All Over the Map: United States Coast Survey of the Pacific Coast, San Pedro, early 1850s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the aftermath of the American conquest of Mexican California, work quickly began to expand the work of the Office of the Coast Survey, established in 1807 by President Thomas Jefferson and Commerce secretary Albert Gallatin to establish accurate charts for the navigation of American ports and coastal regions, on the Pacific coast.

Clearly, the strategic importance of surveying the long coastline was not just for commercial purposes, important as these were.  A rapidly expanding United States was very concerned about the protection of its mushrooming borders, especially in light of the recently concluded dispute with England over the northern line between Canada and American territory, settled in 1846.  Moreover, American vested interest in the Pacific stimulated further thought about military installations on the coast.

A broad view, from an 1854 map in the Homestead’s collection, of “San Pedro and Vicinity” by the United States Coast Survey.  The triangulated survey areas range from Pt. Dume above Malibu to “Las Bolsas” at Newport Bay and extend out to the Channel Islands of Santa Barbara and Santa Catalina.

There were also important scientific elements to the surveys relating to animal, plant and mineral interests and pure cartographical concerns with precision and accuracy were also central to the work of surveyors.  The Survey’s second superintendent, Alexander D. Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, held the position for over twenty years starting in 1843 and possessed the skills of surveyor, scientist and physicist.  Under his watch, almost all of the vast American coastline was mapped, a monumental achievement.

Work done on the Pacific coast coincided with the onset of the Gold Rush and surveyors landed in boomtown San Francisco in 1849 during the peak year of the frenzy.  Foregoing temptations to search for gold, these surveyors embarked on the arduous work of combing the largely unspoiled coast to complete the surveys and identify harbor and port sites.  Again, some of the areas they scoped out also were considered for their military significance.

This closeup shows the “Earthquake Bay” in which the rudimentary port at San Pedro was located. Note “West Beach” where today’s Redondo Beach area is now and “Sand Hill” at the Ballona wetlands region.  “Domingues Hill” is the headquarters of Rancho San Pedro and “Ceritos” that of Jonathan Temple’s Rancho Los Cerritos.

In the greater Los Angeles region, the primary concern was with the San Pedro area tucked into the Bahia de los Temblores or Earthquake Bay, so named because Spanish explorers trekking by land through the area in July 1769 were surprised by strong seismic activity as they reached what we know as the Santa Ana River (named by them, of course, Earthquake River.)  Nearly 23o years earlier, in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first European exploration of the coast and named the same bay Bahia de los Fumos, or Bay of the Smoke, perhaps because of inland wildfires or native Indian cookfires with smoke trapped in the inversion layer that often settles into this area.

San Pedro had been, since the colonization of the Los Angeles area in the 1780s, a rudimentary port, in which ships anchored quite a distance offshore in the shallow inlet and then used row boats to land and load people and goods.  Trade, however, was severely restricted with outsiders during the Spanish period, though it was often honored in the breach.  With Mexican rule coming in the early 1820s, there was considerably more open relations with foreigners and places like the future Dana Point and Santa Monica were sometimes used for landings and trade.

Yet, it was San Pedro that had the best potential for the man-made development of maritime resources and, in 1852, the Coast Survey crews conducted their first work at the location, as well as at the nearby islands of Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina and San Clemente.  The former was privately held and is mostly so today, while the latter became the property of the U.S. Navy and remains this way now.

Another mid-1850s map from the museum’s collection shows locations along the southern California coast and the dates of specific surveys of them.  San Pedro and the local channel islands of Santa Catalina, San Clemente and San Nicolas were all surveyed in 1852.

Notably, the year after this initial survey, a young, ambitious native of Wilmington, Delaware arrived via San Pedro and quickly established himself as a stagecoach owner and wholesale trader there.  Later, he created the town of New San Pedro, northeast of the old port facilities, and then rechristened his community Wilmington after his hometown.  Phineas Banning lobbied with great initiative to bring local, state and federal dollars to the area and eventually expanded his enterprises at Wilmington, worked with partners to build the first local railroad from there to Los Angeles, and secured federal funding for breakwater and dredging projects.

It was very gradual development and, after the Southern Pacific Railroad pushed for a rival port facility near Santa Monica called Port Los Angeles, a “harbor war” erupted between the railroad and its supporters and advocates for the San Pedro/Wilmington complex.  In the 1890s, the federal government decided to throw its weight behind the latter and the expansion of the harbor there and, later, the municipal facilities at Long Beach led to one of the world’s great port complexes.

A table of notes for the map shown above indicated work done during the years 1851-1853 in the course of the Pacific Coast survey.

Today, we’re grappling with the consequences of such large-scale improvements, expansion and use with respect to pollution and other environmental concerns and solutions are heavily contested.  But, the modern ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach can trace their modern development at least as far back as the early 1850s and the first Coast Survey work there.

The images highlighted here are details of maps from the Homestead’s collection and drawn by the Coast Survey in the early 1850s.  The survey, renamed the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in the late 1870s, is now conducted under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA.)

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