by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Though the Los Angeles area lacked the location for a decent natural seaport, the closest thing to it was down at San Pedro, where a small bay was protected by the projection of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Ships, however, had to anchor quite a way offshore because of sandbars and other barriers and smaller craft used to transport goods and people to and from shore.
In the 1850s, Delaware native Phineas Banning came to the region and established a successful forwarding and commission business at his new town of Wilmington. In succeeding decades he used his growing wealth and political influence towards making improvements at the harbor.
In 1864, F.P.F. Temple and William Workman were among a group of local citizens who hired an engineer to determine what was feasible in building a railroad from Los Angeles down to the area and specifically having a terminus on Deadman’s Island in the bay.
Nothing came of that endeavor, but Banning and colleagues did their own study and were able to raise the funds to carry out their own railroad project. At the end of the decade, the year the transcontinental railroad was completed, the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad was completed between the harbor and the growing town, then in the early stages of its first growth and development boom, lasting through the mid-1870s. After a few years, the Los Angeles and San Pedro was transferred to the Southern Pacific in a voter-approved subsidy deal that brought the latter to build several lines in the region, including one that was linked to Oakland and the transcontinental line in 1876.
Banning, Benjamin D. Wilson (who came to California with Workman in 1841 and became a major local figure and landowner at Wilmington), and others lobbied successfully for federal funding for dredging of the bay and the building of a breakwater at San Pedro and Wilmington. This marked the modest beginnings of what became a sustained and growing presence of the federal government in the region. The legislation was passed in 1871 and work continued for a few years on the improvements.
Temple, as president, and a group of local capitalists formed a company, in 1874, to build the Los Angeles and Independence railroad from Los Angeles to the booming mining regions of Inyo County in eastern California. Lacking the funds to take the project where it needed to go, they secured the support of Nevada senator and mining magnate John P. Jones in their project, but he insisted that a line be built from the city to his new seaside resort to the west, Santa Monica.
When the Los Angeles and Independence, with Jones as president and Temple as treasurer, completed its line in late 1875 to the new town, a wharf was built at the terminus so that Santa Monica was positioned as a competitor to San Pedro/Wilmington. The failure of the California Bank that summer and a resulting panic which consumed the poorly managed Temple and Workman bank (which closed early the next year) led to the sale of the Los Angeles and Independence to the rival Southern Pacific. The SP then built a much longer wharf and christened it Port Los Angeles, seeking to make it a more desirable shipping location than San Pedro and Wilmington.
Over the years, there were other seaport competitors. The earliest was Anaheim Landing, promoted by developers in the inland town of that name and situated where Seal Beach is now. Another was Newport, further down the coast. Then there was Redondo, situated between Santa Monica/Port Los Angeles and San Pedro/Wilmington. The problem all these others had was a lack of shelter, even in the temperate climate of the region.
This was made most manifest during the “Free Harbor Fight,” which erupted in the 1890s after Congress determined that a deep-water port would be built in the region and led to a battle between Port Los Angeles and San Pedro/Wilmington. An appropriation of several million dollars for a breakwater was at stake. Most local power brokers favored the latter for obvious reasons, namely its preexisting condition as the prime port facility with previous improvements and the most favorable physical conditions in terms of sheltering.
Yet, Port Los Angeles had Collis P. Huntington, whose fabulous wealth was matched by his peerless political contacts in Washington, including his close relationship with the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. This committee consistently voted for Huntington’s pet project, while consulting engineers correspondingly recommended San Pedro/Wilmington because it had much better protection from the open sea.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection in the “Read All About It” series is the 17 February 1894 edition of the San Pedro Times, the local paper for the town, which was incorporated a half-decade before during the great Boom of the 1880s. While the Times didn’t have a great deal of local news to report, there was plenty of material about the growing harbor battle.
A letter to the paper, for example, noted that “We of San Pedro, feel that fact only need to be cited to demonstrate the superiority of our harbor, as a place of safety.” It went on to remind readers “that years ago Congress made appropriations for improving the harbor at this place.” Moreover, there were two, possibly three, other locations, not specifically named, that had wharves, and “do not seem to have engaged the attention of government engineers, or favorable considerations as possible locations for deep-harbor improvements.”
The writer further stated that “when storms prevailed and hurricanes [!] rode in supreme majesty” it was to San Pedro that mariners went to find shelter “until the subsidence of the elementary tumult.” Several recent examples were cited of vessels that had to deal with storm (though not, of course, hurricanes!) conditions
A front-page article extensively covered an incident involving one of these craft. The schooner Jewett sailing to the area from Portland, Oregon and carrying 600,000 board-feet of lumber for the Redondo Lumber Company, was moored to the side of the wharf at Redondo, but lightly anchored away from it out in deep water.
When the captain called all hands on deck as a storm worsened, it was noticed that part of the wharf had given way. Quickly, as he tried to get out to sea, he realized that his vessel was unable to retain its position and the moorings gave way and the ship headed for the wharf pushed by strong winds and the tide. The Jewett eventually crashed into the wharf and then was swept broadside onto the shore. The captain and his crew of nine were rescued and most of the lumber salvaged, though the ship was a total loss of some $20,000.
Elsewhere, it was noted that the winter storms almost drove a ship anchored at Newport in the newly created (1889) county of Orange to destruction though the Prosper avoided the fate of the Jewett. There was damage to the rudder and stern post and tugs towed the battered craft to San Pedro. Another news item pointed out that some fishermen were rescued from “Santa Monica’s unsheltered ocean frontage” and “the poor fellows propose to follow their dangerous calling from this port hereafter.”
With these incidents in mind, another letter writer commented (in what was titled “An Odious Comparison”) on the vastly superior conditions at San Pedro/Wilmington. It was pointed out that this was “the only port that Southern California possesses” despite “Mr. Huntington & Co., now so industriously shaking his money at the committee in Congress at Washington.” The writer reviewed the efforts of Jones at Santa Monica and called Port Los Angeles a “marine white elephant” with the “seductive screech of the S.P. locomotive” attracting ships, some of which suffered from the total exposure to the open sea there.
The correspondent continued that it would take
a pair of golden spectacles allied to Aladdin’s lamp in their virtues must be astride their noses of the sapient Congress now convened in Washington to enable it to discern any motive for voting an appropriation of the people’s money for a harbor at Port Los Angeles.
As it turned out, the efforts of Harrison Gray Otis, the powerful publisher of the Los Angeles Times, business leaders like those in the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and the work of Senator Stephen M. White, who settled in Los Angeles as a young attorney in the mid-1870s, convinced Congress to decide, a few years after this newspaper issue, to decide to place the appropriations to use at San Pedro/Wilmington, now the Port of Los Angeles, rather than Port Los Angeles, which was torn down not long afterward.
The Free Harbor Fight was easily one of the signal events of late 19th century greater Los Angeles and this edition of the San Pedro Times reflected much of the local sentiment. Notably, San Pedro did not remain an independent city for long, as it was annexed to the city of Los Angeles in 1909, at about the same time as the infamous “shoestring addition” that connected the main part of the metropolis to the harbor. Today, the Port of Los Angeles ranks about twentieth in size among container ports on the planet.