry to leave. Then, suddenly he flew up into the air. Someone shouted that he was going east over the pavilion, the wrong way. He was lost sight of, then suddenly appeared sitting on the roof of the hotel. The whole crowd laughed as they gathered together to watch his every move. Orlando was perfecting his toilet (grooming) before flight. Like folks on their departure days, he enjoyed being detained. About six of the ravens of the island came and sat on the hotel (Metropole) roof near the pigeon, letting forth weird cries. Orlando kept calm and for another ten minutes continued preening, a necessary review for safe air passage. Then he arose as the crowd cheered “There he goes!”
The bird circled around the town, each time flying higher until he was a mere speck in the blue, blue sky. He started north toward Sugar Loaf, in the direction of Los Angeles, then quickly became lost to view.”
The service was a huge success but the brothers found that due to various hazards like weather, hunters and hawks, they had to send three birds off the island (hawks won’t attack 2 or more traveling pigeons) with the same message to insure their arrival. Hunters shooting the birds along the coast of San Pedro and Wilmington became so out of hand that William Banning was asked to intervene. As a result, a State law made it illegal to shoot homing pigeons.
Some of the names of the 75 plus pigeons were: Sweet Bess, Comet, Missy, Pinto Flying Jib, Rex, Orizaba, 49er, Red Racer, Quicksilver and Hot Stuff. At the beginning, the birds had been bred and raised in Los Angeles but after a while became island born on Beacon Street.
The Zahns sold their business in 1897 but business began to dwindle away for the new owner as the Gilded Age of Avalon Society was ending and Marconi’s wireless was beginning.