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The Hidden History of Catalina Island

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Depending on where you’re coming from, Santa Catalina Island is about 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. This 22-mile-long island has a rich history, which includes playing host to countless Hollywood stars and getaway adventures for Southern Californians. Peter Greenberg recently traveled to Catalina Island and sat down with some of the locals, including Michael De Marsche, Executive Director of the Catalina Island Museum and Greg Bombard, president of the Catalina Express. Read on to find out what the locals divulged about Catalina Island’s secret history. Click here to listen to their interviews on the Travel Today podcast.

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Catalina was inhabited by Native Americans over 7,000 years ago, before being claimed by Spain in 1542. In 1602, another explorer for the Spanish crown landed there on Saint Catherine’s day, and named it after her. The island changed hands to the United States and, in the late 1800s, experienced a short lived and unsuccessful gold rush, but the interest snowballed.

The island was eventually bought by William Wrigley (of Wrigley chewing gum fame) in 1919, who immediately set out on investing in the island to make Catalina a tourist destination. The small town of Avalon was erected, along with the Casino Ballroom in 1929. The early 1900s was a golden age for Catalina—movie stars flocked to the island to relax and hide away from fans.

Charlie Chaplin fished off his boat, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn would frequent the island, and even Winston Churchill came to fish, famously catching a marlin in 20 minutes. According to Catalina Island Museum Executive Director Michael De Marsche, John Wayne “would walk around, wave to the kids, walk into the local eatery or establishment, have a couple of drinks, come out with handful of quarters, and would throw them to the kids, who would dive in the water after them.”

Holiday escapes to warm places; Nov'11; Avalon Bay, Catalina Island, CA

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, residents and visitors of Catalina Island left in fear of an attack. The island became a military base and training camp for soldiers, and hotels served as barracks for merchant marines. Soldiers learned tactics in simulated war zones, swam through oil fires in the ocean, fired anti-aircraft machine guns, and practiced abandon ship maneuvers on the sea.

After the island reopened, it became a resort town and destination for celebrities once again. Not all of their excursions ended well, however. In 1981, actress Natalie Wood drowned at night while on a vacation with her husband, actor Robert Wagner (the ship’s captain), and actor Christopher Walken. The event was ruled as an accident, but rumors abound of an alcohol-fueled fight between Walken and Wagner while Wood screamed for help.

As Museum Director Michael De Marsche says, Catalina Island “hasn’t changed that much, and that’s what people love about it. It’s like going back in time. It’s a special town, a charming town; a town of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.” Pictures of Marilyn Monroe on the island as a little girl can be seen in the museum, and you can go out to the same spot she stood, which still looks the same as it did back then.

Catalina Island, California

One of the island’s main claims to fame is the buffalo. They were brought over to Catalina Island to film Zane Grey’s 1925 film The Vanishing American, and the film crew left them behind. Over time, the buffalo became a signature attraction for the island. Today, you can get a buffalo burger at the restaurant at the Airport in the Sky, Catalina’s airport. There’s also a cocktail known as Buffalo Milk, which is a creamy drink made with vodka and creme de banana and topped with whipped cream and nutmeg. While the drink originated in the city of Two Harbors, you can find it in several places in the capital city of Avalon.

For more travel secrets from the locals, check out:

By Cody Brooks for PeterGreenberg.com 

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