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History of Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island has a long and storied history. There have been inhabitants on the island for the past 7,000 years. The first Europeans to arrive claimed the island for the Spanish Empire. It was later turned over to Mexico and then to the United States. The island has served as a stop for smugglers, gold diggers, pirates, hunters, the Union army and missionaries. Catalina's history as a resort destination began about 125 years ago.

A Series of Owners

By 1864, Catalina Island was entirely owned by James Lick, who was once considered the wealthiest man in California. After a few failed attempts at a resort development, Lick sold the island to the sons of Phineas Banning in 1891. The Banning Brothers established the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1894 and began developing the island into a resort destination, building hotels, attractions, and roads into the island’s rugged interior.

The Banning Years

The Banning brothers built hunting lodges, like the Banning House Lodge, and ran stagecoach tours around the island. They created access to Avalon’s beach areas, like Lovers Cove, Descanso Beach, and Sugarloaf Point, the future site of Catalina Casino. In 1909, they built the  Pleasure Pier, which still stands today in Avalon Bay.

In 1915, a fire burned down half of Avalon’s buildings. The brothers attempted to salvage their investment, building Hotel St. Catherine in Descanso Canyon to attract new visitors, but they eventually had to sell the island in 1919.

The Wrigley Vision

In 1919, chewing gum entrepreneur William Wrigley Jr. bought nearly every share of the Santa Catalina Island Company until he owned a controlling interest. He then invested millions in his vision to create a "playground for all" on Catalina Island, building infrastructure, a reservoir, Hotel Atwater, Bird Park, and other attractions.

In 1921, he made Avalon the Spring Training home of his beloved Chicago Cub’s, building the Catalina Country Club to house the team’s lockers and provide a gathering place for players. The team continued to train on the island until 1951.

In 1929, Wrigley built the iconic Catalina Casino, which boasts the world’s largest circular ballroom and the first theatre designed and built to show talking motion pictures. His son Philip Knight Wrigley took over and continued his father’s vision after his passing in 1932. During World War II, the island served as a military training facility and was closed to tourists.

The Island was a popular spot with Hollywood's elite during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It also became a popular location for production companies to shoot movies. More than 500 films, documentaries, commercials, and TV shows have been shot in and around Catalina over the years, especially in Two Harbors on the island's west end.

To this day, descendants of William Wrigley Jr.still own the Catalina Island Company and carry on his vision to create a world-class island resort.

A Legacy of Conservation

In 1975, Philip Knight Wrigley, his wife Helen, and his sister, Dorothy Wrigley Offield, deeded 42,000 acres of Catalina Island to the Catalina Island Conservancy, a non-profit organization they had established three years earlier in 1972. The oldest and largest private land trust in Southern California, the Conservancy has a continuing mission to "be a responsible steward of our lands through a balance of conservation, education, and recreation."