Charles F. Holder: A Pasadenan on Catalina

This is the fourth 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 Charles F. Holder, 1907. Photo by Frank G. Schumacher. (Courtesy of Pasadena Public Library, ppl_13999)

Charles Frederick Holder was born to a wealthy Quaker family in Lynn, Massachusetts, on August 5, 1851. His ancestor, the Quaker evangelist Christopher Holder, was among the first Quakers sent to the American Colonies. His father, Joseph Bassett Holder, was a noted zoologist, physician, and curator at the burgeoning American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At the young age of ten, Charles accompanied his father on a trip to the Florida Keys—a strip of tropical islands running a hundred miles long. His father was sent to study the Florida reef, the only living coral barrier reef in the country. Charles assisted his father by collecting specimens, fishing, and diving into the waters.

In 1871, Charles joined the faculty at the American Museum of Natural History as an assistant curator of zoology. He soon became fully occupied writing for popular scientific magazines that were circulated in both the United States and England. He even co-authored with his father a widely-used textbook, titled Elements of Zoology. Garnering attention for his work, Charles was elected to a Fellowship at the New York Academy of Sciences.

In 1879, Charles married Sarah Elizabeth Ufford of Brooklyn. Despite their marriage lasting over thirty years, Sarah is mentioned only once in Holder’s writings—in the dedication for his 1891 biography of Charles Darwin, Holder thanked “my wife, whose aid and cooperation have been invaluable.” Later, Sarah Holder would join the board of directors for the Pasadena Children’s Training Society—the city’s first orphanage.

Charles Frederick Holder lived an active life. A monograph by George Wharton James described Holder as “a clever yachtsman, an accomplished wrestler and boxer, and one of the leading amateurs with single sticks and broadsword.” His active lifestyle, however, was marred by poor health. Holder was diagnosed with a lung condition that worsened during the cold New York winters. Seeking a more agreeable climate, the Holders moved to Pasadena, California in 1885.

Initially, Holder was offered a professorship at the newly-established Sierra Madre College. Holder would have taught zoology and natural history, but the college struggled to stay open. By the time he arrived, Sierra Madre College had permanently closed. In 1891, Holder was offered a chair in the geology department of the newly-founded Throop College. He turned down the offer, however, as he was occupied with editing and managing Californian Illustrated Magazine. Although he refused the geology chair, Holder did join Throop’s first board of trustees and founded the college’s natural history museum. Later, during a social event in Holder’s study, the astronomer George Ellery Hale suggested transforming Throop into a premier scientific institution. Holder supported the idea and discussed it with the board of trustees. They endorsed the proposal. In 1920, Throop College became the California Institute of Technology.

In 1888, Holder founded the Valley Hunt Club, an organization where congenial souls gathered to participate in hunting. Established in 1888, the club had twenty-five founding members. Holder served as Vice-President. During a club meeting in 1889, Holder and his friend, Dr. Francis F. Rowland, put forth a proposal that would forever change Pasadena. They proposed that the Valley Hunt Club sponsor a floral parade accompanied by sports to be held on the first day of the new year. They called it The Tournament of Roses—a name which the Pasadena Star-News called “well adapted to convey to the blizzard-bound sons and daughters of the East, one of the sources of enjoyment which we, of the land of perennial sunshine, boast.” Holder served as the Tournament of Rose’s first president.

Cover of pamphlet, All About Pasadena And Its Vicinity, by Charles Frederick Holder, 1888. (Courtesy of Pasadena Public Library, ppl_669)

Holder was entranced by Southern California. In his 1889 book All About Pasadena And Its Vicinity, which was published after his initial 1888 pamphlet, Holder wrote that “in Pasadena one finds all the best features of Eastern towns—a refined and cultivated society where the same conditions exist as in the East: libraries, societies, churches—in short, the visitor will probably find everything here to which he was accustomed at home, except thunder storms, blizzards, mad dogs, and sunstroke.”

It was in All About Pasadena that Holder mentioned Santa Catalina Island, describing it as “one of the most interesting localities in the vicinity.” He devoted more words, however, to the hunting of wild animals. Holder was an avid cross country hunter and conservationist. He chased after foxes, coyotes, jackrabbits, and wild-cats on horseback alongside his pack of hounds. His enthusiasm for hunting was not lessened by the killing of these animals. Holder rather praised hunting for bringing people outdoors and into nature. He believed in a universal kinship among all living things, and upheld hunting to be a fair, sporting contest. In the spirit of his regard for the natural world, Holder organized and was president of the Wild Life Protective League of America and vice president of the California Audubon Society.

Charles Holder with his hunting dogs, circa 1889. (Courtesy of Pasadena Public Library, ppl_13998)

Holder wrote of Santa Catalina Island in Californian Illustrated Magazine. In December 1892, he published an article titled “An Isle of Summer, Santa Catalina Island.” Holder extolled the beauties of Catalina—its climate, fishing, and wildlife. His article was reprinted as a brochure by the Wilmington Transportation Company, which had been founded by the Banning Family and transported visitors to the island. Later in 1901, Holder published a history of Santa Catalina Island called An Isle of Summer. The book’s preface reviewed the island’s features, such as its romantic history, the diversity of its sports, and the “suggestion of botanists that it is a Western Atlantis.”

On June 1, 1892, Holder was fishing off the Catalina coastline when he caught a 183-pound bluefin tuna fish. Holder took nearly four hours to catch the fish, which towed his boat over ten miles over the course of the struggle. This catch would inspire him to found one of Santa Catalina Island’s lasting organizations: The Tuna Club of Avalon. This organization of “gentlemen anglers” attracted men of influence from all over the country. The club’s honorary membership included the likes of Ex-President Grover Cleveland, American Forester Gifford Pinchot, and New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt. The Tuna Club advocated against unsportsmanlike and destructive fishing, and was responsible for sponsoring legislation to prevent the devastation of salt-water game fish.

Original Members of the Tuna Club, 1898. Courtesy of Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, University of Washington Libraries.

In 1915, Holder was involved in an automobile accident. His injuries were fatal. Charles Frederick Holder died in his Pasadena home on October 10, 1915 at the age of 64. A service was conducted at his home by Dr. Robert Freeman of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. His pallbearers included Hancock Banning and George Ellery Hale. He was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena. By the end of his life, Holder had written over forty books and thousands of articles. An obituary in The Pasadena Daily News declared that if you met a man abroad and told him you were from Pasadena, “one of the first things he’d ask you was whether you knew Prof. Holder, whose books he had read.” In Avalon, there is a bronze plaque on a boulder. Known as The Holder Memorial Rock, the plaque bears a bas relief of Holder and states that it was placed “by friends of the naturalist who devoted himself to the preservation of wild game and sea life; who awakened the public conscience to the rights of bird and beast and fish, and whose work won at once the approval of sportsmen and the tributes of nations.”

- Grant Holt