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Wings Across the Water : At the Turn of the Century, the Fastest Way to Get a Letter to Catalina Was by Carrier Pigeon

February 23, 1986|JACK SMITH

In this age of instant communication, when we can talk by telephone with someone in Kuala Lumpur and bounce television pictures off satellites, it is curious to recall that, less than a century ago, carrier pigeons were flying the mail between Los Angeles and Santa Catalina Island.

This quaint service is described in "Winged Mail: From Avalon to Bunker Hill" by Anna Marie Hager; it is a charming memoir published recently by Dawson's Book Shop, in Los Angeles.

America was perhaps at its peak of pictorial beauty in that last decade before the turn of the century, and Catalina Island, lying as it did beyond the sunset, seemed to be the "Magic Isle" it was called by the railroads and steamship companies.

Its little town had been named by the sister of an early owner, who chose Avalon from Tennyson's "The Idylls of the King."

To the island valley of Avalon; Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow; Nor ever wind blows loudly; Tourists flocked to this sunny, tranquil shore only 22 miles off the Southern California coast; rich Easterners built summer homes on its cliffs; bathers splashed in its bay; city folk wondered at the exotic fishes they saw through glass-bottomed boats; sturdy steamers run by the sons of Capt. Phineas Banning brought visitors from San Pedro to Avalon and took them back, for only $4 round-trip.

Figures of the Los Angeles social scene enjoyed the island's fishing, yachting, hunting and other exertions of the idle rich, and the Los Angeles Times retained an island correspondent to send the news and gossip back by steamer.

Only one flaw clouded this happy isolation. People on Catalina Island had no means of getting messages to or from the mainland without a delay of 24 hours or more. This troubled businessmen with offices to run and women with families to worry about. (As early as 1882, Los Angeles had a telephone exchange with nearly 90 subscribers, but there was no cable to Catalina.)

The Bannings wanted to lay a cable but ruled it out as too expensive. Then three industrious and ambitious youths--the brothers Otto, Oswald and Lorenzo Zahn--proposed to operate a carrier-pigeon service between Avalon and the Zahn home at 427 S. Hope St.

The Bannings liked the idea. Why not? Pigeons had been used as military couriers as far back as the Crusades. They set up a message-posting box in front of the Metropole Hotel in Avalon and built a pigeon loft on the wharf.

The Zahn boys then began the painstaking task of training their pigeons. As opening day neared, the Bannings circulated flyers and posted bills announcing the great event:

"IMPORTANT--Carrier Pigeon Service Has Been Established Between Santa Catalina Island and Los Angeles--PRIVATE MESSAGES and Business Orders May Be Forwarded at Any Hour of the Day, and in Connection with the Telephone, Telegraph and Cable Lines to ANY PART OF THE WORLD."

Messages were to be printed on tiny squares of onionskin paper, which would then be folded into strips and wrapped around the pigeons' legs, like bandages.

Besides flying private messages, the Zahns contracted with The Times to fly daily news dispatches from Avalon. First priority for the Zahns, when a flight arrived, was to pedal the news dispatch to The Times. Then the private messages would be pedaled to their destinations, or to the telegraph office for forwarding. The Zahns were busy boys.

On opening day--July 12, 1894--an excited crowd gathered in front of the Metropole to see the first bird launched. His name was Orlando. When the lid of his basket was raised, he at first peered warily about. Suddenly he fluttered up, flew back over the hotel and vanished. The crowd was dismayed. "He's gone the wrong way," they shouted. But then Orlando appeared on the roof. For several minutes he sat there preening his feathers. Finally he took off and headed for Los Angeles.

Exactly 54 minutes later, Orlando arrived at his loft on Bunker Hill. The Santa Catalina Island Homing Pigeon Service was in business.

The Zahns advertised that money would be refunded cheerfully for any message that went astray. Only twice in the first year of the service did a pigeon fail to complete its mission.

In 1898, the Zahn boys tired of their enterprise and sold out to another entrepreneur.

But the homing-pigeon service was doomed.

In 1902, the Pacific Wireless Co. put up a station at White's Point on the island; one of the first messages it received was the outcome of a Jim Jeffries prizefight on July 4, 1902.

Catalina, though, was yet to play a pioneering role in the coming age of flight.

On May 10, 1912, young Glenn Martin flew his airplane from Balboa Island to Catalina Island in 37 minutes--the longest overwater flight in history up till then.

And he beat Orlando's time.

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