Catalina Island News

Early Catalina Scientists and Conservation Pioneers

Catalina Island Conservancy

In celebration of Avalon’s 100th birthday, here are some of the early scientists and conservation pioneers leading up to the incorporation of the city in 1913.

The first in the lineup is William Gambel of Philadelphia. He was the first scientist documented to collect flora samples on Catalina. This was in 1841. He was in many ways a “renaissance man.” When he arrived on Catalina he was an ornithologist. Ever heard of the Gambel quail? And later he ended up a trained medical doctor. But, for the Catalina-part of his story, he had agreed to collect plants in the American West on behalf of William Nuttall, a British botanist and zoologist who performed most of his collecting in America.

Catalina crossosoma was one of the biggest discoveries credited to Nuttall. Crossosoma was deemed at the time “so peculiar as to almost represent a distinct natural order,” wrote Edward Lee Greene in 1887 in the San Francisco-based Bulletin of the California Academy of Sciences.

In 1849, the year of the California Gold Rush and one year after he qualified as a medical doctor, Gambel died in Rose’s Bar in Quincy, California, of typhoid fever. He was 26.

In 1884 and 1885, William S. Lyon of Los Angeles conducted two extensive flora explorations of Catalina. His report was published in the Botanical Gazette in 1886, and it listed 151 plant species living on the Island. The Lyons pygmydaisy, which was re-discovered on the Island in 2011, and several other plants are named for him.

Paul Schumacher led initial archaeological investigations on Catalina for the Smithsonian Institute in the 1870s. In 1889, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey made a topographical survey of the island.

Perhaps one of the most influential naturalists and conservationists of his time was internationally renowned writer Charles Frederick Holder. In 1898, Holder founded The Tuna Club in Avalon. It’s the oldest fishing club in the United States. Sport-fishing enthusiasts have been beholden to him ever since. Holder’s books include An Isle of Summer, Santa Catalina: Its History, Climate, Sports, and Antiquities (1901).

The following year, Holder convinced the Banning brothers to finance the Banning Aquarium. It was built on the Avalon waterfront in collaboration with Holder, showcasing 50 tanks displaying sea life.

In August 1892, F.A. Seavey, made the first collection of Catalina insects. Bugs on Catalina have held a great fascination for many ever since.

Perhaps the most fascinating naturalist on the Island was Blanche Trask, a poetess, natural history essayist and Los Angeles Times contributor. From her homes at Big Fisherman’s Cove and Avalon, Trask traversed the Island on plant-hunting missions with a zeal known to few. Reportedly, her husband filed for divorce because she “deserted” him. A naturalist in more ways than one, Trask also deserted her wardrobe on botanic quests in the wildlands, or so the story goes. This is undocumented, however.

Blanche was born Luella Engle in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1865, and died of pulmonary problems in November 1916. In the intervening years, Trask’s botanic treks covered all of the California Channel Islands and at least seven plants of these isles carry her name. She published her notes on the floras of Santa Catalina and San Celmente islands in 1899 and 1904

This brings us to the incorporation of Avalon in 1913, and later to the formation of the Catalina Island Conservancy in 1972. In a literary toast here’s to all the people of the past, those listed and the many others that were not, who made it possible for us to enjoy Catalina today much in the way it was 100 years ago!

By Jerry Roberts