by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the annals of early journalism in greater Los Angeles, one of the newspapers that is hardest of which to find copies is the Wilmington Journal, a weekly published in that port town from 1864 to 1867. The Homestead happens to own a single copy, the twenty-fifth issue of the second volume, dated 5 May 1866.
According to Glen Dawson, the well-known bookseller who died three years ago not too far short of his 104th birthday, in a 1948 article, the Journal came about because of the demise of the first newspaper in Los Angeles, the Star, which abruptly ended publication in October 1864 as its proprietor and editor, Henry Hamilton, was embroiled in legal difficulties for his rabid pro-Confederate position during the Civil War.
Phineas Banning, a native of Delaware and a strong Union supporter who had government contracts and built Camp Drum or Drum Barracks at Wilmington, acquired the printing press and materials of the Star and launched the Journal with Albert Alexander Polhamus (1837-1913) as the editor.
Polhamus, born in Greenbush, New York, near the state capital of Albany, was from a Dutch family of seafarers and ship captains. His ancestor, Johannes, went to the colony of New Amsterdam with its final Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, in 1660 settling as a minister in what became Brooklyn. Four years later, the English took over New Amsterdam and renamed it New York.
His grandfather, also Johannes, was based in New York and was a captain of ships sailing up and down the Hudson River. His father, Isaac, followed that profession and was captain of one of the first steamers to ply that watercourse. Isaac and his Scottish-born wife, Agnes McQueen, later settled upriver at Greenbush, where Albert was born the youngest of eight children. An older brother, Isaac, Jr., became a prominent steamship owner and captain along the Colorado River based in Yuma, Arizona.
As a young man, Albert not only followed the family occupation, but was also fascinated with mechanics and engineering, studying the subject in connection with ships. After completing his education at Albany Academy at age seventeen, he took a position as an assistant engineer on an ocean steamer. He was known to be at New Orleans on a steamship in spring 1856.
Four years later, Polhamus arrived in California as chief engineer of the Granada and the steamer was to have gone into service between San Francisco and the west coast of Panama, but the steamer ran aground while entering the Golden Gate and was destroyed.
Late in 1860, Polhamus was recruited by Banning to come to Wilmington, his new town near San Pedro and the crude harbor there, but not for shipping. Rather, he was asked to work with a traction engine for hauling wagons of provisions to Arizona as part of a federal contract Banning had for supplying military installations.
That project failed, but Polhamus stayed at Wilmington for about a quarter century, first as an engineer, then as a captain of Banning-owned steamships and finally as superintendent of the Banning Transportation Company. Early in his career there, Polhamus would have worked closely with Banning’s chief clerk, Thomas H. Workman, a nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman, until Workman’s tragic death in the explosion of the steamer Ada Hancock in 1863.
Meanwhile, Banning’s short-lived experiment in the newspaper business included Polhamus editing the Journal. Given that Wilmington was a small community and heavily dependent on the presence of the Union Army at Camp Drum, news reports in the issue are rather scanty.
For example, the “Wilmington Items” section noted the arrival of the steamer Pacific several days prior with passengers including the local postmaster, prominent Los Angeles merchant Harris Newmark, “and a host of horse contractors,” the latter coming to the area for a reason noted below.
At the hall of local wheelwright, George W. Oden, “a grand Panorama” was held two nights during the prior week with Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and a “Rebellion in Heaven” comprising the entertainment. The house was said to be full and “very valuable and useful gifts” presented to a lucky few in the audience.
Other local news included a report on recent rain; the improvements to a store owned by Los Angeles merchant M. W. Childs; and the arrival of Roman Catholic Bishop Thaddeus Amat (who’d blessed the cornerstone of St. Nicholas Chapel at El Campo Santo cemetery at the Homestead not quite a decade before) to administer the sacrament of confirmation to young local residents.
Shipping information from the local port included recent arrivals and departures of sailing and steam ships, as well as imported material received by Banning for a host of locals. These included Childs, Newmark, Benjamin D. Wilson, Isaias W. Hellman, Charles Ducommun, Jean Louis Sainsevaine, Louis Mesmer, and Banning for lumber, wine casks and general packages. Also listed were Elijah and William H. Workman (whose brother was the aforementioned clerk for Banning), who were saddle and harness makers in Los Angeles.
Several members of the military at Drum Barracks received material from these ships, too, and a couple of the new advertisements in the Journal came from the Quartermaster’s Department. One was headed “Subsistence Needed,” and was a proposal for a year’s contract for the provision of “FRESH BEEF of a good and wholesome quality” for the camp. Details about how the carcasses should be cut were included, as well as the requirement that “prices must be written as well as expressed in figures.”
In addition to the expected statement of a contractor needing to provide sureties on a bond for the protection of the contract, it was also stipulated that “the contractor and sureties will be required to take the oath of allegiance to the United States.” Moreover, the ad stated that “no proposals will be entertained but from persons of undoubted loyalty to the United States Government.” Greater Los Angeles was known as a a hotbed of Southern sympathizers and a good deal of hostility to those supporting the Union cause.
The second ad was for the delivery of two hundred horses “the same to be good, sound, [and] serviceable,” and “well broke[n] to the saddle, without defect or blemish” for immediate use in the U.S. Army’s cavalry. Animals brought to Wilmington, however, were to be inspected by a board specially chosen for the purpose. The same criteria in the listing of prices and the taking of the loyalty oath were, naturally, included. It is also noteworthy that the expenses of the ads were to be borne by those who received the contracts.
Other contents of the publication included reprinted material from other newspapers and journals and dealing with such disparate subjects as “Reminiscences of Early Times in California” (meaning, the American era); a recollection of the recently assassinated President Abraham Lincoln; a recent speech of his successor, Andrew Johnson; and more.
There were some brief reports of military items, including the recent departure from Wilmington of five companies of California volunteers for San Francisco where they were to be mustered out of service and news of military units along the Colorado River near Yuma. A short piece reported on the defeat of French forces and those of the French imperial regime in Mexico by native rebels—the intervention of France in that country soon ended with a total defeat and the execution of Emperor Maximilian.
The last major item of note was a lengthy letter sent to Polhamus by an unidentified correspondent who left Wilmington on 24 April for Los Angeles and then to the mining boom town of Havilah, northeast of present-day Bakersfield, where a stop was made to pen the missive. The purpose of the journey was “to see whether it was expedient to establish a reliable line of stages between Los Angeles and Havilah, and to ascertain the worth of the Owens River mines.”
Silver mines in Inyo County in eastern California would become an area of significant speculation in coming years, including by F.P.F. Temple, who poured much of his personal wealth and funds of depositors to his Temple and Workman bank into silver mining ventures in Cerro Gordo, near Owens Lake. Included in the party were a state senator and an assemblyman and much was mentioned of the trip from Los Angeles through Cahuenga Pass, past the Mission San Fernando to a ranch owned by Aneas Gordon near Elizabeth Lake north of modern Santa Clarita, a stop at Robinson’s Station in the the Grapevine, and then on to Havilah. Further reports were to be published in subsequent editions of the Journal.
Often found in newspapers of the era are literary items, including poetry, and two samples are found in the pages of the Journal. One, “I Like an Open, Honest Heart” is not attributed and so may be an original of Polhamus with the four-stanza piece being a simple declaration of what a good person possesses in terms of behavior and communication of feelings. The other is a paean to the preservation of the Union in the aftermath of the brutality and divisiveness of the recently concluded Civil War and is attributed to Harris Howard.
Finally, it is always interesting and instructive to see advertisements in newspapers, including those local to Wilmington, more further afield in Los Angeles, and even those from San Francisco, which, of course, had direct contact by ship to the port hamlet in which the Journal was based.
One ad to point out is that of the Los Angeles Pioneer Oil Company, the first oil-prospecting firm in the region and established in 1865 to seek “black gold” in what became the San Fernando district in the hills to the west of modern Interstate 5 in today’s Santa Clarita. Among the principals in the firm were recent California governor John G. Downey; wine-maker and merchant Mathew Keller; surveyor George Hansen; and Phineas Banning. Not surprisingly, with Banning’s principal role, Polhamus acted as superintendent of the company’s work.
In fact, though the Journal folded the following year, Polhamus, who married Georgina Monteith Oman in Los Angeles in early 1870 and had four children with her, continued his work for Banning at Wilmington for nearly two more decades, including serving as captain of the steamer Amelia which took tourists and other to and from Banning’s Santa Catalina Island, but he branched out into other projects. One was the Los Angeles Paper Company, launched in August 1884 with prominent banker Isaias W. Hellman as a principal. The firm established its mill on a newly established railroad station leading from Los Angeles to Wilmington called Lynwood and plans were ambitious for the future of the enterprise.
By 1888, however, the venture floundered and Polhamus owed quite a bit of money to the company in delinquent stock. Whether this influenced his decision to pull up stakes after nearly thirty years in Wilmington and head south is not fully known, but Polhamus decamped to Coronado near San Diego. There he worked for a ferry company and another firm that made ballast for the stability of ships, but then found a lucrative business obtaining federal contracts for harbor improvements as government funding ballooned in developing West Coast ports.
One of Polhamus’ early projects with a government contract was secured in 1872 by his boss, Banning, to build a breakwater, using rock quarried from Catalina, connecting Terminal Island with Dead Man’s Island. This was to prevent silting in the harbor’s main channel, which, through a separate dredging project, would allow larger ships to get closer to the shore. Previously, vessels anchored quite a distance away and lighters (smaller ships) had to transport cargo and passengers to and from the larger vessels.
At the end of the 19th century and into the first years of the 20th, Polhamus secured work on dredging and breakwater construction at San Pedro/Wilmington, San Diego, and near Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County. He remained at Coronado and San Diego until his death in June 1913, at age 75. Of his children, a son, Isaac, became a businessman in Los Angeles; a daughter, Agnes, was a dentist in New York; and another daughter, Caroline, was a concert singer, also in the Big Apple.
This issue of the Wilmington Journal is not just a rare surviving example of this paper, which was only published for a few years, but it is scarce one from greater Los Angeles prior to 1870, and is a fascinating glimpse into that community and the region broadly in the years before the area experienced its first significant growth boom in the latter Sixties and through the first half of the following decade.