Avalon Harbor is the only incorporated city on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of the State of California. Part of the California Channel Islands, Avalon Harbor is on the eastern shores of the island some 22 nautical miles south-southwest of Los Angeles and about 75 nautical miles northwest of San Diego. In 2000, over 3100 people called Avalon Harbor home.
Avalon Harbor is for the most part a resort community. The Avalon Harbor waterfront is a collection of tourist-oriented businesses, while the older areas in town contain two- and three-story buildings and small houses. There are also some large apartment complexes in the hills surrounding the valley at Avalon Harbor.
Before white people settled the island, Avalon Harbor was home to the Gabrielino/Tongva tribe that populated the entire Los Angeles basin region. The Tongva used the local soapstone from the island to make cooking vessels. It is probable that their largest villages were located in the Avalon Harbor area, although they had settlements across the island. The Tongva called the island Pimu and called themselves the Pimugnans. The native population of the island had either left or died off by the 1830s. Many who went to the mainland became workers at the missions or ranch hands.
Mexican governor Pio Pico granted the island of Catalina and Avalon Harbor to Don Jose Corruvias in the 1840s. Several different owners held the island until James Lick acquired it, and he owned the island for the next 25 years.
The first person to attempt to develop Avalon Harbor as a resort was George Shatto of Michigan. He bought the island for $200 thousand from the Lick estate. He created the original settlement that would eventually be Avalon Harbor. He built the first hotel and the first pier. His sister-in-law, Etta Whitney, gave Avalon Harbor its name, deriving it from the poem Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Shatto laid out the streets and advertised Avalon Harbor to the general public as a vacation destination by holding a real estate auction there in 1998. While the first year of the new resort town were promising, in the end, Shatto defaulted on his loan. Catalina Island and Avalon Harbor were returned to the Lick estate.
In 1891, the Banning brothers bought the island from the Lick estate with the goal of establishing a resort at Avalon Harbor. They built a dance pavilion in the center of town, added a steamer wharf and an aquarium, and created the men-only Pilgrim Club for gambling. They improved the Avalon Harbor beaches, building a seawall and adding covered benches and a bathing house. They also added about a hundred tents to Avalon's canyon so that people who could not afford to stay at the hotel would have covered shelter.
Unfortunately for the Bannings, a 1915 fire burned half of Avalon Harbor's buildings, including several hotels and clubs. The Bannings hoped to rebuild the resort, but lack of funds and a decline in tourism during World War I forced the Bannings to give up and sell the island in 1919.
William Wrigley, Jr., of chewing gum fame, bought controlling interest in Santa Catalina Island and Avalon Harbor in 1919. He fell in love with and was devoted to preserving and promoting the island. Wrigley invested millions of dollars to improve infrastructure and add tourist attractions. He bought additional steamships to bring passengers to the island.
In 1927, Wrigley used the Wrigley Ocean Marathon to generate tourism, offering $25 thousand to the first person to swim across the channel from California and $15 thousand for the first woman to swim the channel. Of 102 entrants, only one man, George Young of Canada, finished the swim after 15 hours and 44 minutes. Wrigley also advertised the Avalon Harbor resort by using Catalina Island for his Chicago Cubs spring training camp from 1921 until 1951.
In 1929, Wrigley built the Catalina Casino on top of the earlier dance pavilion site. The Avalon Harbor's Casino Ballroom played host to some of the country's most popular entertainers of the 1930s including Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and Gene Autry. When Wrigley passed away in 1932, his son Philip carried on his father's work by improving the infrastructure of the city of Avalon Harbor.
Catalina Island was closed for tourism during World War II. Instead, it was used for military training. The steamships were used for troop transports. The Army Signal Corps maintained a radar station on the island, and the forerunner of the CIA (the Office of Strategic Services) trained at Toyon Bay.
In 1972, a group of Latino activists, the Brown Berets, claimed Catalina Island for all Chicanos, planting a Mexican flag in Avalon Harbor. Valued as a new tourist attraction, local Latinos gave them food after they used up their supplies. A municipal judge visited their camp in Avalon Harbor after 24 days, asking them to leave the island. They then departed without incident.
In 1975, Philip Wrigley deeded the Wrigley interests in the Santa Catalina Island Company to the Catalina Island Conservancy. Today, the Conservancy controls most of the island outside Avalon Harbor for the purpose of conservation, education, and recreation. In 1991, California's first permanent desalination plant was opened on the island.
Today, the Santa Catalina Island Company controls most of the resort properties and operations in Avalon Harbor, including many of the tourist attractions including the country club, the golf course, the Descanso Beach Club, and the Casino Ballroom.
In 2007, a dangerous fire struck 19.2 square kilometers of land outside Avalon Harbor. Marine hovercraft and helicopters transported more than 200 fire fighters in to save the city. In the end, only one home and six commercial buildings were destroyed.