Serving the community of Catalina, Arizona

Some thoughts on Catalina's history

As a relatively new resident of Catalina, I was interested to know what Catalina was like in the past. Catalina has a wide variety of ethnic groups and economic classes and ages of people. Most haven't lived in Catalina for very long, but there are some who have lived here their whole lives. What is it that has drawn people to settle in Catalina?

The first settlers in the late 1800's were surely drawn here because of the beauty of the Santa Catalina Mountains. They were cattlemen like Mariano Samaniego, the Aguirres, and William Sutherland. There was consistent water here then, in the Canada del Oro wash, and plenty of range land for the cattle. But there was also danger from rattlers, mountain lions, and Apache attacks. Droughts and floods were other challenges in trying to survive in this desert area. The pioneers who settled here took great risks and had uncommon perseverance to keep trying to succeed, even with all the difficulties that they faced.

William Sutherland's son, William Ray Sutherland, sold his ranch to Tucson Sheriff John Nelson in the early 1900's, and Nelson called it the Rail N ranch. The land was passed on to his son, Myron Nelson, who later divided the ranch into pieces and sold them to the Charouleau brothers and to Roberta Johnson Nicholas, among others. Mrs. Nicholas later sold her ranch to the Golder family, who ran the Golder Ranch which was so central to Catalina's beginnings.

Some people came to Catalina to wrangle cattle, like the Rivera family, and others came to get away from the growing city of Tucson to a place where they could enjoy a free, rural lifestyle. The village of Catalina officially began when E.B. Garner bought about 80 acres of land in 1948 and named it Catalina. He subdivided the land into lots, the first neighborhoods in Catalina, one between Mainsail and the Marina along Oracle, another between the Marina and Pinto Lane, and a third near the Lariat. In 1958, Lloyd Golder III saw an opportunity to create a water resort and built a dam to create a lake from the Canada del Oro wash. For awhile, people came and fished and went canoeing and had picnics at the lake, but the lakeside resort eventually faded when the dam was breached.

And yet, there were still the Twin Lakes, one man-made, in what was then ranch land around Twin Lakes Road and Forecastle Avenue. The building of five model homes began what was known as the Twin Lakes subdivision. There was also a peach orchard in this area.

Some people came to Catalina to begin the first businesses along Oracle Road. The Wishing Well Trailer Court, the Lariat Bar and Restaurant, the Marina, Armstrong's grocery store located where Bubb's Grubb restaurant is today, the Catalina Plaza Drug store, and a gas station were some of the earliest businesses.

Between the 1950's and the 1970's, the few residents of Catalina sought to add other necessary features to their rural life. The First Baptist Church was the first church in town, and they sought to help meet the needs of fellowship for the families and youth of the town. The Catholic residents eventually worked to raise money to build a Catholic Church, which began with catechism classes and masses held in the homes of parishioners. The Catalina Community Recreation Center began in 1971, largely because of community efforts, including participation of the youth, to raise money with barbeques, bake sales and car washes, plus the help of the Catalina Lions Club and Lloyd Golder, who provided resources to make sure that the recreation center was completed. There was also a need for a medical clinic to deal with medical emergencies in town, and so the Catalina Family Medical Center opened in 1977. In that same year, the Golder Ranch fire district was formed to the serve the Catalina area.

In the early days, the people of Catalina would gather at a church or outside the Catalina Plaza Drug store to have coffee together around a picnic table. Or they might go to a dance at the Lariat, or to a barbeque at a neighbor's house where they had just killed a deer in the mountains. There were always unexpected adventures, too, like dealing with a stray cow on the open range, or a rattlesnake, or a nest of bees. The monsoons also always provided excitement, with their accompanying winds and floods. And the timeless Santa Catalina Mountains offered endless inspiration and recreation.

In the 1980's the community of SaddleBrooke added another aspect to the greater Catalina area. Developed by Edward Robson and Lloyd Golder III, the SaddleBrooke housing development attracted seniors of many different backgrounds and from many different parts of the country and of the world. Many were compassionate people who came and saw poverty, especially in the mining towns of San Manuel and Mammoth, and felt compelled to start the Kid's Closet, a part of the SaddleBrooke Community Outreach.

Catalina churches also saw a growing need in their own community and organized a food bank, meals for seniors, and other assistance to help their Catalina neighbors. Then, in 2000, the Greater Catalina Village Council was able to get a government grant to start the Catalina Community Services (now called IMPACT) which has grown and changed locations over the years, and has greatly expanded its services to include senior meals, clothing, food, a variety of classes, medical care, legal help, and youth activities.

After the First Baptist Church and Catholic Church appeared in Catalina, the Lutheran Church, the Methodist Church, and the Assembly of God Church joined the community. Today, there are 13 churches in town, each with its own focus of outreach in Catalina. The Summer Institute of Linguistics joined the community in 1980, with an auditorium and several classrooms that have been offered for community use in various ways.

So, who are Catalinians? Some are of Mexican descent, whose ancestors lived here many years ago. Others are ranchers, or miners, or businessmen, or developers. Some are upper-class retirees originally from other places. Some are naturalists, or bikers, or artists, or missionaries, or people looking for a quiet, rural setting to live life the way they wish. Some are people looking for affordable land and housing, while others came to overcome addictions or other medical challenges. Many are poor. Many have been raised in homes where there is abuse or neglect, or where parents have addictions or have been in trouble with the law.

At some point, meth labs moved into our community. Drug addiction caused theft and gangs and graffiti to also make their way into our community. Around 70 homeless people have come to Catalina, too, perhaps to avoid harassment in other parts of Tucson. The many organizations that we have to relieve poverty and provide basic needs cannot seem to keep up with the growing needy population that we have.

Groups of philanthropists, neighbors, church members, and the Greater Catalina Village Council have been active in trying to find solutions to problems and in directing the growth of Catalina. It's not easy, as we are a community of individualists who really don't want much change or direction. The friendly, close neighborhoods that Catalina used to be known for almost seem a thing of the past as we have become more isolated and wrapped up in our own little worlds. Many people don't believe that they have the time or energy to try to solve Catalina's problems together.

It is our hope that the churches of Catalina can take a more active role in finding solutions, as they unite to discuss and pray for God's wisdom in helping to solve the problems of Catalina. But it is more than one congregation, or one committee, or one organization can do. We need everyone's contributions, because we all have a valuable role to play. And we need a fresh movement of God in our community.

That's why Catalina Cares exists: to help connect people, to unite, and to pray.


Jewett, E.D., editor and publisher. Across the Dry Rillito II. Tucson: Territorial Publishers, Inc., 1986.

Kuperberg, Ann. Catalina's History. Greater Catalina/Golder Ranch Village Council Website,

Marriott, Barbara. Canyon of Gold: Tales of Santa Catalina Pioneers. Tucson: Catymatt Productions, 2005.

Marriott, Barbara. Legendary Locals of Marana, Oro Valley, and Catalina. Charleston, SC: Legendary Locals (Arcadia Publishing Co.), 2012.

Nightlights in the Desert: A History of Catalina. Tucson: JTPArts/Artscorps Project, 1994.