Hancock Banning: A Pasadenan on Catalina

This is the second in a six-part series on “five Pasadenans who had a lasting effect on Catalina Island,” as documented by the late PMH researcher Sidney K. Gally in 1992. 

Portrait of Hancock Banning. Courtesy of the Catalina Island Museum.

Hancock Banning, a businessman and land developer, introduced many citizens of Pasadena to the island in the 1880s. As a co-owner of the island, Banning helped turn Catalina into a popular getaway for anyone with a boat.

He was born in Wilmington (near San Pedro, California) in 1865. His father—Phineas Banning—was the founder of Wilmington. After acquiring the land in 1858, Phineas developed the area into a harbor for the city of Los Angeles. Phineas and his first wife, Rebecca Banning, nearly lost their lives in 1863. The couple was aboard one of Phineas’ steamships—The S.S. Ada Hancock—when a boiler exploded, killing twenty-six people. Incredibly, both Phineas and Rebecca survived. Two years after the incident, Rebecca gave birth to their third son, Hancock.

After completing his education, Hancock operated the Pasadena Transfer and Fuel Company located near Fair Oaks Avenue and Colorado Street. These were Hancock’s years as a bachelor. He would not marry until years later. Hancock was a lively spirit with many friends. Notably, he would spend evenings at the home of friend William R. Staats. These evenings were musical, with Staats playing the violin, his sister playing the piano, and Hancock playing the cornet. His hornblowing was not confined to the Staats’ house. Hancock joined a brass band, and after playing for a few years, attained the role of first cornet.

Hancock left the city of Pasadena in 1889. He moved to Los Angeles in order to found his own wholesale coal business and to become more involved in his siblings’ business ventures. One such venture was the purchase of Santa Catalina Island in 1892. Hancock was a major stockholder in the business: The Santa Catalina Island Company. He served as the company’s vice president. He was also listed as a General Freight and Passenger Agent in the company advertisements. Hancock married Anne Ophelia Smith in 1890, and the couple had three children. They decided to live on Catalina Island and built their home on the beach by Descanso Canyon, near the town of Avalon.

Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island, 1895. (Courtesy of Pasadena Public Library. Adam Clark Vroman Collection, v2#212)

Hancock was an active developer of Avalon. He managed the town’s boats and ships, built a town railway, and divided the land into terraces and residential areas. Hancock was also responsible for Avalon’s Greek Theater, a large venue. Hancock often played his cornet with a Marine Band. In 1915, a fire burned down a large portion of Avalon. The town lost multiple shops, a bathhouse, and hotels as a result of the fire. In the fire’s aftermath, Hancock oversaw the construction of a new hotel in Avalon: The St. Catherine Hotel. This new resort stood on land previously occupied by his own house. Hancock’s family moved to make space for construction.

Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher. Harbor and Avalon Greek Theater, Avalon, Catalina Island, Calif. Avalon Avalon. California Santa Catalina Island Santa Catalina Island. United States, None. [Between 1900 and 1915] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016800612/.
The Bannings revamped the island’s transportation and accommodations, ensuring it would be well-publicized and popular for all sorts of Pasadenans. Yachtsmen, fishermen, and vacationers from Pasadena all came to the island paradise that was Catalina.

However, the destruction caused by the fire of 1915—combined with pressures from the ongoing first world war—convinced the Bannings to sell the island to William Wrigley, Jr. and his associates. Wrigley became infatuated with Catalina after a visit in 1919. He purchased the majority of shares in the Santa Catalina Island Company, and vowed to make the island a first-rate vacation spot.

Hancock Banning died in 1925 following an operation for appendicitis. According to the Pasadena Star-News, a boat from Avalon ferried a large number of its residents to the mainland for Hancock’s funeral services. They were held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Los Angeles and at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Wilmington. During his services, Avalon halted all traffic in honor of their late resident. A few days later, the island’s Marine Band—with whom Hancock had played his trumpet—performed a memorial concert in the Greek Theater. Three thousand persons are reported to have attended the concert. They all stood in reverence while the band played Hancock’s favorite tune, “Hearts and Flowers,” a melancholic yet passionate song composed by Theodore Moses-Tobani.

Detroit Photographic Co. The beach at Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, Cal. Avalon California Santa Catalina Island United States, circa. 1903. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2008679612/.

A week after Hancock’s death, the Los Angeles Times printed a memoriam written by his friend, J.A. Graves. The piece was titled “Hancock Banning: An Appreciation.” Graves praises his late friend as “all that a husband and father should be.” A good-natured boy at heart, “in spirit he never grew old, never even grew up.” To everyone who came to his island paradise, Hancock Banning was “a perfect host to those who visited Catalina.”

- Grant Holt

Read the first blog in the series: Five Pasadenans and Santa Catalina Island. Check back each Monday for subsequent posts in this series.