In addition to my regular weekly “Time Capsule,” periodically I will feature a special “Catalina Rediscovered” covering Avalon’s history for one entire year. This issue will take us back 121 years to 1894. Based on documents from the Catalina Museum’s extensive archive of journals, such as Catherine McLean Cloud manuscripts, contemporary newspapers, oral history interviews, and old photographs, “Catalina Rediscovered” will cover Avalon’s very beginning from 1887-1915. If you have any questions, suggestions, or comments, please send them to me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the Banning Brothers now completely in control of the destiny of Catalina Island, they decided to stretch the traditional spring/summer to include an even earlier season. With many Eastern tourists now coming out to California for the La Fiesta de Los Angeles and the San Francisco Mid-Western Fair, they decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather that Catalina was experiencing and see if they could entice tourists to venture here as part of their vacation plans. The town was very inviting after the February rains and so the Bannings, who made most of their income through their W. T, Co. (Wilmington Transportation Co.) boats, decided to open up the town earlier than usual. The Metropole Hotel, Sea Beach Hotel, and Avalon Home, to name a few, decided to open their door earlier than usual.
Unfortunately, as many were to find out for years to come, the weather conditions in Avalon can change very quickly and those unprepared suffer for it. On Feb. 22, which started off with fair winds and balmy climate, by the afternoon, a violent Santyana wind came up. The cross channel boat, Hattie, owned by captains Bill Condit and Jack Hartwell, was preparing for boarding for its trip back to the mainland, when a major gust of wind produced a vacuum-like huge wave that lifted the helpless boat and dashed her up on her side against the rocks on the East side cliffs of the bay. The only man on board escaped just in time. The waves continued for hours, as the Hattie continued to be broken to pieces on the rocks as the town’s people watched helplessly. Then, after a few hours, the storm ceased as quickly as it had started, leaving the boat to break into large wooden chunks of rubble.
The beloved 14-ton Hattie, which was the first boat with a one cylinder gasoline engine to service Avalon, had faithfully provided the people of Avalon with mail, groceries, lumber and other supplies and would faithfully provide transportation in the late Fall and Winter when the other cross channel boats were in dry dock. She proved to be the most reliable boat of the fleet. With its only transportation to the mainland destroyed, the Bannings quickly replaced it with the Falcon, under the command of Capt. Lundstrom. It was a carrier pigeon that carried this sad news about the Hattie to the mainland. A new form of communication was introduced to Catalina!
Although carrier pigeons were used on Catalina during the Civil War in 1864, it wasn’t until two young brothers from Los Angeles, Otto Johann Zahn and Oswald Francis Zahn turned their hobby into one of the most important communication services that Catalina had yet experienced. Before this communication line was established, a steamer arrived in Avalon at 6 p.m. and left the next morning at 7 am, which meant that no communications were received from the outside world for another 24 hours. With the pigeon service, a message could leave Avalon in the afternoon and appear in the Los Angeles newspapers by the following morning.
The Santa Catalina Island Homing Pigeon Service, originally named the Santa Catalina Island Pigeon Messenger Service, was started on Feb. 18 when a “gentleman’s agreement” was made with Western Union Telegraph Company to the effect that the carrier pigeons would be used only between Los Angeles and Catalina and the Telegraph Company was to stay out of that district. Blue Jim and Del Mar left at 3:20 p.m. followed by Orlando and No. 9 at 3:24 p.m.
The average speed on the mainland to cover this 50-mile distance was 1875 yards/minute, but these pigeons, having to cross the ocean, averaged 1,760 yards/minute. These Belgian variety of pigeon have the homing instinct developed to the highest degree. The birds’ love of their home allowed them to be trained to fly from Avalon to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to Avalon. Message rates were 50 cents if sent at 2 p.m. daily, the regular departure time, otherwise, the price was higher. Islanders also wanted to learn more about what was happening on the mainland and so pigeons were successfully trained to fly to Avalon from Los Angeles with Associated Press reports clipped from the Times. This information was placed on a bulletin board on the Steamer Pier for all to view.
Orlando, the first carrier pigeon with news about Catalina, was released on June 8. It was a dark bluish gray with white spotted wings and an iridescent blue-gray to copper on his neck. He patiently endured the ceremony of fitting the little roll with its important message to his leg. A ribbon of tissue paper was gummed to the higher feathers of his tail. This was for identification and protection from hunters. The message itself was written on sheets of onion skin tissue paper, four inches wide, and enough written material to fill a column of a usual sized daily paper. Orlando was then placed in a cage and carried across Crescent Avenue from the north side of the Steamer Pier to the front of the Hotel Metropole. The crowd, which included children and dogs, followed. At the raising of the lid of the cage, Orlando didn’t seem too interested in leaving, but suddenly took off and flew East over the Pavilion, which was the wrong way! He then came back and settled on the roof of the Metropole. In full view of the throng, including six ravens that joined him, Orlando gave himself 10 valuable minutes to relieve himself and to preen.
Air bound once again, he kept circling the town, each time flying higher and higher until he was mere speck in the sky and then headed north to the Sugar Loaf and aimed for Los Angeles.
Orlando’s departure was carefully noted by one Zahn brother in Avalon, while the bird’s arrival 50 miles away was greeted with the ringing of a bell by the other brother.
The message was then detached and the pigeon sent back by a boy on a bicycle to be prepared for the trip back. Orlando made the trip in 54 minutes.