Underworld: Part 1
This is the first of a three-part series on the mysterious system of natural caves and man-made mines on Catalina.
We all know and love the fresh air and rolling green hills of Catalina in the springtime; hills that fade to khaki beneath Monet skies in the summer. But few people are aware that beneath this splendor, the Island is riddled with natural caves and the long-lost tunnels and forgotten mines of a bygone era when a significant portion of the Island’s revenue was gained by mineral operations.
The earth’s “underworld” has always held a fascination for us surface-dwelling critters as represented in the venerable Jules Verne classic “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, one of those Saturday matinee-type films I grew up on. (The very name of this column, in fact, was inspired by Verne’s “L’ile Mysterieuse” or “The Mysterious Island.”)
While most natural caves on Catalina are of relatively shallow depth, that is not the case with many of her mines—which is why I won’t be divulging their locations, even though most of the entrances to these mines were sealed up long ago.
The Blackjack Mine, for example, was an awesome labyrinth of tunnels extending thousands of feet into the nearby hillside. Although the mine (which was used in the 1920s for the extraction of a conglomerate of silver, lead and zinc known as “gallena”) has been idle now for many decades, the tunnels still exist down there, silent now to the sounds of toil and labor and the clang of metal on stone.
The most visible “cave” on the Island is the one just below the Holly Hill House near the Cabrillo Mole. New visitors to the Island are often seen here, happily snapping digital photos of this, their first discovery on an enchanted isle. While this is not a natural cave, its origins are nonetheless fascinating.
Back in the 1890s when the founders of the newly-formed town of Avalon wanted to build a road out to Pebbly Beach, they ran into an osbtacle by the name of Peter Gano. Gano, the owner and builder of what is now called the Holly Hill House, also owned part of the land through which the road was to be built.
Gano wouldn’t allow the town access to his property, so—rather than build the road along the shore—it was decided to literally blast a tunnel through the mountain. The idea was not so much to complete the tunnel, but to annoy Gano so much with the day-to-day blasts of dynamite that he would give in—which he eventually did. Today, that shallow cave is the legacy of this old-time feud.
The majority of the Island’s most fascinating natural caves are found on the Island’s West End and, to a lesser extent, along the lee shore leading there. Scuba divers, snorkelers and kayakers visiting Two Harbors regularly enjoy Perdition Cave and a Swiss cheese-platter of smaller caves—both wet and dry—that riddle the headlands around the Isthmus.
Perdition Cave is possibly our most famous cave. It’s large enough to accommodate a number of inflatables as well as sea kayaks. One section of the cave, battered out by eons of Nor’westers, continues through the rock where it exits several yards away from the main entrance. This offshoot is large enough to navigate using kayaks or inflatables, affording adventurers their own sort of “Pirates of the Caribbean” experience in the wild.
About midway between the Isthmus and Avalon is a wet cave, whose name escapes me at the moment, with a narrow entrance just large enough for a single inflatable. Once inside, the cave opens up into a larger chamber. From this “foyer” one can decide to continue on foot, scrabbling over cantalope-sized rocks constantly awash in the tidal surge, to a secluded subterranean beach of fine sand.
At Long Point is another well-known cave. This one pierces the headland allowing one to see all the way through the mountain to blue sky. When properly aligned from the sea, the tunnel (sort of) takes on the shape of Catalina Island.
But some natural caves have defied discovery over the years. When I reached my 40th birthday several (ahem) years ago, rather than the traditional beer bash and cake and stuff, I opted instead to pass this milestone by paddling on a multi-day kayak trip along the Island’s lee shore.
At one point, I pulled my kayak up on shore for a little rest when I noticed a small, dark opening between the sandy beach and an ancient lava flow. The entrance was nearly covered by fine beach sand, but I was able to shine my flashlight down inside, revealing a sandy floor several feet below.
Using my forearms, I shoveled enough sand out of the way to make myself a nice little entry point, about 2-feet wide by a foot high. With flashlight in hand, I then slid head first down into the hole.
Once inside, I surveyed my new surroundings. The cave was not large, but was of comfortable size, about that of a typical Avalon living room. The ceiling was about a foot or two above my head and I noticed there seemed to be no ventilation or “sighing” sounds, indicated that the only opening to the cave was the one through which I had entered.
The floor was completely flat, compact sand, leading me to believe it was at times filled with either rainy season flood waters, extreme high-tide seawater, or waves from the occasional Nor’easter.
There were two things of interest in the cave. Along one side was the bleached skeleton of what must have been an enormous wild pig. To the right of that was a pair of ancient water cans, the old square tin variety, both of which were rusted out at the bottom, but otherwise fairly well preserved.
I had a vague feeling of unease being in there and thoughts of Hantavirus and scenes from “Lord of the Flies” flittered through my mind. It was not, I decided, the kind of place I would want to spend much time unless there was nowhere else to go.
Only a couple of months ago, I made a trip back to the same spot with Avalon’s outboard repair guru Jim Parrish to see if I could once again locate “Pig Sty Cave” as I had named it. But look as we might, we weren’t able to find it.
The place where I recall finding it was instead covered with masses of beach rock. No doubt in the intervening decade, Santa Ana storms and assorted wave actions must have buried the entrance. For all I know, I may have made my initial discovery during a brief window of time over the past century that the entrance was accessible.
Disappointed, Jim and I headed back to Avalon. The Island doesn’t give up her secrets easily.
Next Week: Catalina’s “Underworld—The Mining Legacy.”
Got a weird story about Catalina? Send it to us at email@example.com or mail it to Mysterious Island, c/o Catalina Islander, PO Box 428, Avalon, CA 90704.