“This Harbor Can Never Be Made to Accommodate Large Ships”: A Letter from the Secretary of War to the House of Representatives on a Survey of San Pedro Bay, California, February 1888

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been pointed out on this blog several times, the harbor at San Pedro and Wilmington, now the Port of Los Angeles, has transformed from a primitive port, in which vessels had to anchor considerably off shore to deliver or pick up goods, to one of the largest and most sophisticated of its kind in the world, albeit with enormous investments in creating a facility where one naturally could not exist.

The change was, of course, gradual, with “Port Admiral” Phineas Banning, also the “Father of Wilmington,” named after his Delaware hometown, establishing federal government contacts as early as the Civil War years, when the Army’s Camp Drum was built there. William Workman and F.P.F. Temple were among locals who, in 1864, commissioned a survey for a potential railroad line to Deadman’s Island (later removed for a breakwater) and, five years later, the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad, the first local line, was built.

In the early 1870s, the first federal appropriation was made for breakwater construction and, from there, a growing involvement by Washington in the development of the port took place, leading up to the “Free Harbor Fight,” in which the government chose San Pedro/Wilmington over Santa Monica as the region’s primary port. From there, appropriations ramped up considerably, but there was earlier work that was important, including the highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection for this post.

This is a letter from Secretary of War (the War Department is now the State Department) William C. Endicott from the last day of February 1888 to the House of Representatives transmitting that body a missive from Major William Henry Harrison Benyaurd of the United States Army Corps of Engineers on a survey of San Pedro Bay that he Endicott received from Army Corps Brigadier General James C. Duane by letter sent on the 25th.

The first part of the document is comprised of a “Preliminary Examination of San Pedro Bay, California” by Colonel George H. Mendell of the Corps, who sent his report from San Francisco on 8 November 1886 having completed his work which was required by the Rivers and Harbors Act, passed by Congress that summer. Mendell began by noting that, “there is no harbor for deep-sea vessels on the California coast, except that of San Francisco, occupying a central position, and that of San Diego, close to the southern limit of our territory.”

Because, though, there was a distance of about 600 miles between the two and there were “several roadsteads [a sheltered area for vessels to anchor] in the interval, which afford protection to vessels from winds coming from a particular direction, but none which covers from all winds,” it was “the bay of San Pedro [that] is the best known of these roadsteads, and is the only one which has now or ever has had foreign commerce.” These involved imports of coal and a “small and casual” export, being wheat and there was not much over $60,000 in foreign imports collected at the customs house at Wilmington in the 1885-1886 year.

Still, San Pedro was the best of the available sites “and is, moreover, the point where the Southern Pacific system of railroads, coming from the east, first touches the Pacific Ocean,” with the situation being better than that in San Francisco “from the fact that it gives much the shorter and easier line of overland transportation to the waters of the Atlantic, for Asiatic commerce.”

Because of the shallowness at San Pedro, “the loading and discharging of deep-water ships are now effected through the use of lighters” which brought material to and from the shore some two or three miles, which affected the costs of shipping as well as imposed delays. Mendell observed that “if the ships were enabled to lie alongside of piers and discharge their freight in the usual way, the saving in cost would be considerable.” Until then, however, “it is not probable that Asiatic commerce could take this route.”

This was not previously at issue, though, because such trade with Asia “has naturally come to San Francisco,” but, he went on, “a different phase is at hand.” This was because the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the Northern Pacific, the latter building from Minnesota to Seattle “promise to introduce two competitors for the overland transportation of Asiatic commerce.” Mendell added, however, that “the information is not at hand to institute a comparison either with the Northern Pacific Route” or that from San Diego, only that to note the variation between San Pedro and the Bay Area.

He continued that there was an obvious question as to whether “it is advisable to expend a considerable sum in building an artificial harbor at San Pedro, when there is now a fine natural harbor at San Diego,” which he allowed was “capacious and favorable in point of shelter and depth for any amount of commerce that can be imagined in the future.” Mendell noted, though, that “San Pedro has advantage over San Diego in the light grades found on its railway route from the coast to San Bernardino,” though the exact measure of this was not yet known.

In addition, “San Pedro has now . . . a much larger foreign trade than San Diego” and he noted that Wilmington “has been much improved by the United States” so that “the coasting commerce is now practically carried on through” it. Mendell added, however, that “it is a small estuary and can never be made a harbor for deep-water ships.” Despite this, he went on, “this harbor is 20 miles from Los Angeles, the second city in importance of California and the center of a highly developed area of horticultural and viticultural industry.”

Beyond this, of course, it was the case that there was “the existence of a large coast commerce [which] tends to attract to this point foreign commerce” and, because of the likelihood of the Canadian Pacific bringing in commerce through Vancouver, British Columbia, Mendell concluded by reporting that “I recommend the place as ‘worthy of improvement.'”

Next was Benyaurd’s report, also from San Francisco, dated 13 February 1888, issued “with a view of establishing an outer breakwater for the protection of deep-draught vessels.” He noted that a survey party, under Otto von Geldern, completed work at Newport Harbor in what soon became Orange County and then went to San Pedro, where it conducted its surveys from the end of March through about mid-June 1887.

Benyaurd noted that “the hydrographic work in the bay covered an area extending from the entrance to the inner harbor out some 2 miles beyond and southeast of Point Fermin, and easterly from that point about 4 miles.” The plan was to address a wider area and to make observations in the bay, but the funds were not sufficient. Still, he added, “the work accomplished affords sufficient information to enable us to indicate the position of a breakwater that would afford shelter to the anchorage-ground and to give an estimate of the cost of the structure.”

Prior to inner harbor improvements, “there was only a depth of about 1 foot upon the bar at the entrance at mean low water,” but projections were to make this 11 feet with five more to be gained at some point. This work would mean that “this depth will enable a certain class of vessels to enter the harbor and unload at the wharves” but it still was the case that “larger steamships and other deep-draught vessels will be compelled to lay off-shore and have their passengers and freight transferred to lighters” to come to shore.

While the anchorage holding ground was sufficient and was protected from the north, it remained exposed to the southwest and southeast and winter storms from those directions. Santa Catalina Island “aids in sheltering the bay from heavy swells from the south,” but condition from the other directions meant that “vessels are frequently compelled during the prevalence of southerly gales to leave their anchorage and seek shelter under the lea of the islands that lie off the coast.”

It was added that shipwrecks found on the west shore of the bay showed that the threat was mainly from the southeast, though some heavy swells were experienced from the southwest. This was why, Benyaurd continued, “for the purpose of affording a protected anchorage ground . . . it is proposed to construct a breakwater” further out than the existing one. The idea was to start inside of Point Fermin and build out 3,300 feet “which carries it beyond a line projected from the anchorage ground to the westerly end of Catalina Island, and gives protection to seas from the southwest.

A 1,000-foot gap and then another arm of 2,500 feet was to “extend beyond lines drawn from the anchorage ground as above to the westerly end of Catalina Island and Point San Juan Capistrano, and afford shelter from seas coming from the southeast between those two points.” There might be some minor changes with further study, but the concept was that “vessels may use the gap or they may go around the westerly end either for entrance or exit” dependent on prevailing winds, while the gaps left for current circulation and limited deposits of silt and other material in the shelter.

The breakwater’s construction was to be various-sized stones dropped in place, with the insides of “ordinary quarry material” with the remainder composed “of blocks of larger dimensions.” Benyaurd added that “judging from previous operations abundance of stone of fair quality can be obtained at Catalina Island” where quarry observations the previous summer showed there’d be no issue finding the larger blocks.

A cost estimate was provided showing that some 850 tons for the west arm would cost just north of $1.6 million, while over 1,000 tons for the east arm would be $1.9 million. Factoring in the usual 15% for contingencies, the total was just above $4 million. It was noted that this was “based upon the supposition that funds for carrying on the work will be appropriated in such amounts” that there would be the right type and number of barges to carry the quarried material from Catalina to the breakwater location. If, however, small ships were to be used, the cost would go up accordingly.

With this outer breakwater providing a better anchorage for protection of ships, there would also be the ability for “the construction of wharves along the westerly shore of the bay, at which deep-draught vessels can lie with safety, and discharge their cargoes free from the expense now entailed by lighterage.” As stated elsewhere, foreign and domestic commerce was growing “and it would undoubtedly increase still more rapidly as the country is developed and additional facilities afforded for transportation to interior points.”

Benyaurd acknowledged that “while at the present time this commerce might not be considered commensurate with the expense, it must be remembered that the breakwater, if commenced, will require a number of years for completion, at the rate appropriations are usually made, and that by the time this period arrives the commerce might fully warrant the expenditure.”

The report concluded with a brief statement by Mendell in which he agreed that “this project appears to be well conceived.” Repeating that “San Pedro Bay is particularly covered from sea exposure by the high island of Santa Catalina,” he added that the west breakwater would cover the “interval between the northern end of the island and the main-land,” so that “the whole arc of exposure is covered.”

Having the two entrances meant there was always one available no matter which way the wind blew, with one covered by Catalina and the other by the mainland near San Juan Capistrano. Mendell concluded by noting that the use of larger stones meant that the sectional area could be cut down “as storms and heavy waves do not here occur so frequently nor so violently as is the case on the northern coast.”

The final part of the report consisted of table showing Wilmington’s commerce statistics for the 1871 calendar year, which is when the first breakwater was constructed and a channel dredged to Wilmington. It showed that there were 160 steam and 65 sailing vessels that made their appearance and incoming freight totaled over 25,000 tons while outgoing was under 10,000, while the amount of lumber imported was just shy of 11 million board feet.

Though not stated, the next two tables were likely from 1887, because it was stated at the end that total revenue collected at the port for that calendar year was just over $113,000. They showed that, for foreign commerce, there were a few steam ships and more than 60 sailing vessels, with a total tonnage of nearly 80,000, that came to there. It observed that he greatest “draught” which is the distance between the line of the water and the bottom of the keel, or hull, was 26. Imports included 841 tons of general merchandise and not quite 130,000 tons of coal, while exports were about 1,300 tons of wheat.

For domestic commerce, the number of vessels, were about 350 steamers and about 460 sailing ships, with tonnage around 460,000, while the greatest draught as 18 feet. General merchandise of imports was almost 45,000 tons, while lumber totaled over 163 million board feet. By contrast, exports were 17,400 tons, with no specificity of what was being shipped out.

This report is a very interesting one, reflecting the period between the first, small investments by the federal government for the harbor and what would come after the Free Harbor Fight was concluded in the mid-Nineties, leading to breakwater construction beginning in 1899. The statistics are also notable, as in 2019, there were not quite 1,900 vessels at the Port of Los Angeles, though the scale of these is, of course, exponential in magnitude to the craft of 135 years ago. The cargo tonnage was 178 million metric tons with a value of $276 million and annual revenue of a little more than a half trillion dollars. One wonders what Mendell and Benyaurd would think if they could see what has transpired at the rudimentary harbor facilities they knew in the 1880s.

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