From Islapedia

Courtesy Catalina Island Museum
Hugo's Glass bottom rowboat, Aquarium
Hugo's Glass Bottom rowboat, Aquarium
postmarked March 9, 1920
[original in SCIF archives]
“Chappie's world famous glass-bottom boat”
Avalon, Catalina Island, Cal
Free Museum to Patrons
[original in SCIF archives]

Glass-bottom boats were claimed to have been invented in several different years at Avalon, Santa Catalina Island:

  • In 1890, abalone harvester Charley Feige [Faggie] used a box with a glass pane in the bottom that he held over the side of his boat to better see beneath the surface of Avalon Bay. He then installed a glass pane in the bottom of one of his rowboats. Tourism soon became a larger business for him than abalone. Captain J. E "Pard" Mathewson arrived in Avalon in 1892, noticed Feige's enterprise and created bigger boats with bigger panes of heavy-glass in the bottom. In 1902, Mathewson debuted a thirty-eight-foot, gas-powered side-wheeler, the Mon Ami, a glass-bottomed boat that could carry fifteen passengers. Glass-bottom boat tours became de rigueur for Catalina tourists in the twentieth century. Hollywood got into the act when Doris Day and Rod Taylor starred in the Avalon-set The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). [Maxwell, Pat et al. Catalina A to Z (2014)]

  • In 1895 on Santa Catalina Island by Alex O'Leary. [1895] “Until 1895 glass bottom boxes were placed on the water at the side of an ordinary boat when parties were looking for abalones and viewing the submarine gardens. In that year, Alex O'Leary, the hermit of San Clemente Island, who spent some time at Avalon, suggested the construction of the glass bottom boat, and acting upon this suggestion Bill Condit and Charles Fage [Feige; Faggie] proceeded to build the first craft of the kind ever made, and in which Mr. O'Leary was skipper for some time.

A fleet of small glass bottom row boats served tourists at the turn of the century, many of them named for cities and states across the United States:

  • Boston
  • Chicago
  • New York
  • Oregon (1902- )
  • Texas
  • Washington

Others had more nautical names:

  • Aquarium
  • Nautilus, designed after a Spanish caravel.
  • Neptune

The first side-wheel glass bottom boat [Lady Lou] was built by Gurious & Tobin in Mathewson's boatyard, and afterward became the property of the Meteor Boat Company, although it is now dismantled and idle...” [Guinn, J. M. A History of California and an extended history of its Southern Coast Counties (1907) vol. 2]

  • In 1896 on Santa Catalina Island by Chris Anderson, where they became wildly popular by the beginning of the new century. In 1897 “people were talking about the new glass-bottomed boat which had been put into service. The novelty weighed 1200 pounds and was propelled by a stern paddle wheel operated by a ‘bicycle arrangement.’ It looked rather ungainly, measuring 24 x 16 feet.” [John M. Houston Early Excursion Ships to Santa Catalina Island, 1980].
  • In 1898 Bill Waller built a stern-wheeler glass-bottom boat.
  • San Salvador (1902- )*
  • In 1903 Cleopatra (1903-1937+), Meteor Boat Company, was built at a cost of $15,000.
  • In 1903 Lady Lou (1903-1914+), Meteor Boat Company, first side-wheel glass-bottom boat was built.
  • In 1906 Empress (1906-1935), Meteor Boat Company, was built at a cost of $25,000. In 1921 a powerful underwater searchlight was added to her features.
  • In 1924 Princess (1924-2002), William Wrigley, Jr., was built at a cost of $70,000 named after William Wrigley, Jr.’s only granddaughter at the time, Ada Blanche Wrigley.
  • In 1931 Phoenix (1931-2006), William Wrigley, Jr., was built at a cost of $80,000.
  • In 1935 Torqua (1937-1942+), William Wrigley, Jr., was built at a cost of $45,000.

Boats commissioned by William Wrigley for construction after World War I: glass-bottom boats Emperor, Phoenix, and Princess, and the Blanche W for flying fish tours. In the early 1930s, each glass-bottom boat had its own skipper: Claude Walton, Phoenix; Lucas “Tinch” Moricich, Princess; Jack Dows, Empress; Alex Adargo, Cleopatra.

[original in SCIF archives]

Top of Page

In the News~

March 12, 1896 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. A boat with a glass bottom is the latest Catalina invention. Through this transparent boat one can watch the golf fish and the sea life below the surface to great advantage.”

March 20, 1896 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. A boat with a glass bottom is the recent invention of Chris Anderson, a boatman who has resided at Avalon for the past eight or nine years. A favorite pastime for Catalina visitors is to drift along the shore of the bay and round about Sugar Loaf watching through a water glass the movement of the sea life and the waving beds of kelp in the waters, which are so clear that one can see distinctly to a depth of fifty feet or more. This boat is specially designed for such excursions, and is constructed to carry eighteen people at a time. In the center of the bottom is a long section of glass an inch in thickness and divided into three compartments. Around the immense water glass are arranged comfortable seats. Anderson has applied for a patent on his invention, and will doubtless reap a golden harvest, as the boat is in great demand by tourists.”

August 6, 1896 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. One of the most delightful and at the same time instructive pastime here is the glass-bottom boat, which makes semi-daily trips along the shores of the bay…”

October 6, 1896 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. The weather here continues to remain perfection. The sea has been like a millpond for the past week, being clear as crystal, and with the aid of the glass-bottom boat, objects can be clearly distinguished on the bed of the ocean, at the depth of a hundred feet.”

June 11, 1897 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. The clear waters in the vicinity of Avalon are a constant temptation to peer into them, that the marine life in their depths — animal and vegetable — may be observed and studied. Several years ago some genius conceived and constructed a marine glass, or water box — a box about 14 inches square and 6 inches high, with a piece of French plate glass forming the bottom, which was water tight. This glass was taken out in a rowboat, placed on the water, thereby stilling the surface under it, and enabling the beholder, on a bright day, to see twenty or twenty-five feet beneath the surface. Last summer another genius evolved from the marine glass the glass-bottom boat, which is a flat-bottom boat having a hole about one foot wide and eight feet long cut in the center of it. This hole is walled up about fifteen inches with boards, and into this well three boxes with glass bottoms are made to fit snugly. This year P. J. Waller has still further improved this boat by having one built of iron in Los Angeles, which is 20 feet long, 6 feet beam, with 6-inch draft. The well is 2 x 10 feet in diameter. The boatman sits in a bicycle saddle and works a pair of bike pedals, holding a wheel in front of him, which controls the rudder. A gasoline engine will probably be put in next year.”

August 8, 1897 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. Competition is keen in every money-making enterprise here, as everywhere. Recently a local genius conceived the idea of a glass-bottom boat, by means of which the wonders of the deep might be viewed through the remarkably clear water of the bay. The idea ‘took,’ and not being patented or copyrighted, it was imitated, until there are now no less than six of these boats. The owner of one throws in, as an inducement to those who ride, a view of a collection of Indian relics and a souvenir book of Catalina mosses, and to get even another has reduced the fare to 10 cents.”

February 11, 1900 [LAT]: “Avalon… As there had been no indications of a storm, some of the boatmen were found unprepared for it, and a number of boats dragged their moorings and came ashore… Some of the glass in Jim Gardner’s glass-bottom boat was broken… M. Foster on seeing his glass-bottom boast break loose, jumped into the breakers and swam out to it, boarding it and getting it safely on the beach.”

May 22, 1901 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. A southwester began blowing very unexpectedly last evening, and about 9 o’clock increased to quite a gale. Some of the boatmen were found unprepared, and, the gale being offshore, three boats went adrift. Two of these were valuable round-bottom skiffs belonging to Chappie, valued at $90, and the third was a glass-bottom boat belonging to Hugo, worth about $100. The loss of the boats was discovered at about 10 o’clock last night and Chappie procured the services of George Michaelis with his little fishing launch, and went out to find them. Nothing was seen of them in the darkness, and the searchers returned thoroughly drenched by the rough sea…”

June 13, 1901 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. Hugo’s glass-bottom boat, which went adrift in a storm three weeks ago was recovered after an exciting experience by George Michaelis, who with his little launch, accompanied by Hugo, went to Newport after the craft Monday morning. They started homeward with the glass-bottom oat in tow, at 9 A.M. A heavy wind and rough sea sprung up, and after a hard struggle for several hours, it became apparent that the launch and her tow could not make the island. The fear of running out of gasoline in mid-channel in the raging seas, determined them to run to San Pedro for safety… Hugo, who has been a sailor all his life, says he would not take such chances again for all the boats in Avalon Bay.”

July 26, 1901 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. Little Jeanette Branderstein, while swimming today near the bathhouse, was run down by a careless boatman rowing a glass-bottom boat.”

February 21, 1902 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. Smith and Newberry this morning launched the largest glass-bottom boat ever built. They christened it the San Salvador, which was the name originally given this island by the Spanish explorers who discovered it.”

June 12, 1902 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. An object of curiosity is the big glass-bottom boat nearly forty feet long, in course of building at Mathewson’s shipyards. It is a side-wheeler, and a decided innovation in the way of a glass-bottom boat. Her engine is being put in place, and she is expected to make her appearance in a few days.”

June 18, 1902 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. The inventor of the water-glass scarcely foresaw that his simple glass in the bottom of a box would, in the process of evolution, be made to duty as the bottom of a boat. That was accomplished some years ago, but today marked another era of progress when William Gurins and M. Tobin launched a glass-bottom boat thirty-eight feet long and seven feet four inches beam and capable of seating nearly sixty persons. The boat was built at Mathewson’s yards here, is a side-wheeler, the paddle wheels being five and a half feet in diameter. There are two ‘wells,’ each ten feet long, in the center of the boat, through which one looks down into the depths of the sea and has a six-horse-power engine. The launching grew great crowds to the beach this afternoon, and it was done in first class style. Miss Aurelia Gurins, after a little speech, breaking a bottle of champagne over its bow and floating out a pennant bearing the name Mon Ami.”

June 20, 1902 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. ‘Billy’ Murray and ‘Curly’ Foster, who run glass-bottom boats here, had rather a unique experience with the seals in the bay this morning. They started out for a bath and as they jumped off the spring board at the bath house they found themselves among a herd of seals. The animals seemed to think the boys had joined them for a game of tag, and they entered into the sport with rare zest, dodging all around the swimmers, rubbing up along side of them and diving under them. Having seen the seals playing with dogs without harming them, the boys had no fear, and encouraged the advances of the seals, when one finally dived and coming up under Murray lifted him completely out of the water on its back. The boys concluded they had enough, with this, and put for shore. The exhibition was witnessed by a large crowd on shore.”

September 12, 1902 [LAT]: “The Mon Ami, the power glass-bottom boat, built by Gurins & Tobin as an experiment, has won its way to popularity and has corralled the bulk of the trade to the nearby points of interest. The trips to Moonstone Beach and Seal Rocks are one grand panorama of beautiful marine gardens, and elicit much praise from visitors. Schools of little fishes are encountered at intervals, and a party this morning witnessed a submarine attack on the minnows by a school of twenty or thirty yellowtail, which was intensely exciting.”

October 3, 1902 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. George Seligson, Jr., a young man of 21, from Galveston, Texas, who, with his father, mother and sister, had been staying at Hotel Metropole since Monday, committed suicide by jumping into the bay from the end of the wharf here at some time during the night or early this morning… Constable Vincente Moricich then took a glass-bottom boat and located the body at the end of the wharf, from whence it was recovered with grappling irons…”

October 18, 1902 [LAT/SCat]: “The power glass-bottom launch Mon Ami, which has been in dry dock several weeks undergoing many changes, will be launched tonight. This boat, the only one of its kind on the coast, has been popular with tourists in revealing to them the wonderful marine gardens and forests. It seats thirty persons. An excursion party of about thirty Foresters from San Francisco paid Avalon a visit this afternoon, and spent the few hours in glass-bottom boats and in tramping over the hills.”

October 31, 1902 [LAT/SCat]: “Jim Gardner, the well-known Catalina boatman, is expected to arrive in port from Avalon tonight with the largest of his fleet of pleasure and fishing boats. He owns seven in all, three power yachts and four glass-bottoms, all of which he expects to bring to Santa Barbara for the winter season.”

January 6, 1903 [SBI]: “The Oregon, the first glass boat of the Gardner fleet, was put into the water yesterday and will in the future be at the service of the general public… The Oregon arrived some time ago from Catalina Island, and Mr. Gardner intends to have his entire fleet of boats of nearly every description follow… The Oregon has a length of twenty-two feet with six foot beam and can safely carry twenty-five passengers.”

October 5, 1903 [LAH]: “Glass Bottom Boat Race. Marincich lowers colors of Barbarich. Course was from wharf at Avalon to Camp Whittier and return, a distance of six miles. Avalon, Oct. 4.—Tony Barbarich, skipper of Tony's glass bottom boat, has posed for a long time as the strongest man on the island. Today his claims were jumped by Nick Marincich, a fisherman who beat him by twenty minutes in a six mile race in glass bottom row boats. The race came about because Tony's oft repeated claims for superiority in strength and rowing ability were so strongly doubted by Pete Marilla of the Torqua that he offered to bet Tony forty dollars that he could find an Avalon man who could best him, and he did! The course was from the steamer wharf to Camp Whittier and return, and much interest was felt in the race, nearly every launch in the bay accompanying the contestants until it was seen that it was to be a walk away for Nick.”

April 7, 1904 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. …Then the glass-bottom boats Cleopatra and Lady Lou being placed at their disposal, everybody viewed the marine gardens and the aquarium and at 3:15 left for the mainland.”

September 7, 1904 [LAT/SCat]: “Avalon. William Gurins, who built the first power glass-bottom boat, now a resident of Los Angeles, with his wife and brother, Fred Gurins, a capitalist of Maquoketa, Iowa, have been on Catalina for a few days.”

September 1909 Charles F. Holder writes: “These boats are made on the island [Santa Catalina Island], and range from rowboats with glass-bottoms to large side-wheel steamers valued at $3000. There is a fleet of them, big and little, and they skim over the kelp beds, and have introduced an altogether new variety of entertainment and zoological study combined…”

February 3, 1914 [TI/Avalon]: “After drifting for two days in the San Clemente channel, the glass-bottom boat Chicago, owned by Captain Joe Adargo, was picked up Friday by Captain Gregg of the schooner Edith, and towed back to Avalon. The boat was not missed during the storm until after the weather had settled…”

March 31, 1914 [TI/Avalon]: “Rumor has it that there is more trouble brewing among glass-bottom boatmen who operate from the municipal pier. No one seems to know just what they want. When business is good, everyone is satisfied, but immediately there is a dull spell, a theoretical germ starts working, and a few of the old timers want to revert back to the old system, and others try out new plans, in fact, anything to kill the ‘caldron at the boiling point,’ and there are a few who want to ‘leave well enough alone.’”

September 29, 1914 [TI/Avalon]: “The glass-bottom boat powerboat Empress was taken over to San Pedro Monday, to be laid up until next season.”

December 1, 1914 [TI/Avalon]: “The glass-bottom powerboat Lady Lou arrived in the bay Saturday. The craft has recently been overhauled and painted gray, which gives it a war dog’s appearance.”

September 14, 1915 [TI/Avalon]: “Some years ago when the glass-bottomed rowboat owners paid 20 per cent of their net earnings to the Santa Catalina Island Company as rental, this price was considered to be exorbitant, and many complaints were registered among the operators of these boats. What area they paying today? It is stated on good authority that some of the glass-bottomed rowboat men are paying, besides the regular rental to do business from pleasure pier, commissions to one source or another that amount to almost 40 percent of their earnings. It is stated on authority that the business for 1914 and 1915 does not show the same receipts that prevailed in 1906, despite the sums of money that have been spent in advertising and personal solicitation.”

November 24, 1938: [TI/Avalon]: “Avalon was the first place to use the glass-bottom boats. First boat built by Charlie Faggie in 1890. Stern-wheeler built by Bill Waller in 1898.

  • 1905, first side-wheel glass-bottomed boat, the Lady Lou.
  • 1906, the Cleopatra. Cost $15,000.
  • 1917, the Empress. $25,000.
  • 1920, the Emperor. $65,000.
  • 1926, the Princess. $70,000.
  • 1931, the Phoenix. $80,000.
  • 1935, the Torqua. $45,000. In this boat there is a change of type to two propellers in the stern, which works successfully. It is built more like a launch.

October 3, 1954 [LAT]: “Little did they realize — the handful of Catalina Island glass-bottom boat and coin divers of 50 years ago — that they had originated a sport which one day would have thousands of participants prowling the waters off the Southern California coast from Palos Verdes to Laguna Beach — and off Catalina itself…

‘It was around 1900 that free diving had its origination right here in Avalon Bay,’ D’Arcy said. ‘The divers operated from glass-bottom rowboats. There were 25 of these at one time. Later glass-bottom powerboats were placed in operation… As for coin diving, it became a highly specialized profession with two-man diver-rower teams operating from the steamer pier, the old bathhouse and off yachts until the practice was halted in 1916…
‘After the coin diving ban we concentrated on the glass-bottom boats underwater exhibition.’ A number of Duke’s coin and glass-bottom boat diving contemporaries still reside on the island. One is his brother, Frank, with whom he operates the glass-bottom boat Coral Queen. The others are Tinch Moricich, Oscar Griffith, Everett and Pete Adargo and Hernandez brothers, Sam, Marce [Marcelino], Andy and Manuel. However, none has dived for years. At least since the last of the glass-bottom boat diving exhibitions in the summer of 1941, prior to the outbreak of World War II. Of late years underwater exhibitions have been staged by Harold Warner and AL Hansen, aqua lung diving experts who put on a good show amid the fishes and submarine flora.”

return to top