An Early Aerial Photograph of Los Angeles Harbor, 6 July 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

By traditional standards throughout most of world history, Los Angeles is a truly improbable metropolis.  It, to give one major example, does not sit next to a significant navigable body of water (river, lake, or ocean) that facilitated trade and transportation.  It was established in 1781 in what has been called the “Siberia of Mexico” when the Spanish empire was in an advanced state of decay.  It was isolated from other major cities and centers of economic and political strength.

It was decades before its first significant period of growth took place, this occurring after the Civil War and lasting into the mid-1870s and this was a warm-up act to its astounding rise given impetus by the completion to it in 1885 of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad’s direct transcontinental line.

Harbor improvements The_San_Francisco_Examiner_Wed__Feb_16__1870_
An early news reference to efforts to improve port facilities at San Pedro/Wilmington.  State Senator Benjamin D. Wilson introduced the joint resolution here calling on Congress to appropriate funds for the breakwater and other improvements.  San Francisco Examiner, 16 February 1870.

All along, there were two major factors that provided the potential for its growth: a renowned temperate climate and remarkably fertile soil in most of the region around it.  But the breaching of the massive western interior by the railroad broke down the barrier of relative isolation.

Vital as rail transport was to opening up the development of Los Angeles, so, too, was the essential need for adequate ocean shipping.  The best that could be done for years was to utilize primitive docking of ships off-shore at San Pedro with goods and ranch and farm products and the like brought in and taken out by smaller craft.  Calling San Pedro a harbor, even an anchorage, was something of a stretch prior to the 1870s.

When Phineas Banning arrived in the area and established his “New San Pedro” or Wilmington (named for his Delaware hometown), he became a relentless promoter for improvements to the rudimentary port there.  His persistence gradually paid off and he garnered support from other powerful figures in greater Los Angeles for the idea of dredging operations to provide deep-water access for shipping.

Free Harbor Fight The_Los_Angeles_Times_Fri__Apr_28__1899_
A celebratory article on the winning of the “Free Harbor Fight,” by one of San Pedro/Wilmington’s most powerful supporters, the Los Angeles Times, 28 April 1899.

In December 1864, F.P.F. Temple (who bought an astounding $40,000 of lumber from Banning to fence his Rancho La Merced holdings) were among a group of local luminaries who explored the idea of building a railroad from Los Angeles and San Pedro.  Four years later, in summer 1868, Temple and his father-in-law William Workman joined others in hiring an engineer to complete a feasibility study for a railroad terminus on Deadman’s Island in the port area.

It was Banning, along with ex-Governor John G. Downey, Benjamin D. Wilson and others who was able to build the region’s first railroad: the Los Angeles and San Pedro.  This line, completed the same year, 1869, as the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, only had a few years of independence.  As incentive for the Southern Pacific to build a line to Los Angeles as part of a project for one south from the Bay Area to Yuma, Arizona, Temple was a major negotiator with the railroad to hand over the Los Angeles and San Pedro as well as provide a subsidy, approved by county voters in fall 1872.

In 1874, Temple was president of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, intended to tap the silver mines of Inyo County in eastern California, but, when funding for the project lagged, Nevada Senator John P. Jones became the principal investor, provided the line be extended and built first to his new seaside town, Santa Monica, where a port to compete with San Pedro/Wilmington was planned.  Jones became president of the railroad and Temple moved to the treasurer’s slot.

Wilmington annexation The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__Aug_5__1909_
The summary of the consolidation of Wilmington to Los Angeles, Times, 5 August 1909

Meantime, Banning’s unflagging Union sympathies during the Civil War not only meant the building of Camp Drum and large subsidies from Washington, but it laid the groundwork for federal investment in improving the situation at San Pedro and Wilmington.  The federal government’s appropriations for dredging and the building of a breakwater, from Rattlesnake Island (later Terminal) to Deadman’s Island in the early 1870s was at the forefront of such investments nationally, much less regionally.

Once the Southern Pacific took over the Los Angeles and Independence in 1877, after an economic collapse and the failure of the Temple and Workman bank weakened the LA&I, though the line was built from Los Angeles to Santa Monica, the railroad giant began promoting Santa Monica as a competitor to San Pedro/Wilmington for federal dollars.  This culminated in the so-called “Free Harbor Fight” of the 1890s, with political lobbying muscle flexed by both sides.  The San Pedro/Wilmington forces won out, however.

By the first decade of the 20th century, Los Angeles utilized the “shoestring annexation” of the harbor area connecting the city via a narrow strip of land to the prized port.  America’s increasing presence in the Pacific, including the Spanish-American War seizure of the Philippines and the annexation of Hawai’i in the 1890s gave more impetus to federal investments, commercial and military, in the harbor area.  In 1911, the rapidly growing city of Long Beach appropriated 800 acres where the Los Angeles River empties into the sea for its own harbor and, in 1924, city voters approved a $5 million bond issue for major work there.

Annexation cartoon The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__Aug_5__1909_ (1)
A cartoon celebrating Wilmington’s annexation with San Pedro as the “next batter up,” Times, 5 August 1909.

Today’s highlighted photograph of Los Angeles Harbor, taken from the air on this date in 1925, is notable for reflecting a half-century of improvements (with much more to come, especially in the post-World War II boom years), but also just how undeveloped the South Bay area still was close to a century ago.

The image by Spence Air Photos, the pioneering firm that took the 1921 shot of the Homestead highlighted here a few days ago, is taken from the long breakwater, built between 1899 and 1912, from Cabrillo Beach and at the end of which, outside the photo, is the Angels Gate Lighthouse.

At the left is San Pedro, with Cabrillo Beach curving up from the lower left toward the West Channel and the narrower East Channel between artificially built peninsulas.  The Main Channel is more toward the center and then expands and curves inward toward the north and east toward the East and West basins and Cerritos Channel (reflecting the name of nearby Rancho Los Cerritos, the ranch of Jonathan Temple from 1843-1866.)

San Pedro annexation Los_Angeles_Herald_Wed__Aug_11__1909_
San Pedro’s turn came later in the year and the Los Angeles Herald gave its views along with polling that suggested an overwhelming public acceptance of the idea, 11 August 1909.

At the center is Terminal (formerly Rattlesnake) Island, with its southwestern portion built up, but its eastern sections still undeveloped.  At the time the photo was taken, the area had port facilities, oil storage tanks (these are also seen on the peninsula between the Main and East channels and toward the upper left off the Main Channel, as well as inland at the top center in Carson), but there were also some residents.

Terminal Island was home to fishermen of many ethnicities, including a large number of Japanese-Americans, peaking at some 3,500 in the years up to the Second World War, and vacationers and those with second homes, almost all simple structures lining Seaside Avenue.  The internment of Japanese-Americans during the war and the gradual removal of other housing took place over time and commercial uses are at the northern portion, while the southern end houses a federal prison, Coast Guard facilities and other official facilities.

Barely visible at the southern tip of Terminal Island and connected to it by a rock causeway was the same Deadman’s Island mentioned above.  Said to be named after a man who died on it in 1810, though another story is that it received its moniker because five Marines killed in an onshore engagement during the Mexican-American War were buried there, the 2 1/2 acre landform was a landmark to early sailors.  But, in 1928, three years after this photo was taken, the island was leveled.

LA Harbor 6July25
This Spence Air Photos view of Los Angeles Harbor from the Homestead’s collection was taken on this day in 1925, showing the long breakwater at the bottom, the West, East and Main Channels at lower left and center, Terminal Island at upper center and the mainland at the top.  The Port of Long Beach was later developed to the upper right.

Another major modern change to the area was the opening in 2002 of the 500-acre Pier 400 which, in the photograph, starts from the sandy area to the east of Terminal Island, projects on a shoestring corridor and then extends west in front of the island.  This massive terminal facility reflects the enormous scale of modern container shipping.

At the center left of the image, within the Main Channel and left of the West Basin is Mormon Island.  The other photo shown here, taken by Spence on 14 December 1923 is of what was then called the “Inner Harbor” with the island at the center.  Originally one of two sandbar and mud flat islands, the other is Smith (named for a fisherman Orin Smith and his son who lived on it in the 1860s) which is attached to the mainland and has white tanks in the 1925 photo, Mormon Island’s name has a few claimed origins.

One is that the Mormon Battalion sent by Mormon President and Apostle Brigham Young to assist invading American forces in 1846 during the Mexican-American War used the island for docking ships and receiving supplies, though that Battalion traveled overland from the Midwest just as the Mormons left Illinois to establish their Zion in Utah.

LA Harbor 14Dec23
Another Spence aerial photo from the museum’s holdings and dated 14 December 1923 shows Mormon Island at the center and Wilmington behind it.

Another is that a Mormon man and his son resided on the island in 1863, though this story in a 1938 San Pedro newspaper is the only source for this.  Finally, there is the version by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, whose 1981 plaque for the island states that Mormon volunteers for the Union Army during the Civil War were assigned in 1862 by General Richard Drum, for whom the Wilmington camp was named (and where the Drum Barracks historic site is now), to live on the 20-acre island and built sea-going craft there.

In any case, the island became home to a shipyard built by Phineas Banning and, by the time of the 1923 photo, it was a peninsula, filled in on its north side and connected with the town of Wilmington, which voted, as did San Pedro, to join the City of Los Angeles in 1909, to the north.  Beyond Wilmington, however, the region was sparsely populated and largely undeveloped with lots of farm and grazing land in the distance.

Deadman's Island removal The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Sep_10__1928_
Brief mention of the demolition and removal of Deadman’s Island off the end of Terminal Island, Times, 10 September 1928.

These photos are a fascinating “bird’s-eye” look at the development of one of the critical linchpins of the greater Los Angeles economy.  The drive to improve Los Angeles Harbor, now the Port of Los Angeles, from the 1860s onward, was integral to the growth of the region.  Nearly a century after these images were taken, the sheer size and scale of activity at the Port, as well as the adjacent Port of Long Beach, raise issues of capacity and growth in modern ocean-bound transport, the emission of high levels of pollution, the health of residents in nearby communities, and much more.

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