by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been noted here before, Los Angeles had a very rudimentary harbor or port in its earliest days, which was not an issue for the insular policies of a crumbling Spanish empire’s colony on the fringes of New Spain or what has been called the “Siberia of México.” Even when Mexican independence after 1820 allowed for more open contact with the outside world, the little port at San Pedro was really an off-shore anchorage of about a mile with smaller craft going to and from the larger ships to conduct trade.
In 1848, Jonathan Temple, owner of the nearby Rancho Los Cerritos, and David W. Alexander, who came to Los Angeles six years earlier from New Mexico with John Rowland and who became very close to the Workman and Temple families, acquired land at San Pedro and opened a store and a simple freighting business using ox-drawn carts between there and the pueblo. Diego Sepúlveda was another who invested in a wharf, as well as a stage line to Los Angeles.
By the end of the 1850s, there were only a couple of figures handling the freighting at the harbor, including Augustus W. Timms and Phineas Banning, with the latter becoming so important to the development of the area that he was known as the “Port Admiral.” This included the establishment of New San Pedro or Wilmington and, once he arranged for a Union Army camp and barracks, Camp Drum, in his town, Banning, also a partner for some years with Alexander, worked with local politicians to get the first federal appropriations for improvements at the port, including dredging and a breakwater.
As the 19th century came to a close, the “Free Harbor Fight,” pitting the Southern Pacific and its Santa Monica port against the older harbor, resulted in a victory for the latter and increasingly larger sums of federal, as well as local, dollars yielded stunning results for what became known as the Port of Los Angeles, In 1909, Wilmington and San Pedro were annexed to Los Angeles, through the “shoestring,” a narrow strip of land connecting the Angel City to its vital acquisitions.
The continuance of highly productive agriculture, growth of heavy industry and manufacturing, and the remarkable development of enormous stocks of oil were among the most significant products that were exported from the expanding harbor facility. During the Roaring Twenties, another of a series of growth booms took place in greater Los Angeles, and the port, of course, was accordingly enlarged in scale.
The featured objects from the museum’s collection for this post reflect this vividly, as A.C. Gates took these great aerial photographs of Mormon Island and a part of the land to the northeast of what is the “East Basin” on 17 February 1930 as the decade was coming to a close (don’t forget that a decade begins with the year “1” at the end and ends with the year “0”!) Both reflect the tremendous expansion that took place in preceding years at the port, especially the former, which was still largely undeveloped at the beginning of the decade.
The naming of Mormon Island appears to be somewhat mysterious, with some sources indicating that it was named for the battalion formed during the Mexican American War and marched overland for more than 2,000 miles before arriving after the American seizure of California.
The story is that the Mormons unloaded supplies from ships from the island, while another version suggests that some of the Battalion lived on it. It was also propounded that a Mormon and his son resided on the island in the early 1860s. Finally, there was an account that suggested that Mormon carpenters who built the barracks at Camp Drum stayed on the landform. In 1981, the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, subscribing to this latter supposition, had a plaque placed on what used to be the mainland across from the island. Still, none of these explanations appear to have been definitively proven.
In any case, the Banning family did have a small shipyard on the north end of the island, while a man from San Pedro named Janes held claim to the south end. It remained largely undeveloped until dredging in the harbor provided the material to link it to the mainland and make Mormon Island a peninsula, with Fries Avenue the thoroughfare that runs into it from Wilmington. There are four other streets there today, including San Clemente Avenue, La Paloma Avenue and Hermosa Street—all of which appear to be in the photo (well, at least parts of them!)—while Falcon Street on the southern end may not have been created yet.
Among the firms operating on Mormon Island in early 1930 when the photo was taken was the Los Angeles Soap Company, which had a subsidiary called the Copra Oil and Meal Company, which coconut oil from the copra, or dried meat, from the fruit; the California Cotton Mills Company, which opened a facility in November 1929 to fumigate cotton before shipment but wound up treating products like bamboo, beans, canned corned beef and limes—all for the purpose of killing pests; oil companies like Shell, Texaco and Sunset Pacific, which had storage tanks near berths to hold refined oil before shipment; and Pacific Coast Borax, a large mining concern (the site is now owned by the Rio Tinto mining conglomerate.)
At the bottom of the photo, being closest to Gates and his camera, at the south end of the island/peninsula is a large three-story building with a smokestack behind it, this being the borax company’s structure. The tank at the lowest end of this area very clearly has Shell’s name on the fence, another tank just to its right has stars in a white circle on its side, while “The Star Company” is on the east-facing fence. Further up are tanks with the Texaco name on it.
Other large tanks, presumably for oil storage as well, are at the left center, near another berth with a ship alongside it. To the center right on either side of a sharp corner at the east end of the island are two long warehouses, with a water tank in the middle of them, and it may be that these were utilized by the Copra firm, which planned a $375,000 loading station at its three berths for case (kerosene) oil, and the California Cotton Mills Company’s operations. The appearance of eight silo-looking objects next to the southernmost of the two might indicate that the fumigation was being done there for the latter enterprise.
Stacks of dark-colored material between the two buildings could be lumber. Above the tanks at the center left are a group of dark buildings that might, in some cases, be residences. Otherwise, most of the central part of the island remained undeveloped, while the northern section, which is hard to make out because of the distance, looks to have had smaller warehouses and buildings, as well as a railroad spur line extending from the set of lines running along the mainland. The Wilmington Transfer and Storage Company was, later in 1930, looking to build a 75,000 square foot facility on the island.
Around the time that this photo was taken, a lawsuit was filed by the Harbor Department against the Banning family, which was given a grant to the land occupied by the borax company and four undeveloped acres at the tip comprising the southern end of Mormon Island in 1882, but the Department was challenging the validity based on definitions of what constituted tide lands nearly a half-century before, especially because of the significant amount of dredging and filling around the island over those decades. The purported value of the land, which did not the areas leased by the oil companies, was somewhere around $4.5 million.
There was also reference in media reports to 60 acres of land created by filling operations in 1917 and which, as established tidelands, passed from the Bannings to the City, but which were then leased back by the latter to the former. Six years later, the City paid $275,000 for four acres then leased to Shell for its oil terminal, while the borax company property involved some $2 million of investment in the property and the plant.
As to the other Gates photo, it is taken just to the northeast of Mormon Island, along the shoreline beyond what is now Slip Number Five. At the lower left, thanks to large white painted letters on a building for the easy identification, is the Wilmington Boat Works, which identified as “yacht builders” for reasons which are abundantly clear by looking toward the lower right where dozens of craft are anchored in the East Basin and which is identified on the reverse of the photo as “Yacht Club anchorage [sic].”
The New Year’s Day edition of the San Pedro News-Pilot editorialized that it was “A Right Move” for the California Yacht Club, the parent organization of which was the well-known Los Angeles Athletic Club, which was “occupying desirable commercial space on the Wilmington waterfront,” to finally yield to the entreaties of the Harbor Department and relocate. Yet, the Club did remain at Wilmington until America’s entry in World War II and its facilities were taken over by the Coast Guard. The Club went dormant but was reconstituted some two decades later at Marina Del Rey, where it remains to this day.
The Wilmington Boat Works, opened by three men in 1920 for constructing fishing boats, tugs, schooners, sloops ad passenger craft, as well as yachts (including for aviation pioneer Donald W. Douglas), was also affected by the outbreak of the war and built submarine chasers, tugboats and rescue boats for the Army and Navy. After returning in the postwar period to building the kind of craft it began with, the firm briefly resumed work for the Navy in constructing minesweepers just after the conclusion of the Korean War before closing in the late Fifties. It appears the site is where the USC Boathouse is today.
To the north are berths at which two large vessels are docked and there are hundreds of piles of what appears to be lumber, though it is a hard to see details. Rail spurs come into this area from the lines running along the top center to the middle left of the image, while at the upper end of this section are some large warehouse buildings, though they are too distant to make out much of anything specific. Most of this area is now comprised of storage for a huge number of automobiles—not surprisingly Nissan Way is one of the streets, along with Yacht Street, now in the lower section of this photo.
The channel continuing to the upper right of the image is the Consolidated Slip and there is a barren stretch of land at the right edge that is now home to the Holiday Harbor, the California Yacht Marina, Pacific Yacht Landing, Newmarks Yacht Center and other facilities. Beyond the right edge of the photo is the Cerritos Channel. The upper areas of both photos show sections of Wilmington, including undeveloped land close to the harbor, but, of course, these open areas would later be built upon.
These are great images showing the state of the northeastern portions of the Port of Los Angeles following a period of significant growth during the Roaring Twenties and are reflective of the broader boom that powered extensive expansion in greater Los Angeles during that era.