by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Port of Los Angeles has been a vital part of the greater Los Angeles economy going back to the Mexican era, even if, in those early years, the harbor at San Pedro on the eastern edge of the Palos Verdes Peninsula was little more than a rudimentary landing for ships which had to anchor offshore about a mile and then use smaller craft to deliver and receive goods.
After Phineas Banning arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1850s from his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, he diligently worked from literally nothing to build a “New San Pedro,” later renamed Wilmington, and provide better facilities for shipping.
Banning’s efforts along with those of other local luminaries using effective political lobbying meant that in the early 1870s, the first federal appropriations were made to improve the harbor with a dredging program and the construction of the first breakwater.
More was to come, but there was also the “Free Harbor Fight” in which the feds had to decide whether to continue to support work at San Pedro/Wilmington or to ally with the Southern Pacific Railroad and its Port Los Angeles at Santa Monica. The lobbying efforts here were intense, but the San Pedro/Wilmington interests won out and federal money began to flow for massive improvements that laid the foundation for today’s Port of Los Angeles.
San Pedro and Wilmington were independent incorporated cities until annexation with the City of Los Angeles, to which a connection was made through a notorious “shoestring,” was effected in 1909. Wilmington only existed as an incorporated city for about two years.
Incorporation at San Pedro, however, took place by an election on 25 February 1888 with a vote of 145-57 to support the movement. For many in the small community, there were high hopes that a greatly enhanced harbor, improved with federal funds, would turn San Pedro into an important coastal metropolis.
So, the existence of the “San Pedro Harbor Advocate,” the name of which speaks plainly for its ambitions for the community, though the paper did not last long, only publishing from 1887-1889. This was the period of the famed Boom of the 1880s that, after the completion by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad of a direct transcontinental railroad line to Los Angeles, greatly transformed the region.
The Homestead is fortunate to have in its collection twenty-six issues of the weekly newspaper from late March to the end of November 1889, which provides a brief window into developments at the harbor community during a crucial period at the end of the boom and preceding the intense years of the Free Harbor Fight.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact is the 14 September 1889 edition of the Advocate, which was published for several months during that year by Frederick Wheeler Beardslee. He was born in 1855 in Kingston, Jamaica, then a British possession and where Beardslee’s father, Julius, was a Presbyterian Church missionary and who married Eliza Maddix, a native of Jamaica and of British parentage.
The Beardslee family resided in Cincinnati for some years, where Julius was a minister, before the family migrated to California, specifically Chico, where Julius continued his career until he died in 1879. Shortly afterward, Frederick, who was a builder in Chico, was in Arizona engaged in mining. He then returned to California and settled in Oakland and then Berkeley, where he worked as a real estate agent, though he also dabbled in water and electricity companies.
By the end of 1888, Beardslee was in San Pedro and he soon took on ownership of the Advocate. Running a newspaper was a tough avocation in virtually any circumstance and a small weekly in a little town like San Pedro, which was recently incorporated, was particularly challenging, especially for an outsider.
The Advocate was typical in that it was a four-page sheet, though some papers either had all advertisements or national or state news on the front page. Beardslee, however, put much of the local news on the front.
One short piece concerned an Admission Day (California became the 31st state in the Union on 9 September 1850) celebration at Catalina Island, including boat races and a steamer excursion around the island. Another longer one concerned a proposed “Beach Boulevard” between San Pedro and the new boom town of Long Beach, which arose in 1888 from the ashes of an earlier failed development (American or Willmore City). It was noted, though, that “times are pretty hard with us” in terms of the boom going bust, but the project was deemed worthwhile, even if it would cost some money to put a bridge over the Los Angeles River (Beardslee revealed his ignorance of the area by referring to the San Gabriel River, which was much further east.)
Another interesting article concerned Clarence Keats Drane, who styled himself a grandson of famed English poet John Keats and worked as bookkeeper and cashier for the San Pedro Lumber Company and was a director of the San Pedro Bank. Drane, however, apparently absconded with $20,000 of money given to him for investment and was said to have taken ship for Hawaii.
The most recent meeting of the San Pedro Board of Trustees was also covered, including the appointment of a deputy marshal, the sitting of the board as a Board of Equalization to set tax rates, this latter taking up most of the meeting time.
There was also a tragic story of a ten-year old boy frolicking on the beach at Long Beach when a large wave dislodged a massive wooden pile from a disused wharf and slammed it into the child, who was then pinned under the object and died.
Another sensational item concerned a murder and suicide at a San Pedro boarding house. James McGuffie, well known in town for his “brutal instincts and an ungovernable temper” was divorced from his wife, who settled in Santa Ana, which, in 1889, was the county seat of the newly organized Orange County.
When Mrs. McGuffie came to San Pedro to see her adult daughter, her former husband apparently demanded she return to him and, when this was refused, James McGuffie “deliberately fired four shots at the poor woman all with telling effect.” She died instantly and then he shot himself in the left side.
This being a serious, but evidently not immediately fatal wound, McGuffie was said to have asked for his pistol because he “wanted to load it up again as he had made a very poor job of it.” An officer arrived, however, and carried the mortally wounded murdered to jail where a doctor “did all in his power to save him for the hangman but without avail.”
A curious item, especially as the Homestead commemorates the centennial of national Prohibition, though the temperance movement went back far into the 19th century, noted that “some of our liquor dealers who have been putting up the funds (in the shape of licenses) with which our city government has been run” hired someone to investigate the spending of these monies by the board of trustees for San Pedro schools. Beardslee, however predicted their concerns of misspending would be unfounded.
Notably, much of government budgets were provided by such alcohol-related funds as license fees and excise taxes, so, as Prohibition eventually became a reality, the income tax, introduced temporarily to raise money for the Union in the Civil War, returned permanently in 1913 in advance of the future lost revenue.
Advertisements are always interesting to peruse in newspapers in terms of what types of businesses were operating in the locality, what public notices were printed, and other information of use. A sample of ads from the Advocate are shown here representing the kinds of commercial enterprises found in the town.
While advertisements were the chief revenue generator for newspapers, the industry was, as mentioned above, a difficult one in which to be successful. Beardslee gave it a go, but sold out in November 1889 and the paper then shut down. He returned to Oakland and it was reported in a local paper that he considered opening another newspaper there.
This didn’t happen, but Beardslee took on a variety of occupations over successive years, including a brick plant at Vallejo, a mining enterprise in Volcano in the gold country, and, then, in 1898 as Hawaii was in the process of becoming an American possession, he traveled there as a journalist, perhaps a freelancer to write about the changing political environment there for papers back in California.
Beardslee remained in Hawaii for several years, most of the time in a partnership in an architectural and contracting firm. Divorced from his first wife while still in California, he remarried in the islands and then returned to California and the Bay Area in 1906. He made occasional visits to Los Angeles, but stayed north the rest of his life.
A mining machinery venture that went bust left Beardslee with no assets and well over $40,000 in debts, so he declared bankruptcy in 1914. He continued in mining and died five years later at the age of 64.
Newspaper remain one of the richest sources of information for the locality in which they were published and a rare title like the San Pedro Harbor Advocate can be especially valuable in learning more about an area that was crucial for the economic development of greater Los Angeles. More issues will be shared in this blog in the future, so look for those.