ZAHN, Otto

From Islapedia
Otto Zahn
Pigeon's message

ZAHN, Otto Johann (1872-1965) and his brother, Oswald Francis, instituted the first scheduled method of communication via carrier pigeon from Santa Catalina Island to the adjacent mainland in 1894. They had permission from Hancock Banning to build an office and pigeon loft on the wharf at Avalon, and their pigeons flew between the island and their loft on Bunker Hill, Los Angeles. They also contracted with the Los Angeles Times to fly daily news from Avalon to Los Angeles during the three-month summer social season. Handbills advertised their message service “from Catalina to the outside world” for $1 each. Their younger brother, Lorenzo Zahn, assisted in delivering the messages once they arrived in Los Angeles. Messages on small onionskin forms were folded lengthwise into half-inch wide strips, wrapped and tied around the carrier’s legs. Although the delivery record was impressive, the Zahns operated their flock for four years before selling the business to pigeon fancier, G. H. Humphreys.

In 1902, the world’s first telegraph station was installed, and the pigeons were no longer needed. Otto Zahn outlived his first wife, Frances Harmon neé Sproston (1877-1947), and later remarried. He died of a heart attack on October 12, 1965 at age 94, and is buried in the Zahn family plot in Evergreen Cemetery, Los Angeles, along with his parents, and brothers Oswald (1873-1943); Oscar (1871-1950); Lorenzo Paul (1875-1964); and Hector Nelson (1876-1962). Zahns were Prussian.

Directory of Members, Cooper Ornithological Club, May 1914:

  • Otto J. Zahn. 2115 Estrella Ave., Los Angeles, CA 1896.

  • 1895. Otto J. Zahn The Mexican Raven on Catalina Island Avifauna 1(2):24-25, 1895

Pigeon post of Santa Catalina Island

Island Collections~
Santa Catalina Island Oswald Zahn WFVZ June 2, 1895 WFVZ-115956 Selasphorus sasin Eggs
Santa Catalina Island Otto Zahn WFVZ June 20, 1895 WFVZ-214094 Selasphorus rufus Eggs

In the News~

February 6, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “The carrier pigeon service between Los Angeles and Catalina Island is getting in shape, and promises to be quite a feature during the coming season… Otto Zahn arrives on Tuesday’s boat to arrange for a plant of 100 carrier pigeons, to be used in the increasing demand for messages across the channel.”

February 19, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “The following special correspondence to The Times from Catalina Island was received yesterday via homing pigeons of Otto Zahn…”

February 26, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Sunday, February 18, four homing pigeons, belonging to Otto J. and O. F. Zahn, carried messages (special to The Times) from Avalon to their home loft in Los Angeles in a surprisingly short time…”

July 12, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “July 11. By Zahn’s Carrier Pigeon Service to the Times. Otto J. Zahn, the well-known breeder and flyer of homing pigeons, arrived on yesterday’s steamer, and will perfect arrangements at once for the regular daily service between The Times and Catalina Island. Orlando, the celebrated homer, which has a record of fifty-five minutes over the fifty-mile route across the channel to Los Angeles, is the bearer of this message. (Although a fog hung over the channel all day long, he and two other birds found their way over with apparent ease.) “

July 24, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Special dispatch to The Times by Zahn’s carrier pigeon, ‘Red Racer’…”

July 25, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Special dispatch to The Times by Zahn’s carrier pigeon, ‘Vesta’…”

July 30, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Special dispatch to The Times by Zahn’s carrier pigeon, ‘Orlando’…”

August 17, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Special dispatch to The Times by Zahn’s carrier pigeon, ‘Red Hawk’…”

August 28, 1894 [LAT/SCat]: “Special dispatch to The Times by Zahn’s carrier pigeon, ‘Ventura’…”

May 31, 1895 [LAT]: “Ever since Noah let loose from the window of the ark the carrier pigeon which returned at eventide with the satisfying proof in its beak that the waters were drying off the face of the earth, these graceful couriers of the air have been acknowledged as the earliest exposition of the modern telegraph. Although the speed of electricity has outstripped these winged messengers, there have been frequent instances during war years and on shipboard when the carrier-pigeon, even in these days, held a distinct advantage over recent science. In ancient days the carrier pigeon answered the purpose of the modern telephone admirably. The wealthy Roman when he went to the amphitheater used to carry a basket of carriers on his arm for the purpose of sending a message home to his wife containing a list of the names of guests he had invited to dine with him and ordering, perhaps, a change in the menu. The amphitheater was open at the top, and the released messenger would rise above the walls and fly home with the important information. According to the poets and romancers of the middle ages the carrier pigeon was the most trusted messenger between parted lovers, and was frequently employed in a more business-like and less sentimental way to bear messages of war or commercial news. In maintaining communication during the campaign of a besieged city these carrier pigeons are simply invaluable. During the Franco-German war they rendered remarkable service. They are still, or were recently, employed in England to announce the result of the great races, affording a surer and speedier means of transmitting private intelligence than the over-crowded telegraph, over which messages are frequently delayed for hours by the pressure of business. In nine cases out of ten the winged messenger would arrive at its destination while the dispatch was still waiting its turn on the telegrapher's desk. On June 1, The Times will inaugurate its second season of carrier pigeon service from Catalina Island. The service last year proved eminently satisfactory, the regularity and precision with which the Catalina correspondence was daily delivered by these winged messengers rivaling the modern telegraph. In one instance the swift homer Del Mar covered the air-line distance of fifty miles between Avalon and this city in as many minutes, thereby making a distinct record for himself, as thirty miles per hour is the average speed attained by carrier pigeons. Since the successful carrying out of the regular service for The Times last year, the plans of transmitting news per carrier pigeon has been adopted by the Cleveland and Buffalo Steamship Company on Lake Erie. The experiment was first tried there last October, when the steamer State of Ohio left her dock at Buffalo numbering among her passengers three as good homers as ever cleaved the air. By a singular coincidence the birds were put to a terrible test on their initial voyage, for before night a terrific gale set in, the wind blowing at the rate of seventy miles an hour, and the steamer rolling at the mercy of wind and wave. Under the able seamanship of her captain, however, the vessel weathered the storm by pulling into a lonely harbor on the Canadian shore, forty miles from the nearest telegraph station. The gale continued, and there was no telling when the vessel would be able to get off. In this emergency the pigeons proved their value. Messages bearing tidings of the safety of the steamer were liberated on a strange shore and in a howling storm. Four hours later they reached their loft in Buffalo, some eighty or ninety miles away. The message was immediately telephoned down town to the steamship company's office, where it arrived when the office was crowded with the anxious friends and relatives of those on board the vessel which was believed to have been lost in the gale. Instead of the expected news of disaster there came the message that the steamer was safe sheltered at Long Point, and named a number of other vessels which had also taken refuge there. The joyful tidings was telegraphed to the Cleveland offices, and the intelligent homers were declared by the delighted steamship officials to eclipse all modern scientific discoveries in the way of transmitting messages when electric appliances were powerless. Since that time not a steamer has left the company's dock without some homers aboard. A visit to the Zahn loft on Hope Street, just above the Normal School, is full of interest. Here are some sixty homers, forty-five of which are in active training service, and will this summer transport the news daily from Catalina to The Times. The Zahn brothers, who own these valuable and intelligent pets, are glad to welcome visitors and tell all about the wonderful little birds. They began raising homers three or four years ago as a matter of amusement, but the birds have proved not only interesting but valuable to their young owners. During the season four birds are shipped daily to Avalon At 3 p.m. each day the birds are liberated, bearing The Times message, written on the thinnest of tissue paper, which is folded into a soft, compact roll and securely tied to the pigeon's foot. When liberated the pigeons (usually two or more are sent together) circle about the island a few minutes to get their bearings, then strike off over the water in an air-line for Los Angeles. When they arrive here they fly at once to the loft, entering through a little opening guarded by wires connected with an electric bell in the Zahn residence. AS the bird pushes aside the wire the bell instantly goes off, announcing to the young owners that the homer has arrived. The message is removed then, and the bird liberated among his fellows in the loft where he is generously fed. The Zahn brothers have another loft at Avalon containing some forty homers who will this season be brought over in couples and quartettes to San Pedro, where they will be liberated each morning bearing back to the island the bulletin of the morning news as printed each day on the first page of The Times, comprising the briefed telegraphic, Pacific Coast and local news. By this method the bulletin will reach Avalon several hours before the newspapers will arrive by steamer.”

June 3, 1895 [LAT/SCat]: “G. M. Arthur, uncle of Bayly, secretary of the California Homing Club in Oakland, is spending a few days on the island and was one of the interested spectators yesterday when the Zahn pigeons made their flight. Two trained flyers, Orlando and Whitewings (the latter bearing The Times message) and thirteen young pigeons making their trial trip, were liberated. The birds started promptly on their homeward trip, only pausing to circle two or three times above the roof of the Metropole to get their bearings, when they struck off in an air-line for Los Angeles.”

July 6, 1895 [Evening Star, Washington, DC]: “Catalina's pigeon post. Probably the only regular feathered mail service in this country. [From the San Francisco Chronicle.] So far as I can learn, the only regular pigeon post service on this side of the continent or the other is that which bears messages every day in the summer season between Los Angeles and the little town of Avalon, on Catalina Island, and bears them at a speed which can be beaten only by the telegraph or telephone. The steamers run once a day between island and mainland, and once it has cast loose from the wharf on the island, with a summer population of perhaps several thousands, is as completely cut off from the world as thought it were in mid-ocean, and yet the shore is a scant twenty miles away. The demand for some additional grew. Often there were men of affairs among the visitors, and they were not infrequently more distressed to find means of communication. I remember hearing one financier declare: "I'd give $500 gladly to get a dispatch to Los Angeles; it would be worth $5,000 to me easy." It remained for two young men of Los Angeles, Otto and Oswald Zahn, to relieve the island visitors and residents from their embarrassing isolation. This was accomplished by the establishment of a carrier pigeon post between Avalon and Los Angeles. The service was inaugurated last summer and conducted for several weeks with unequivocal success. It was feared at first that the pigeons, which are distinctly "land birds", might hesitate to fly across so large a body of water; but, as far as known, there need have been no cause for anxiety on this point. The message bearers usually started without delay, arriving at their destination with a certainty and promptness almost incredible. The air-line distance from Avalon to Los Angeles is about fifty miles. This was accomplished by some of the Catalina flyers in fifty minutes. From three to four hours is required to make the trip by railroad and steamer. Last year a considerable revenue was earned in the forwarding of dispatches from Catalina by the winged messengers. Small bills posted conspicuously about the town of Avalon convey the somewhat startling information to the irresolute islander that "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." The young pigeon fanciers also add to their income by supplying the daily press of Los Angeles with the latest news from Catalina. Last year the Zahns had not more than a dozen homers in the service, and it was found by repeated flyings at short intervals that the birds toward the end of the season became less reliable. It is not the flight across the water that exhausts them, but the boxing and shipping on the return trip. The Zahn lofts at Avalon and Los Angeles number this year nearly 100 birds of high degree, and these will insure constant and efficient service to and from the island throughout the summer. In a very few instances the birds have been wounded by pot hunters or thoughtless sportsmen.”

June 6, 1896 [LAT]: “Lovers of pigeons are watching with much interest the preparations which are going on for a pigeon race from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which have been in progress for some weeks. Messrs. Crawford and Zahn are training birds for the event…”

July 3, 1896 [LAT]: “The biggest homing pigeon race which has ever occurred in California will take place on the Fourth of July. The birds have been in training for weeks, and when the great day comes, they will wing their flight over the long stretch of country between San Francisco and Los Angeles. This is the longest race ever attempted west of the Rocky Mountains… The Los Angeles fanciers who accepted the challenge are: J. C. Girton… O. F. Zahn…”

January 9, 1898 [LAT]: “George H. Humphreys, who expects to reestablish the carrier-pigeon service between Avalon and Los Angeles on the 1st of February, came over Tuesday. When ten miles out from San Pedro he released fifteen burds that he is training for this work. The time previous they were flown from Wilmington. On Wednesday ten birds were taken from the cote here and liberated from the steamer when ten miles from Avalon. They will be used by the Banning Company to send messages both ways.”

June 26, 1909 [LAT]: “C. B. Linton today chartered the launch Flyer for a four days’ trip to the Channel Islands, leaving Long Beach July 2 and returning July 6. Accompanying Mr. Linton will be fifteen members of the Cooper Ornithological Club of Los Angeles, among them City Clerk Lelande, Deputy City Attorney Howard Robertson, Dr. Otto J. Zahn, L. H. Miller, Alphonse Jay, Dr. Horace A. Gaylord, W. S. McQuilling and Consulting Geologist Ralph Arnold. Polytechnic High School will also have a representative. Scientific research is the main object of the expedition.”

July 7, 1909: “… on board the good ship Flyer, somewhere between Santa Barbara and San Nicolas islands, with the following members [Cooper Ornithological Club] present: O. W. Howard, W. B. Judson, A. P. Howard, H. J. Lelande, C. B. Linton, Otto J. Zahn, Antonin Jay, Chester Lamb and Howard Robertson; also the following as visitors: C. A. Caldwell, It. A. Gaylord, H. F. Hossick, Emerson Knight, H. Linton, H. N. Lowe, W. S. McQuilling, Captain Graves, Mate Grannis, and cook Vic… The party left Long Beach on Friday evening, July 2, for a three days’ trip to Santa Barbara and San Nicolas islands. Santa Barbara Island was first visited… Leaving Santa Barbara Island about 3 P.M. the trip was made to San Nicolas Island, reaching the sand spit at the southeast end of the island about 8 P.M. Sunday. July 4 was spent on the island by most of the party, some of whom walked around the island and examined the cormorant rookeries and the Indian burial grounds…” [Condor 12(1):52]

July 8, 1909 [LAT/LB]: “The launch Flyer, Captain Will Graves, with sixteen members of the Cooper Ornithological Club of California, arrived home at midnight, after a four-day’s cruise of the Channel Islands. The party was composed of City Clerk Harry J. Leland, Los Angeles; Howard Robertson, O. W. and Arthur Howard, Dr. Otto Zahn, W. B. Judson, H. F. Hossack, Antonin Jay, Emerson Knight, Herbert Lowe, Dr. Horace Gaylord, W. S. McQuilling, Chester Lamb, C. B. Caldwell, C. B. Linton, Grannis Crandall and Victor Sepulveda…”

July 8, 1909 [LAH]: “Long Beach, July 7. The party of sixteen members of the Cooper Club of California who went to Santa Barbara Island July 3 in Captain W. H. Graves’ launch Flyer, returned last night with a large assortment of relics and interesting discoveries and with a story of having weathered one of the sharpest storms known among the Channel Islands for some years. Several different times members of the party were thrown overboard while trying to make landings through the heavy surf, and once several of the men had to stay all of one night and the following day in a small cave, being unable to return to their boat. In the party were Harry Lelande, city clerk of Los Angeles; attorney Howard Robertson, O. W. and Arthur Howard, Dr. Otto J. Zahn, W. B. Judson, H. F. Hossack, Antonio Jay, Emerson Knight, Dr. Horace Gaylord, H. N. Lowe, W. S. McQuilling, Chester Lamb, C. S. Caldwell, Clarence B. Linton, Horace Linton, Captain W. H. Graves, Mate Granis Crandall and Chef Victor Sepulveda.”

December 27, 1947 [LAT]: “Mrs. Frances Harmon Zahn, 72, a member of the Library Commission for 33 years, died Christmas night at Good Samaritan hospital of a stroke she suffered Thanksgiving day… A resident of Los Angeles for 51 years… she leaves her husband, Otto J. Zahn, retired…”

October 16, 1965 [LAT]: “Private services have been conducted at Evergreen Cemetery for Otto J. Zahn, 94, a member of the Los Angeles’ original planning commission and a city councilman in 1927. Mr. Zahn died of a heart attack ailment October 12 while vacationing in Las Vegas. He leaves his wife, Ruth, 2115 Estrella Avenue, a stepson, Daniel Curran, and two grand-children.”

August 10, 1978 [LAT]: “Avalon. Phones on Catalina lose personal touch. One of the nations last manual telephone switchboards has gone into retirement, replaced with a $1.6 million computerized electronic switching system that will connect with a number across the world as quickly as an operator could ring the corner drug store… According to a booklet published by Pacific Telephone to commemorate the new service, Otto and Oswald Zahn started it all when they totes a basketful of pigeons to the end of the Avalon wharf on July 12, 1894, inaugurating the Catalina Pigeon Messenger Service. There were two flights daily, with $1 a message charged on the 10 A.M. flight and 50 cents on the 2:30 flight. The 75 trained pigeons, communications banded to their legs, flew to their home loft on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles where the messages were retrieved by the Zahn brothers and delivered by bicycle. By 1902 the pigeon service had given way to technology, and the world’s first commercial wireless telegraph station was built by the Pacific Wireless on a cliff above Avalon…”