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Catalina Island History
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Catalina Island.

Catalina Island History

People have been drawn to this tiny town of 4,000 residents (another 10,000 visitors on weekends) for thousands of years. They have come to work, play, seek their fortunes or raise their families. The island has seen Native Americans, explorers, ranchers, miners, hunters, soldiers and even sport fishermen. Not to mention tourists.

There were none of those, of course, when people first began living here about 7,000 years ago, according to estimates. Early settlers harvested the rich resources of the sea: everything from abalone and mollusks to fish and marine mammals such as sea lions. Since the semi-arid island offered limited plant resources, residents tended to be traders for their various needs. It is believed the Indians living here called their island Pimu and themselves Pimungans. They were known as excellent seamen who paddled their plank canoes across the sometime treacherous channel to trade with mainlanders.

When the Spanish colonized the island, new diseases killed many of the Indians who had little immunity. By the 1820s, the vast majority of the descendants of early Indians had either died or moved to the mainland. In 1849, the news of a gold discovery brought people from all over the world to California. Squatters laid claim to different areas of the island and several coves today still bear their names: Weston Beach, Johnson’s landing. Failed gold prospectors came to the island and found silver in some quantity but permanent settlers were few.

Union soldiers were dispatched to the island to determine whether it would be suitable for a reservation for displaced Indians. The barracks they built are still standing. Soon after, the island began to be dotted with tents in the summer as more adventurous mainlanders sailed the channel to picnic on the island and escape the heat of inland California. Catalina Island began to develop as a vacation destination. The island changed hands repeatedly. It was bought in 1887 by George Shatto, a young businessman who decided to develop Catalina as a tourist resort. He built the harbor.

The island in 1896 became the birthplace of the glass-bottomed boat. But tourism was evident well before that. In 1886, a newspaper account termed Catalina “the most popular summer resort on the Pacific Coast.” The island became particularly popular for sports fishing. The island has long been known also for its native plants which survived for centuries. Catalina was a sort of working ranch as various animals such as deer, pigs and goats were introduced. They chomped regularly on the native plants, which somehow survived. Even today, descendants of the various animals roam the island.

Much of the modern-day characteristics of Santa Catalina began to be formed with William Wrigley Jr. The chewing gum magnate bought the island unseen in 1919.In the past, Catalina had often been compared to Italian resorts such as the island of Capri. But Wrigley wanted more of an old California feel rather than the Old World. He did such mundane but crucial improvements as construction of a power plant and an upgraded sewer system. He also added a lot of aesthetic improvements such as the famous landmark casino seen from the waterfront. He even brought his baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, here for spring training. One of his obvious imprints still seen today is the tile work that is found everywhere -- on storefronts, fountains and stairways. A myriad of designs range from Moorish geometrics to more literal portrayals of macaws, toucans and parakeets -- all adding to the charm of Catalina Island.

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Catalina Island Travel Guides
 Frommer's Catalina Island
 Lonely Planet Catalina Island
 Let's Go Catalina Island
 Fodors Catalina Island