California Naval History
The Avalon Incident
The California Naval Militia vs. The Santa Catalina Island Company
by C. Douglas Kroll
Assistant Professor of History, College of the Desert
 


An act of the California Legislature, approved on March 31, 1891, authorized the establishment of a Naval Battalion within the National Guard of California. That Naval Battalion would soon become known as the California Naval Militia. Beginning in the summer 1892, the members of the various companies of the Naval Militia joined in short cruises in vessels furnished by direction of the Secretary of the Navy. The California Naval Militia made steady progress in its early years. During the summer of 1895, through the kindness of the officers of the U.S. Navy, the officers and men of the Naval Militia were permitted to cruise in the
U.S.S. Olympia. Beginning in 1896, the U.S. Navy began loaning vessels to the state for the use of its Naval Militia.

In 1908, the Naval Militia made its second annual summer training cruise in the two hundred foot iron gunboat, U.S.S. Alert. The officers and men of the Headquarters Division, and the First, Second and Engineer Divisions embarked at Sausalito early on the morning of June 28 and sailed south via Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Pedro and San Diego, taking on board the officers and men of the Fourth, Sixth, Seventh and Third Divisions respectively. This brought the total of officers and men of the Naval Militia on board to two hundred sixty-two, in addition to the six regular Navy crewmen on board. Due to the limited accommodations of the Alert, the entire Fifth Division, stationed at Eureka, had to be left at home and the numbers of other divisions were limited. The Alert left San Diego on July 3 and arrived at Santa Catalina Island that afternoon.

Santa Catalina Island, the largest of the four Catalina Islands off the coast of southern California, is also the closest to the coast. As the 1957 hit song by the Four Preps declared, it is only "twenty-six miles across the sea" from Los Angeles harbor. It is an island twenty-one miles long and from one-half to eight miles wide, with rugged mountains rising to 2,100 feet.

In private hands since Mexican Governor Pio Pico granted it to Thomas Robbins in 1846, it was garrisoned temporarily by Union troops during the Civil War and again by the U.S. armed forces during World War II. However, Santa Catalina Island is more well known as a vacation destination or an island resort, than as the location of military facilities.
The mild Mediterranean climate of Southern California has long been a magnet to both visitors and prospective residents who sought relief from harsh eastern winters. Santa Catalina Island had long been considered an ideal, if not inconvenient, destination for health seekers. Early visitors were few due to the lack of any form of amenities and the uncertainties of travel in small chartered boats. George Shatto, a very successful developer of downtown Los Angeles, convinced of the island's potential as a real estate development, purchased Santa Catalina Island in 1887 for $200,000. On a cove on the southwest corner of the island, Shatto constructed a wharf and the eighty room Hotel Metropole and surveyed the surrounding town, which was named Avalon. However, due to transportation difficulties, limited facilities and relatively expensive land prices, Shatto's hoped for real estate sales were less than spectacular and he was unable to make mortgage payments, resulting in foreclosure.

In 1892 the Banning Brothers purchased the island for $128,740. They immediately initiated plans to remodel and enlarge the Metropole Hotel, improve sanitation and domestic water systems, and construct a new dancing pavilion.

Commercial leases were entertained for businesses such as hotels, restaurants, saloons, general retail and amusement activities. The summer season of 1892, which began on July 4, was highly publicized and would serve as the precursor of the many successful seasons that would follow. The hotels would be over-booked with tourists who came to enjoy island life made better by the many new improvements and the new dancing pavilion with its free orchestra, employed to per-form daily throughout the season. By 1894 the island's operations had grown so dramatically that it prompted the incorporation of a new Banning subsidiary, the Santa Catalina Island Company, into which the Bannings placed title to all Catalina holdings in 1896. By 1902, Avalon's winter population was estimated to be five hundred. In summer the number swelled to six or eight thou-sand. In 1904 a Greek amphitheater was completed in a natural bowl high above Avalon. Thereafter formal band concerts and other programs were held there. By this time the island, according to James Zordick, could most properly be described as "Disneyland with a moat."

The island's popularity also prompted challenges to the Banning's monopoly of the Catalina Island passenger trade. For years, the Santa Catalina Island company sought to prevent interlopers from landing passengers at Avalon. Final resolution came in the rendering of a verdict in the Meteor Boat Company law suit of 1907, directing the Santa Catalina Island Company to provide access to Avalon for competing boat operators.

So many families were visiting the island that the Los Angeles Times newspaper dedicated a special daily column to report on the activities of the summer visitors. In many instances, wives and children would remain on the island while husbands/ fathers would return to the mainland to pursue business responsibilities, returning to the island the following weekend. The Bannings generally limited real estate ownership. One of their early exceptions was George S. Patton, Sr., a member of the board of directors of the Santa Catalina Island Company. Patton purchased land and a cottage at Avalon shortly after the Banning brothers acquired the island in 1892. In 1906 the Bannings relented on their policy of limiting real estate ownership. Nine hundred lots were offered at prices beginning at $1,500 for view sites.

By the summer of 1908, when the Alert paid a port call, the island was a popular summer resort for the wealthy of Southern California. The future General George S. Patton, Jr. enjoyed leisurely, upper-class sojourns on Santa Catalina Island as a child. From age ten through his teen years, young George spent several weeks on the island each summer. In 1902, he met his future wife there, Beverly Massachusetts patrician, Beatrice Banning Ayer, an eastern cousin of the California Bannings. George Patton would be a cadet at West Point during the "incident" at Avalon.

The California Naval Militia, embarked in the Alert, had made a visit to Avalon in early July of 1907, without incident. That summer training cruise was considered satisfactory in every respect. The summer of 1908 would be much different. It was the intention of Lieutenant Commander George M. Bauer, the Commanding Officer of the Alert, to spend two or three days at Avalon for boat drill, landing force, abandon ship and other customary ship drills. However, on the evening of July 4 an incident occurred on the island which led to a dispute between the California Naval Militia and the Santa Catalina Island Company. During the evening a dance was in progress in the pavilion. The officers of the Naval Militia had been invited to participate, but no invitation was received on the behalf of the enlisted men. Notwithstanding this, some of the men entered the dancing pavilion as it was evidently open to the general public and no invitation appeared to be necessary. Everyone who desired to do so, entered, and without questioning, ticket or invitation.

Sometime between 9:00 and 10:00 P.M., the management, through several of its employees, requested a number of enlisted men from the Alert, who were in the pavilion, to leave the hall and denied admission to other men from the Alert. The reason for this action, as Mr. F. H. Lowe, resident manager of the Santa Catalina Island Company, who owned the large, open dancing pavilion, explained to Surgeon Thomas B. W. Leland of the Naval Militia, was that the management did not desire to have men in bluejacket uniforms on the dancing floor. The officers and men of the Alert immediately left the pavilion and returned to their ship.

Upon learning of the incident at the pavilion, Lieutenant Commander Bauer personally requested the manager of the pavilion to state his reasons for excluding the enlisted men and was told that the men were "drunk and disorderly." Lieutenant Commander Bauer immediately investigated these charges and finding them to be false, informed the management of the resort that in his opinion the men were denied admission to the pavilion solely on account of their bluejacket uniform. When the manager denied this and again insisted that the men were intoxicated, Commander Bauer became aggravated and accused the manager of being a "damned liar." At this the manager beat a hasty retreat toward the hotel entrance. Commander Bauer canceled all orders for supplies for the Alert, previously left with the Avalon merchants, and then ordered all of his officers and men to board the Alert.

The Alert sailed for San Diego shortly after midnight. Once in San Diego the officers and men were taken on board various Navy vessels for training. Petty Officer Allen of the Alert explained to a local reporter the reasons for the Alert's hasty departure from Avalon.

There was absolutely no excuse for such arbitrary action on the part of the Avalon management. The boys on this ship are not regulars and all have been excellently behaved since we left San Francisco at the beginning of the cruise. There has been no drunkenness whatever, and every officer and man was perfectly sober and conducting himself like any gentlemen would while at Catalina. When we heard that the boys had been refused admission to the dance hall unless attired in civilian clothes we immediately left the place and the island as soon as possible. We feel that we are no better than the men under us, even though holding higher rank, and the insult offered the uniform affected us as much as it did the sailors.

The day after the incident, F. H. Lowe, the manager of the pavilion wrote to the Banning brothers, explaining what had transpired. He asserted that due to the large number of visitors arriving at Avalon on the 4th of July, that he had invited the officers of the Alert, but not the sailors. According to Lowe, when sailors arrived at the pavilion doors and were told they would not be admitted, they threatened to make trouble. Later, he alleged, the Commanding Officer of the Alert arrived and threatened him as well as seeming to incite a mob to attack him Lowe's letter closed by implying that Commander Bauer was drunk that evening.

On July 11, William Banning, the president of the Santa Catalina Island Company, wrote to the Adjutant General of the California National Guard to bring the matter to his attention, and suggested that he discipline Commander Bauer and the other members of the California Naval Militia that were involved in the incident. He asserted the men were denied admission to the pavilion because they were intoxicated and disorderly, and the commanding officer of the Alert used violent and abusive language in his conversations with the manager of the resort. His letter was accompanied by the signed statements of several "witnesses" to the incident, all supporting the resort manager's version. Banning himself made no charge of drunkenness, only that admission had to be limited because of the large number of guests on the island, but did accuse Commander Bauer of using "profane and indecent language in the presence of ladies." Banning also noted that he was forwarding a copy of his letter and the attached statements to the Secretary of the Navy in Washington, D.C.

Commander Bauer's response, dated August 5, 1908, made a general denial of the accusations made by the Santa Catalina Island Company. He noted that his officers and men passed in and out of the pavilion at their pleasure and "without question, ticket, or invitation", but that later in the evening the management requested that several enlisted men leave the pavilion and denied admission to other men. The reason for this action, as explained the Alert's Chief Surgeon, was that management did not desire to have men in the bluejacket uniform on the floor, although officers would be welcome.

When learning of the situation, he (Bauer) met with Mr. Lowe, who accused the Alert's men of being drunk and disorderly. After investigation, he returned to Mr. Lowe and told him that his charge was baseless. When Mr. Lowe reiterated that charge, Bauer admitted that he "became aggravated and called him a damn liar." He also responded to the Santa Catalina Island Company charges. He noted that all the letters forwarded by Mr. Banning, with possible one exception, were written by employees of the "company and that none of these letters were sworn statements. To refute the charges, Bauer included the affidavits of Surgeon Leland and the affidavits of the officers in command of each of ship's division. Bauer concluded his statement by asserting that the accompanying affidavits proved conclusively the Santa Catalina Island Company willfully refused admission for a public dancing pavilion to the men of the Naval Militia solely because they wore the blue-jacket uniform.

Commander Bauer's position was fully sustained by the Adjutant General and the Governor, and Bauer's statement, supported by the affidavits of his officers, Were considered sufficient refutation of the charges made by the Santa Catalina Island Company. No further investigation or inquiry in connection with the incident was made.

On August 12 the Adjutant General advised Commander Bauer that "in the future, no organization of the National Guard or Naval Militia of this State would be permitted to land on Santa Catalina Island while under the then existing ownership and management, except for purely necessary military purposes." The island would come under new ownership and management eleven years later, in 1919, when William Wrigley, Jr. purchased Santa Catalina Island for $3,000,000.

Suggested Reading

Alma Overholt, The Catalina Story (CA: Catalina Island Museum Society, 1971).

Chicki Mallan, Catalina Island Handbook (Chico, CA: Moon Publications, Inc., 1992).

Ernest Windle, Windle's History of Santa Catalina Island (CA: Catalina Islander, 1940).

James Zordich, "Santa Catalina Island Company: The First Quarter Century" Waterlines. 1st Quarter, 1999.

 
 
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Updated 8 February 2016