Mysterious Island: The untimely demise of George Shatto

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Ask any schoolchild who the founder of our country is and they will no doubt tell you George Washington.  

Likewise, ask any longtime Islander who the founder of Avalon was and most of them (I hope) will correctly tell you it was George Rufus Shatto.

But less well known among Catalina history buffs is the fate of Shatto and how little time he actually had left on this earth after relinquishing his hold on the Island.

Ask any schoolchild who the founder of our country is and they will no doubt tell you George Washington.  

Likewise, ask any longtime Islander who the founder of Avalon was and most of them (I hope) will correctly tell you it was George Rufus Shatto.

But less well known among Catalina history buffs is the fate of Shatto and how little time he actually had left on this earth after relinquishing his hold on the Island.

Like most town founders in American history, George Shatto was the 19th Century version of the Type-A personality, which meant he was one of the many who headed west in the pursuit of fortune and perhaps even fame.  In the early days of the West, this meant that those with a talent for real estate were quite often those who got ahead in life.  George Shatto was no exception.  

He had, in fact, begun his real estate career in Grand Rapids, Mich., not far from his birthplace in Medina County, Ohio.  

The young Shatto learned early on that he had a knack for the real estate trade and many of his investments involved land in the Los Angeles area.

It was these Southern California investments which eventually led him to a deal he couldn’t refuse: the purchase of Santa Catalina Island in 1887 from the James Lick Estate for a part-cash, part-financing arrangement of $200,000.

In those days, Avalon Bay was known as Timm’s Landing and was not much more than a wide coastal valley devoid of any permanent human habitation outside of a pair of wooden structures, one of which operated as a “hooch hut” for the local fishermen.

Shatto set about transforming the little valley and beach area into what he envisioned would be a leading Southern California tourist destination.  

He surveyed the land and the bay and laid out the tiny hamlet’s new street grid, most of which survives (including most street names) to this day.

His crowning achievement, the stately Hotel Metropole, was one of his first construction projects.  

In the coming years he saw the crude canvas tents enjoyed by summer visitors gradually give way to more permanent structures and year-round homes.

Civil engineering projects completed under the direction of fellow Ohioan Peter Gano rounded out the burgeoning city.  

At the suggestion of Shatto’s sister-in-law, Etta Whitney, the town was christened “Avalon,” a name taken from Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.”

For reasons that are far too complicated to go into in this column, Shatto was eventually forced to relinquish his command over the town and, in fact, the whole island.  

Due to less-than-stellar income from his Catalina Island enterprises (not to mention his ill-advised construction of an opulent mansion in Los Angeles on the street that bears his name) Shatto’s finances were such that the Island reverted once again to the Lick trustees.  

The Banning brothers stepped in and purchased the Island in 1892 and a new chapter, sans Shatto, began in Catalina’s history.

But Shatto was not long for this world, and it was on a lovely spring day in June of 1893 that the schooner Hattie, a regular in Catalina waters, sailed into Avalon Bay bearing the sad news that he had been killed.

The story, as related by Avalon historian Catherine McLean Loud, goes like this:  Shatto, still engaged in his real estate projects, had gone with some business associates to look over some mining property near Mojave.

It was there, in the desert, that he received news that his wife Clara had taken ill in Los Angeles.  

Knowing he was too late to catch the regular southbound train to L.A., Shatto boarded the caboose of a standing freight train he knew would be picked up later that night on a special run into the city.

For unknown reasons, probably a switching error, the incoming special crashed into the stationary caboose.  

Poor Shatto, who had been sleeping inside at the direct point of impact, was killed instantly.

Though he had his detractors on Catalina, as would any man of his position, the news was met with sorrow and disbelief in the town of Avalon.

On June 3, 1893, he was buried at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery on West Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles.

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