Victorian Fair Themes: “Wilmington Breakwater,” ca. 1872

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Only a few more days until our Victorian Fair weekend arrives and here’s another post showcasing a period artifact from the Homestead’s collection.  This is a great stereoscopic photograph titled “Wilmington Breakwater” and showing work that was being done to improve the harbor that is now the massive Port of Los Angeles.

In fact, calling what was in the Wilmington/San Pedro area a “harbor” is being overly generous.  It was an anchorage off-shore for quite a distance for ships, who then had people and cargo taken to and from the vessel on smaller craft.  Facilities at different landings were primitive by any modern standard, but gradually matters changed after Phineas Banning arrived in the early 1850s.

Banning, whose hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, first worked as a clerk at the port area, but was soon known for the stagecoach line he operated from there to Los Angeles  When he decided, in the late 1850s to build a new town, he first called it “New San Pedro” to distinguish it from the earlier port facility where he’d started in what is now the Los Angeles neighborhood of San Pedro.

Soon, however, he renamed his project after his hometown, he became a relentless promoter to develop better facilities in his new town.  The Civil War, for example, was a boon for him as he convinced the United States Army to establish a military facility, Camp Drum, at Wilmington.


Wilmington Breakwater map 1873
A rendering of an 1873 government map of Wilmington Harbor.

After the war ended, Banning, working with other major Los Angeles figures, pushed through the completion of the area’s first railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro, which was completed in 1869, the same year as the transcontinental line that reached Oakland from the east.  The opening of the LA & SP was symbolic of the growth of greater Los Angeles during its first significant period of growth, which continued through the mid-1870s.

Government support was sought for long-desired improvements at the “harbor,” including the building of the first breakwater there to provide better protection from Pacific storms.  In 1869, Banning and his friend and partner, Benjamin D. Wilson (who came to California with the Rowland and Workman expedition of 1841) secured an engineering study and then engineered the support of the state legislature for their plans.

Banning and Wilson traveled to Washington, D.C. to assist California representatives in lobbying Congress for an appropriation for the breakwater and were successful in their aim.   By summer 1871, work began on a project that included dredging channels as well as building the breakwater between Rattlesnake and Dead Man’s islands and, after further sums were approved, some $150,000 was expended in this first modest effort of improvement.  It is this work that was partially captured in the photograph, taken by prominent early Los Angeles photographer, Henry T. Payne.

Nearly 7,000 feet of the breakwater was constructed, with about the first 70% out from the shoreline built of timber and the remainder to Dead Man’s Island of stone.  A series of extraordinary high tides in July 1872, however, caused a break of about 360 feet, but this proved to be fortuitous as the gap proved to be “an outlet or vent for these troublesome forces,” as an official report at the end of the year put it.  Once the tides subsided, stone was used to fill in these gaps and the work continued.  Clay, sand and gravel were used to protect the breakwater’s sides.

Los Angeles Herald, 31 December 1873.

Dredging and widening of channels also took place, with some it done by currents within the altered areas and most of it by artificial means.  The idea was to create a channel ten feet deep and 200 feet wide, a major improvement, obviously, over what was there before.

It would be another twenty years (and at the end of the Victorian era) before the Free Harbor fight between the Southern Pacific’s Port Los Angeles at Santa Monica (the SP having taken over the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad line, founded by F.P.F. Temple and others and which opened in late 1875, to the coastal city) and the harbor at Wilmington/San Pedro.  The latter was chosen by Congress as the site for its infusion of massive appropriations of funds for the improvements that made the port a modern facility.

As for the photograph, it appears that Payne was hired (by Banning, maybe?) to capture the work in progress.  A quintet of workers and a couple of draft horses are posed amidst many large piles of lumber to be used on that first 4,700 feet of the breakwater, the wood structure of which extends from the shoreline out into the water.  In the distance are a number of vessels anchored in the shallows.

Stereoview Wilmington Breakwater 2015.397.1.3
This stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead collection and taken by early Los Angeles photographer Henry T. Payne about 1872, shows workers and draft animals among piles of lumber waiting to be used for a new breakwater, the form of which is extending out into the shallow water of the port near Wilmington and San Pedro.

The image is an important one in showing the gradual transformation of greater Los Angeles from an isolated, frontier area to an emerging metropolitan area of importance.  The development of port facilities as part of that process of change and growth is essential.  We see today the importance of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in the economic vitality of the region, even as environmental issues are being more directly considered in connection with the expansion of these facilities.


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