Los Angeles County's very own Mediterranean isle,...

Los Angeles County's very own Mediterranean isle, Santa Catalina Island, isn't just "26 miles across the sea," as the song says. It's also home to Avalon, the only city in the county with saltwater toilets, where most smog regulations don't apply and where the maximum speed limit is 20 mph.

The island has been through many stages: as home to the Gabrielino Indians, as a colony of Spain, as a pirate stronghold, and most recently as a splashground for the rich and famous.

It has been through many names, too: Rousillon Bay; Timms' Landing, after a shipping magnate; Shatto, after a real estate dealer, and finally Avalon, after the legendary paradise where King Arthur and other heroes were taken after death.

In 1919, a man whose name was synonymous with chewing gum became its most memorable owner. William Wrigley Jr. bought a controlling interest in the 76-square-mile island for $2 million the same year he bought the Chicago Cubs, who played their spring training games there for more than 30 years.

The island--including the incorporated city of Avalon--became his personal playground, and the public's. Wrigley wanted every visitor--he hated the word "tourist"--to feel welcome, among them film celebrities and the elite who could indulge in yachting.

Three steamers ferried less exalted revelers on a 2 1/2-hour crossing. From the dance floors of the steamers, gowned and tuxedoed guests made their way to the Casino ballroom to sway to the big-band sounds of Count Basie and Benny Goodman.

That era ended after World War II, and in the 1970s, the steamers were replaced by faster ferries. Avalon's major musical event is now the annual jazz festival in October.

But it has year-round appeal to newlyweds as the county's "honeymoon capital." Its reputation as the "island of romance" was boosted by the Four Preps' 1958 hit "26 Miles."

In 1975, the Wrigley family, through the Santa Catalina Island Co., deeded 86% of the island's coastline and interior for conservation.

Still, not all is paradise.

A million tourists a year, however profitable, can wreak havoc on a 1.2-square-mile town of about 3,000 people who own about 550 automobiles and trucks, 1,000 golf carts and 200 motorcycles.

A 15-year redevelopment plan was proposed in 1989, to be completed in stages so as not to disrupt tourism, the city's top revenue source. The effort will begin with a new $110-million resort and hotel on Descanso Beach.

Tax money from the project could meet the city's vexing needs: road improvements, a new civic center and affordable housing in a city where a two-bedroom, one-bath cottage with no view starts at $250,000.


* Local hero: A statue of Old Ben, a playful sea lion that swam ashore each day from 1898 to 1920, sits on the rocks at the end of the Cabrillo Mole jetty.

* Immigrant species: More than a dozen bison were brought to the island in 1924, when filmmakers were filming Zane Grey's classic western, "The Vanishing American." Recapturing them proved impossible, so the beasts where left to roam. There are about 250 today.


By The Numbers

City Business

Incorporated: June 26,1913

Area in square miles: 1

Number of parks: 4

Ciy employees: 50 full time, 55 part time

1995-96 budget: $4 million



Population: 2,918

Households: 1,215

Average household size: 2

Median age: 32


Ethnic Breakdown

Asian: 1%

Black/ Other: 1%

Latino: 40%

White: 59%


Money and Work Median household income: $27,610

Median household income / L.A. County: $34,965

Median home value: $365,900

Employed workers (16 and older): 1,729

Percentage of women employed: 68%

Percentage of men employed: 84%

Self-employed: 180

Car- poolers: 73


Retail Stores

Number of stores: 30

Number of employees: 113

Annual sales: $10 million



Married couples with children: 19%

Married couples with no children: 22%

Non-family households: 42%

Other types of families: 17%

Source: Claritas Inc. Household expenses are averages for 1994. All other figures are for 1990. Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World