California Fool's Gold -- Exploring Santa Catalina Island and Avalon

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 26, 2013 07:38pm | Post a Comment

Two weeks ago I made my first visit to one of California’s Channel Islands, Santa Catalina Island. For those that don’t know, Southern California is home to an archipelago of small, rugged islands off its coast. My 2012 New Year’s resolution was to visit one or more of the Channel Islands. Having failed to realize this wish by December of that year, I instead resolved to learn to tie a bow tie after being berated (jokingly, I think) for not knowing how do so despite operating a gentlemen’s shop. For the record, I accomplished this last minute resolution and wore a bow tie a few nights later New Year’s Eve that I tied all by myself. Any, since transportation via Catalina Express is free on one’s birthday, I decided to have another go at island life.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of Santa Catalina Island 

Accompanying me in her debut appearance was Una. In order to get as much out of our adventure as possible, we departed at some pre-dawn hour. After a hastily-devoured meal from McDonald's (which, though simple and clarified three times, managed nonetheless to be both screwed up and roof-of-the-mouth blisteringly hot) we raced down the docks and leapt aboard the boat with about two minutes to spare.

 Catalina Landing and another Catalina Express boat in Long Beach

Despite the relatively early hour, I could scarcely contain my excitement at once again being back on the sea after so long on land. As we passed freighters in the Harbor from the other side of the ocean, I thought what an adventure it must be to journey, even as a mere cabin boy, between San Pedro Bay and Japan or China by sea -- singing sea shanties for the enjoyment of my fellow seamen. As the biting wind struck my face I reminisced about hitting the seas to go scuba diving and remembered that one of the main draws of California upon me was its maritime nature. Before long the site of Catalina (almost always visible from the mainland as a dark silhouette) came into focus like something out of a dream.

Avalon emerging on the horizon


Santa Catalina Island, often referred to as either Catalina Island or just Catalina, is about 35 km long and 13 km wide at its greatest width. It’s located 35 km from the coast. The highest point is the 639 meter tall Mount Orizaba. The Channel Islands, in descending order of size, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Santa Catalina, San Clemente, San Nicolas, San Miguel, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara. Like San Clemente Island, Santa Catalina Island is just as much a part of Los Angeles County as the communities of the mainland (even though the two islands are often given the Alaska and Hawaii treatment on maps). 

Pendersleigh & Sons' Cartography's map of Los Angeles County regions and detail of Channel Islands

To vote for other Los Angeles County communities  to be the subject of future blog entries, vote here. To vote for other Los Angeles neighborhoods, vote here. To vote for Orange County communities and neighborhoods, vote here



Several of California’s Channel Islands – Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel – were historically home to the Chumash, who may’ve settled them some 10,000 years ago. It’s possible that San Clemente, San Nicolas and Santa Catalina were as well also home to bands of Chumash. Evidence on San Nicolas and San Clemente suggest that at least they were the sites of major battles. What is known with more certainty is that around 7,000 BCE bands of Tongva were living on all three of these southern Channel Islands.

Santa Catalina appears to have been first settled a group calling themselves Pimugnans or Pimuvit. The Tongva band called the island Pimu'gna (“Place of the Pimu”) and archaeological evidence suggest that they first settled the islands after their ancestors emigrated from distant the Sonoran Desert. Their largest settlements were near the present day settlements at Avalon, Shark Harbor, and Emerald Bay. They traded soapstone from the island with other nations along the California coast and possibly with Polynesians. Evidence from the thousands of ancient middens on the island suggests that around 2,000 BCE the island was home to around 2,500 Pimuvit.


The first European explorer, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, arrived on 7 October, 1542 and, naming it San Salvador, claimed it for Spain. In 1602 another Spanish explorer, Sebastián Vizcaíno, again “discovered” the island, this time naming it Santa Catalina in recognition of the Eve of Saint Catherine’s Day (24 November), on which he arrived. The Spanish lacked the ability to prevent other nations from using the island and for centuries Aleut, American and Russian otter hunters, luckless gold prospectors, and smugglers used the islands for their own purposes, decimating the Pimugnans with disease and deliberate killings.


Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 and the islands changed hands once again. The last of the Pimugnans were gone by the 1830s – mostly victims of disease and migration to the mainland in search of work. Governor Pío Pico granted the island to Thomas M. Robbins in 1846 as Rancho Santa Catalina.


Miners on Catalina - Image source: The Catalina Islander

In 1850 Robbins sold the island to José María Covarrubias who sold it to Albert Packard in 1853 who in turn sold it to James Lick. Despite the fact that no gold was ever found on the island, otter hunters began telling tales of gold mines and buried treasure. Boom towns sprang up and in 1863 and 70 miners were then mining various claims. One character, Stephen Bouchette, claimed to have struck a rich vein and after securing a backing to mine for gold, set sail with his wife and all of their belongings and was never heard from again. In 1864, the US ordered everyone off the island and a small garrison of troops was stationed on the isthmus’s west end. The barracks, still there, are currently home to the Isthmus Yacht Club and are the oldest structure on the island.


Civil War barracks at Two Harbors - Image source: Visit Catalina Island

After the end of the Civil War, a few ranchers began to move to the island. Real estate developer George Shatto was the first to capitalize on the island’s potential as a tourist destination. After buying the island from the Lick estate, Shatto built the island’s first hotel, Hotel Metropole, and a pier. His sister-in-law, Etta Whitney, came up with the name Avalon, taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem “Idylls of the King.” Shatto soon defaulted on his loan and ownership returned to the Lick estate.

Postcard depicting Avalon Bay in 1900


The Santa Catalina Island Company was established by the sons of Phineas Banning in 1891 with the intention of developing the island as a resort. In addition to promoting Avalon, the Banning brothers developed inland roads for stagecoach tours and to access hunting lodges. They also built homes for themselves at Descanso Canyon and in what’s now Two Harbors. Their efforts were majorly set back when a fire destroyed most of Avalon on 29 November, 1915. In 1919 the brothers were forced to sell shares of their company.


The Tuna Club of Avalon

After visiting the island with his family, William Wrigley, Jr. purchased most of the island’s shares and thus gained controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company. The Tuna Club of Avalon was built in 1916. To drum up publicity, Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs began using the island for spring training in 1921 and stayed at the Hotel St. Catherine in Descanso Bay. The Catalina Island Yacht Club, established in 1893, built a new Yacht Club in 1924 (the former was destroyed in the fire). Wrigley established the Wrigley Ocean Marathon in 1927. He built the Catalina Casino in 1929. He died in 1932 and control of the company passed to his son, Philip, who continued his father’s work.

Left Catalina Island Yacht Club (built 1924). Right Catalina Casino (1929)

The 1920s and ‘30s are widely considered to have been the island’s heyday with movie stars like Clark Gable frequently making high profile visits and famous western author Zane Grey making his home there (which is now the phone-and-TV-less Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel).

During World War II the island was used by the military and closed to tourists. San Clemente Island, to the south, is still owned by the military and off-limits to visitors. The US Maritime Service, Coast Guard, Office of Strategic Services, Army Signal Corp and Navy all established a presence at various locations throughout the island.

In 1972, 26 Brown Berets planted a Mexican flag in Catalina, claiming that the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty between Mexico and the US didn’t cover the Channel Islands. Following 24 days of camping near Chimes Tower the activists returned to the mainland. In 1975, 42,135 acres of the island were deeded not to Mexico but to the Catalina Island Conservancy, established the same year as the Brown Berets’ action.



Avalon, as seen from the mountains

As of 2010, Catalina was home to 4,096 people – with 90% living in the only incorporated community, Avalon. Unincorporated Two Harbors is the next largest settlement and was then home to only about 298 people. The population of the island is about 56% Latino, 41% white Anglo, and about 2% Asian/Pacific Islander.


About 400 species of native plants grow on the island. Six varieties are endemic. There are five native land mammals: a subspecies of California Ground Squirrel, the Santa Catalina Island Harvest Mouse, the Santa Catalina Island Deer Mouse, the Ornate Shrew, and the aforementioned Island Fox.

Critically endangered Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis)

The endangered Island Fox was almost wiped out. In 1999, there remained only about 100. A recovery program increased their numbers and I saw and snapped a picture of one of the new roughly 400.

Bison grazing in the hills

In addition to the fox, the most recognizable fauna icon of the island is the American Bison. Fourteen bison were brought to the island in 1924 for the film, The Vanishing American. Rather than euthanize or return the bison, the filmmakers simply left them be and today there are about 150 which have -- along with other non-natives including Blackbuck, Bullfrogs, feral cats, Mule Deer, rats, and Starlings -- wrought taxed the ecosystem. The non-native cattle, goats, pigs, and sheep were also destructive but are no longer present on the island. The waters around the island is home to California SheepheadGaribaldiGreat White sharks, Leopard sharks, White Seabass, Yellowtail, Bat Rays, Giant Sea Bass, California Sea lions, and Harbor Seals


Catalina is regularly serviced by public transportation. Passenger ferries depart from Dana Point, Long Beach, Marina del Rey, Newport Beach, and San Pedro. Helicopters also connect Long Beach and San Pedro to the island. On the day of our visit, there was a Carnival Cruise ship broken down (I kid) off the coast.

Catalina Airport (CIB)

For those with access to a private plane, the island is also home to the Catalina Airport aka Airport-in-the-Sky, built in 1946 on top of a mountain 488 meters above sea level.


Claressa Avenue in Avalon, CA

Most residents of Catalina own gas-powered golf carts and many tourists rent them as well. When we explored Avalon in the morning, it took me a bit to get used to what sounded and smelled like 2,000 lawn mowers and leaf blowers being operated at once. There are also bike riders and rentals as well as tour busses and a trolley. There are, contrary to what I’d heard, some proper cars and trucks. Most of the ones that I were Minis (originals, not BMW’s) and Japanese mini trucks.

Metropola Avenue in Avalon, CA


With almost one million annual visitors annually dwarfing the local population by hundreds of times, it should come as no surprise that tourism is central to the island’s economy. There are all sorts of appropriately touristy activities available including glass bottom boats, scuba diving, snorkeling, para-sailing, and tours seem to be especially popular. Despite Avalon’s most iconic architecture being Catalina Casino, legal gambling is not. To quote Pee-Wee Herman, “Some things they don't teach you in school; some things you just have to learn for yourself.” We opted for an inland bus tour, the tickets for which were sold to us by a seemingly authentic Sea Hag straight out of Popeye. We also, not very tourist-like, visited the local library.

The Sea Hag and Alice the Goon

Swimming in the ocean near Avalon’s beaches is also popular although the fact that the Natural Resources Defense Council lists Avalon as one of the ten most chronically polluted beaches in the nation due to mainly to its antiquated sewer system convinced me to pursue liquid refreshment elsewhere – namely, in a bar.


Nearly all of the restaurants on Catalina Island are in Avalon. Refreshingly, none are part of an international chain. We ate a hearty elevenses at Pancake Cottage, a light lunch Avalon Seafood (aka Fish and Chips), and dinner at Lobster Trap. In between he enjoyed ice cream from Big Olaf's Ice Cream, and beer at one of the island's only proper bars, the Marlin Club.

Restaurants we didn't manage to check out include Antonio's Pizzeria & The Catalina Cabaret, Avalon Grille, Avalon's Plaza Cafe, Barbecue House, Bluewater Grill, Buffalo Nickel Restuarant, Cafe Metropole, Casino Dock Cafe, Catalina Cantina, CC Beau Deli, CC Gallagher, Channel House Restaurant, Chef D'Arcy's Soul Food, Coney Island West, Coyote Joe's Bar & Restaurant, Debbie's Island Deli, Descanso Beach Club, Dessert Island, Dockside Deli, Eli's Island Deli, El Galleon, Eric's on the Pier, Island Sushi, Joe's Place, Katie's Kitchen, Landing Bar & Grill, Laua Larry's, Lori's Good Stuff, M Restaurant, Mi Casita Mexican Restaurant, Mr. Ning's Chinese Garden, Original Anotio's Deli, Original Jack's Country Kitchen, Pete's Plaza Cafe, Pic Nic Fry, Ristorante Villa Portofino, Sally's Waffle Shop, Sandtrap Restaurant and Bar, Steve's Steakhouse, Three Palms Avalon Arcade, and Topless Tacos.

Outside of Avalon there are few options. We squeezed in more beer at DC-3 Gifts and Grill (aka Runway Cafe) which is located at the airport. In Two Harbors there's Doug's Harbor Reef Restaurant. Presumably guests can get breakfast at least at the island's bed and breakfasts.


Catalina has long been the subject of documentaries. A sampling of the earliest includes Santa Catalina, Magic Isle of the Pacific (1911), Santa Catalina Islands, and The Capture of a Sea Elephant and Hunting Wild Game in the South Pacific Islands (both 1914).

The island has also been a filming location for episodes of several TV series including Airwolf, The Aquanauts, The Bachelor, Bahcelor Pad, The Bold and the Beautiful, Den store fisketuren, Falling in Love with the Girl Next Door, The Girls Next Door, Hell's Kitchen, Home from Home, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, Mannix, Route 66, Sea Hunt, Twentysixmiles, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Its list of features and short films set and/or filmed there includes but is not limited to Biblical stories, prehistoric fantasies, pirate movies, swashbucklers, and Naval epics. Many films shot in Catalina were done so in the silent era, including Action (1921), American Pluck (1925), The Beach Combers (1912), Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), The Black Pirate (1926), Conquering the Woman (1922), Ebb Tide (1922), Feet of Clay (1924), Half a Man (1925), His Jonah Day (1920), The Isle of Lost Ships (1923), The Kid Brother (1927), The King of Kings (1927), Loot (1919), Male and Female (1919), Man's Genesis (1912), Miss Adventure (1919), No Man's Land (1918), Old Ironsides (1926), Peter Pan (1924), A Prizma Color Visit to Catalina (1919), The Professor's Wooing (1912), Rivals (1912), A Romance at Catalina (1912), Roughest Africa (1923), The Sea Beast (1926), The Sea Hawk (1924), The Sea Maiden (1913), The Sea Nymphs (1914), The Shepherd of the Hills (1919), Sirens of the Sea (1917), Terror Island (1920), The Treasure of the Sea (1918), the aforementioned The Vanishing American (1925), The Woman (1915), The Valley of the Moon (1914), and The Yankee Girl (1915).

Catalina's also been a filming location and/or setting for many talkies. Consider the following:

Affairs in Order (2008), All Ashore (1953), All is Lost (2013), Apollo 13 (1995), Aquanoids (2003), Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Battle at Bloody Beach (1961), Beachcomber (2009), Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998), Bird of Paradise (1932), Blockade (1938), The Blue Men (1990), Born to Dance (1936), The Buccaneer (1938), Captain Calamity (1936), Catalina Caper (1967), Chinatown (1974),

The Circuit III: Final Flight
(2006), Cruise into Terror (1978), The Cruise of the Jasper B (1926), Dancing Dynamite (1931), Dangerous Character (1962), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Dead in the Head (2010), The Divine Lady (1929), The Divorcee (1930),  El capitan Tormenta (1936), Elmer, the Great (1933), Fast Life (1932), The First to Go (1997), The Flaming Signal (1933), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), 
Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Harpoon (1948), Hero's Island (1962),

Hong Kong Nights
(1935), The Hurricane (1937), I Live My Life (1935), The In-Laws (1979), The Incredible Petrified World (1957), Into the Wild (2007), Island of Lost Souls (1932), Island Prey (2005), Jack the Giant Killer (1962), Jaws (1975), Journey of Echoes (2011), King of the Jungle (1933), Life as a House (2001), 
Lost Focus (2004), Love thy Neighbor (1940), The Man with Bogart's Face (1980), Men Without Women (1930), Mermaids of Tiburon (1962),

Monster from the Ocean Floor
(1954), The Monster That Challenged the World (1957), Murder on a Honeymoon (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), New Moon (1940), Oh Kay! (1928), P.J. (1968), 
Pirate Party on Catalina Isle (1935), Pirates of the High Seas (1950), Platinum High School (1960), Port of Hate (1939), Rain (1932), Reap the Wild Wind (1942), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), Red Hair (1928), Ruthless (1948),

Sadie Thompson (1928), Sand Sharks (2011), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), The Sea God (1930), 
The Sea Hound (1947), Seas Beneath (1931), The Shepherd of the Hills (1928), Sherlock: Undercover Dog (1994), The Sin Ship (1931), Sixteen Fathoms Deep (1934), The Son of Kong (1933), Song of the Islands (1942), Strange Interlude (1932), Submarine D-1 (1937), Suicide Kings (1997), Summer Children (1965), The Tenderfoot (1965), Tormented (1960), two short films called Catalina (both 2007), Typhoon (1940), Wake of the Red Witch (1948), Waterworld (1995), We're Not Dressing (1934), When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950), and You Said a Mouthful (1932) 

In 1981, actress Natalie Wood drowned in the waters near Two Harbors under fishy circumstances, where she and her husband, actor Robert Wagner, were vacationing aboard their yacht with fellow actor Christopher Walken. In 2011 the case was reopened due to statements made by the yacht’s captain, Dennis Davern. When we visited, there was some sort of related exhibit regarding the events at the small Catalina Island Museum.

Catalina is also the birthplace of actor/producer/director Gregory Harrison (he directed episodes of Trapper John, MD and Touched by an Angel), visual effects guy Jack Cosgrove (Gone with the Wind), and Ernie Reed (camera and electrical department on City Heat).


Not a lot of (or any that I’m aware of) widely-recognized music performers or bands have emerged from the island’s small population but it has hosted a couple of big names and events. Every year there’s the Catalina Island Jazztrax Festival. It was also the recording site of John Tesh: The Avalon Concert (1997).

Additionally, it’s been mentioned or referenced in a couple of songs including Harry Carroll and Harold Atteridge's "By the Beautiful Sea" (1914), Al Jolson and Vincent Rose's "Avalon" (1920), Nacio Herb Brown and Grant Clarke's "Avalon Town" (1928), Carrie Jacobs-Bond's "California" (1929), Cliff Friend and Con Conrad's "California" (1930), Harold Spina's "Santa Catalina" (1946), Gorden Vanderburg's "Catalina Honeymoon" (1953), The Four Preps’ “26 Miles” (1958), The Descendents’ “Catalina" (1982), and Modern Skirts’ “Pasadena” (2005).


We caught the last ferry home, along with many more people than were on board our boat on the way to Catalina. Whereas our morning journey had been amazingly quiet, the trip home was memorable for the shrill screams of energetic children. Outside the boat’s window, I was treated to a stunning sunset that I gave up on trying to capture with a camera and then the lovely site of downtown Long Beach. down, seven to go!

My maiden voyage on the RMS Queen Mary

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 12, 2012 08:49pm | Post a Comment

The other day I went to the RMS Queen Mary for birthday drinks for Lynn Garrett’s birthday. Lynn is the founder and head honcho at Hidden Los Angeles. As the name suggests, Hidden Los Angeles is a highly useful guide to Los Angeles for Angelenos and visitors who presumably have no interest in (or interests beyond) celebrity culture, “The Industry,” or the beaten path in general. It’s also the perfect riposte to Los Angeles’s haters complaints about our fair city. Lynn was staying on board the ship for three a three day non-cruise and the visit to the ship was my first.

View of Long Beach from the Queen Mary

The RMS Queen Mary is an ocean liner that sailed the North Atlantic from 1936 (when it was known as the Cunard-White Star) and 1967, when it retired to Long Beach.

She was built in Clydebank, Scotland and held the Blue Riband (an accolade granted to ships with the fast average speed when crossing the Atlantic) from 1936 to 1937 and then from 1938 to 1952.

RMS Queen Mary hallway

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Restored and renovated Rancho Los Alamitos ready to return

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 17, 2012 05:13pm | Post a Comment

Members of the press were recently treated to a preview of the historic Rancho Los Alamitos, in Long Beach. The public re-opening will take place on June 10 although special events will afford interested parties an opportunity to enjoy the site before then. 

Rancho Los Alamitos is a deeply significant historic site – home to a 19th century homestead that today offers a 7.5 acre oasis in the middle of a densely-populated urban area -- and the ancestral birthplace of Los Angeles’s Tongva people. For most of its existence it belonged to the prominent Bixby family before it was donated to the City of Long Beach in 1968, when it was apparently converted into a corny tourist trap. In 1986, the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation took over and this grand re-opening is the culmination of a quarter century’s worth of their restoration efforts.

Under Long Beach’s watch, the barn area buildings on the site were rearranged in a semi-circle, effectively turning the once-proud site into a Harbor Area answer to South Dakota’s 1800 Town. A “Wisteria Walk” was added. Grass was put in and visitors got to make candles. It may’ve all been good fun to the grade-schoolers who visited at the time but it probably wasn’t the ranch’s most dignified era. When the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation took over and pursued a different approach, there were predictably grumblings. This is SoCal, after all, and Southern Californians are very serious about kitsch.

The restoration was a massive undertaking. I never saw the ranch before my arrival this on the spring day of the preview but, having worked on a ranch (OK, for two weeks), the current lay-out seems to make much more functional sense. One of the most impressive aspects is how inconspicuous the modernizations are. The structural upgrades are unobtrusive and the offices are underground; so too is the geothermal system that provides the heating and cooling. The site isn’t simply a museum piece but probably more hi-tech (and quieter) than most of its modern neighbors. It kind of reminds me of the illusion created the Melkotians for Captain Kirk and his landing party or, for you Battlenerds, the planet Equellus minus (hopefully) the Cylons.

This soft-handed attitued is extended the museum’s overall manner. Information isn’t conveyed via lengthy, explanatory texts written on placards mounted beneath shelved artifacts. Instead, they’ve employed a variety of less-didactic ways to educate visitors. A short documentary film, Rancho Los Alamitos: An island in time, is available for viewing in a small theater. The displays contain information drawn from over 130 oral histories.

Being something of an amateur cartographer, I was thrilled by the floor of the Rancho Center, which features a large, beautiful map that superimposes the modern freeways, shoreline and some communities’ locations over a map of the historic Spanish Ranchos, simply conveying to the viewer a sense of their relationships to one another and their connection. The walls are adorned by large murals designed by the famed and recently-deceased Dugald Stermer. The connection to past and present is an obvious theme and one embodied in the flesh by Toni Castillo, a docent who used to live on the site. With 160 volunteers and no mannequins, the Rancho is a living, breathing place and barely resembles Olvera Street (or the Alamo -- at least as depicted in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure).


Rancho Los Alamitos is named after the Fremont Cottonwoods which fed off the local spring at the time of its foundation. The Tongva established the village of Povuu'nga (also spelled Puvunga and meaning, approximately, “Place of the Crowd“) there sometime around 500 CE. At that time, most of the immediate area was a flat, fertile floodplain where the shifting mouths of the Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers emptied into a shallow, briny marsh adjacent the San Pedro Bay. Rising slightly above the flats is Alamitos Mesa, on which the Rancho was later built, and subsequently renamed Bixby Hill. There, habitation was additionally aided by Puvunga Spring, which flowed continually until 1956. Additionally, Povuu'nga is also said to be where a legendary Tongva figure named Chinichnich decreed Tongva laws, rituals, and beliefs.

The Spanish first explored the area in the 1500s but didn’t conquer the Tongva until 1784. Alta California governor Pedro Fages granted Manuel Perez Nieto (a former sergeant in the conquering army) a huge land grant which was reduced in size to resolve a dispute with the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. Nieto’s adobe was located in present day West Whittier-Los Nietos. After Nietos’s passing in 1804, the grant was subdivided. In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain. In 1834 the missions were secularized.

In 1844, the rancho was purchased by Massachusettsan Abel Stearns. Along with his wife, Arcadia Bandini, his ranch went on to provide much of the beef that fed new immigrants who arrived during the California Gold Rush of ’48, the year the land was conquered from the Mexicans by the US. Two years later, when California became a state, Rancho Los Alamitos was the biggest beef ranch in the country. Stearns’s bovine empire crumbled in the 1860s when a long and disastrous drought necessitated Stearns’ subletting of the land to other farmers. In the early 1880s, John W. Bixby (whose cousins Jotham and Llewellyn Bixby owned the adjacent Rancho Los Cerritos) was part of a group of buyers of the rancho.

The 1880s witnessed Southern California’s first major land boom and Bixby developed Alamitos Beach which was later absorbed by Long Beach. The land was worked by the Tongva, who remain to this day, as well as new arrivals from Europe (including Basque, Belgians, Portuguese, Swedes, and more) Mexico, Japan and China (until the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882). The land boom ended in 1888 and Bixby died suddenly, the same year, apparently of appendicitis. Rancho Los Alamitos was again divided. In the 1890s, Jotham Bixby convinced wealthy gold and silver mine-owner, railroad baron and all around loaded William Clark to build a sugar beet refinery on the Rancho Los Alamitos property. When the Long Beach Oil Field was tapped, so was a new source of revenue. Water and oil helped expand the Bixby’s wealth, if not acreage, and they built themselves a beautiful home.



In the Barns Area, the main area of restoration, there’s a book store and a new education center/project room inside the horse stable built by Fred Bixby in 1948, the year after a fire destroyed the old Big Red Barn (whose outline is marked by six California Pepper Trees). As part of the restoration, all of the post-1968 plantings have been removed and the historic plantings preserved. Formerly surrounding the home were small, tenant communities, organized around ethnicity and origins. Belgians, for example, mostly lived to the east and Japanese, on the other hand, worked to the south. Nowadays the site is surrounded by a gated community. At the time of my visit, all of the ranch animals were off-site but will be returned for the opening, bringing with them more sights, sounds and smells. In addition to the stallion barn, blacksmith’s shop, dairy barn, and feed shed, there’s also a new chicken house and duck pond.


The Ranch House typifies the site’s continual adaptation and repurposing as well as the past owners eclectic but particular tastes. What began as a small adobe was gradually and organically expanded into a larger home with an interesting layout and distinctive and charming air. In the adobe’s entryway, Japanese prints share space with a mirror in an Egyptian-inspired frame. In the what was once the parlor was later converted to the dimly-lit billiard room. A Frank Tenney Johnson vies with a Hardie Gramatky for attention and the floor is covered with Navajo rugs. Next to it is the music room, which has a much more feminine quality, where a Persian miniature faces reproductions of paintings by Mary Cassatt, Frederick Frieseke and Claude Monet (the originals were donated to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park which later moved evolved into Midtown’s LACMA). The vibe throughout the home is both rough and refined.


The Gardens around the house extend the varied but sophisticated and specific vision of indigenous and immigrant tastes. Next to the house is a majestic Moreton Bay fig tree that was planted around 1888.

The oldest garden, The Old Garden, was planted in the late 19th century and redesigned in 1921 by Paul Howard.

The Geranium Walk
, was designed in 1922 by Pasadenan business and life partners Florence Yoch and Lucile Council, whose landscape gardening was famously featured in Gone with the wind.

The Cactus Garden
was designed with input of William Hertrich (who designed the Huntington Estate Gardens in San Marino) in 1924.

The Native Garden
was originally envisioned as an alpine garden but that, not surprisingly, proved unrealistic. In 1925, Paul Howard and Allen Chickering instead designed a garden focusing on California native plants. The Oleander Walk was designed in 1927 but the titular trees were felled by disease or weevils (I can't remember) and have since been replaced by more resiliant mulberry.


Brookline, Massachusetts’s prolific Olmstead Brothers landscape team was founded in 1898 and until 1980 famously undertook many preeminent projects throughout the nation. The Cypress Steps and Patio were designed by the duo in 1926 and inspired by a trip to Italy. The Friendly Garden was designed in 1927 and The Cutting Garden was added the following year.


And finally, their Jacaranda Walk was built on a former Tongva kitchen midden where ancient remnants of seashells still remain embedded in the earth.



On May 20, USC professor, historian and author of the California Dream book series joins Marc Pachter, interim director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution and retired director of the National Portrait Gallery in a special preview of the Rancho Center with their program titled Rancho Los Alamitos: A View of America in California. As with everyday admission to the Rancho, all programs are free. However, they're limited to 150 people, whose reservations are taken on a first-come, first-serve basis. Please see the website’s calendar for it and all subsequent events.


Sounding one final note, music plays an important part in the feeling that the Rancho remains a vibrant, functioning space. Craig Torres, a Tongva, serves as a Native American Advisor as well as educator,  singer, educator and entertainer. And, if I recall correctly, he drives a truck rather than arrive in a ti’at.

On April 28, the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Enrique Arturo Diemeck, will perform Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian dances 5-7 and Symphony no.3, and Antonín Dvořák’s Concerto for violencello. Closing the program will be the debut performance of the first movement of Robert Cummings’s Suite for double string orchestra for Rancho Los Alamitos, a fitting end to the night and beginning of a new phase in the Rancho’s continued existence.


8th LA Harbor International Film Festival

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 14, 2011 02:30pm | Post a Comment
Another day, another film festival! Today, the four day LA Harbor International Film Festival (LAHIFF) begins. From the 14th through the 17th, a selection of films will be screened at the Warner Grand Theatre (478 W. 6th Street in San Pedro).

Films in the festival are chosen based on their reflection of the character of The Harbor region. This year, picks include Treasure Island (USA, 1950), Il mare de Joe (Italy, 2009), The Joy Luck Club (USA, 1993), April Love (USA, 1957) and The Tillman Story (USA, 2010).

To purchase tickets and for more information, click here to visit the official site. It's free to all those serving now or in the past in the US military. 


California Fool's Gold -- A Harbor Primer

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 23, 2011 03:30pm | Post a Comment

Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of The Harbor

The Harbor
is the region of Los Angeles County centered around San Pedro Bay. It is the site of both the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, which together form the fifth-busiest port facility in the world (behind the ports of Shanghai ( 上海), Singapore, Hong Kong (香港), and Shenzhen (深圳) -- all in Asia). It was originally a shallow mudflat known to the indigenous Tongva as the Bay of Smokes. It was dredged in modern times to an average depth of ten to twenty meters. Natural islands in the Harbor included Terminal Island, Mormon Island and Dead Man's Island. The latter was removed, the second was connected to the mainland and the first is a highly augmented mudflat. There are four artificial islands built around oil rigs; Freeman, Grissom, White and Chaffee Islands. If one figure can be credited with the Harbor's transformation, it's Delaware-born Phineas Banning.


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