“A Magnificent Roadstead Out in the Ocean”: The Port of Los Angeles Breakwater in Scientific American Magazine, 24 August 1912

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Of all the many examples of how significantly greater Los Angeles was transformed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, few, if any, were more important and vital than the creation of the man-made Port of Los Angeles, which allowed for the region’s growth to be manifested in the extraordinary growth of import and export trade.

From its earliest days, Los Angeles had its harbor, such as it was, at San Pedro at the base of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which served to shelter ships in a way that could not be done on the coast to the north (and which was west of the pueblo), though there was southern and southeastern exposure. This situation, however, meant that vessels had to anchor off shore about a mile and send smaller craft in to land goods and to pick up the cattle hides and tallow (fat) that were basically the sole exports of the underdeveloped region.

While there was talk from early in the American era about improvements to make the harbor more like an actual port, including by Phineas Banning, the Wilmington, Delaware native who became the “Port Admiral” and the driving force behind the movement, nothing of substance was done until 1869. That year, the region’s first railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro, was completed from the Angel City to the rudimentary harbor and its opening marked a new era for the city and its humble port.

Los Angeles Times, 30 January 1912.

Consistent lobbying by Banning and others, such as his partner, Benjamin D. Wilson, with the federal government (which Banning, a devoted Union supporter during the Civil War, convinced to invest in his new town of Wilmington through the building of Camp Drum) yielded fruit and the Washington, D.C. provided a modest sum of $150,000 for the dredging of canals and the construction of a breakwater between Rattlesnake and Deadman’s islands. This latter work was conducted in 1871, just as the Southern Pacific Railroad was about to build its first lines in the region.

Further funding provided more enhancements, but as the 19th century edged towards it end, the federal government made a decision in the “Free Harbor Fight” about whether to continue its investments at San Pedro/Wilmington or to turn its attentions to the Southern Pacific’s project at Santa Monica (the first wharf in which was built by the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, the founding president and then treasurer of which was F.P.F. Temple.)

When it was decided that San Pedro/Wilmington was to be the focus of federal funding, a major priority was a much-longer and larger breakwater and, after an act was passed by Congress in 1896, work finally began before the decade and century was out. Meantime, San Pedro was annexed to Los Angeles in 1906 and Wilmington three years later, so that the facility became known more consistently as Los Angeles Harbor or the Port of Los Angeles, the latter being the official name today.

Harbor expansion was accompanied by significant real estate development, Monrovia News, 9 December 1912.

As the breakwater neared completion after almost fifteen years, it is important to note other large-scale infrastructure projects during that era. For example, Henry E. Huntington’s move to the Angel City in 1901 led to his rapid development of electric streetcar lines, which became the Pacific Electric Railway. and real estate subdivisions throughout the region. The rapid growth of the automobile facilitated suburban development, as well, and quickly altered the landscape of the region.

Another development that was about as vital as the harbor improvements was the planning and construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brought the water needed for the insatiable growth of greater Los Angeles. Moreover, as the area took on greater importance as the hub of the American Southwest and emerged from under the shadow of San Francisco, work at the Port of Los Angeles was directly connected to the imminent completion of the Panama Canal, which completely transformed shipping from the Atlantic to the Pacific and made harbor work even more essential.

So, the featured object from the Homestead’s holdings for this post was published at a particularly important time, as the 24 August 1912 issue of Scientific American, launched in 1845 and still produced today making it “the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States,” according to its website, included an article on “The Harbors of the Pacific Coast” with the subheading of “Terminal Facilities for the Panama Canal Trade.”

Los Angeles Express, 27 December 1912.

Author William Hosea Ballou, who had a wide-ranging set of scientific interests, some not always particularly accurate or professional by modern standards, noted that the coast was some 1,850 miles long, with almost 9,000 “with indentations.” Natural harbors were limited to San Diego, San Francisco, at the Columbia River in Oregon and the Puget Sound in Washington, but continuous and, in California’s case, explosive growth led to an obvious need for improvements.

Ballou noted that Oregon received the largest federal expenditures for river and harbor work with some $24.5 million, followed by California at $19.3 million and Washington trailing at just over $10 million. In discussing the first of the three states, the writer observed that shipping from the Columbia River interior was particularly important with logging with some 12million feet of logs and timbers sent to California.

At the river’s mouth at Astoria, jetty work was ongoing with total expenditures on the watercourse reaching nearly $11.5 million and it was expected that further work would need as much money to properly control the river where its very wide mouth of some 8,000 feet met the Pacific, while dredging there alone would exceed $100,000 each year. It was anticipated that the jetty project could take up to almost three decades “before Portland can hope for a 40-foot channel such as admits shipping to New York harbor.”

Times,1 January 1913.

The second largest harbor in the state was Coos Bay, southwest of Portland and about 180 miles from the Columbia, and it was important for the shipment of timber and farm produce. Initial jetty work was done inexpensively as conditions were not considered formidable, but additional work was deemed necessary, but still at under $1 million over a dozen years.

In Washington, Tacoma had a deep harbor and, while some waterways were built into flats, the deepening of one of these was affected by heavy rain in fall 1909, leading federal engineers to call for diverting the Puyallup River in that area. Still, the City of Tacoma pursued wharf terminal improvements while decisions awaited regarding the river. At Gray’s Harbor, on the coast southwest of Tacoma, where cities that dealt with lumber were processing some 800,000 tons for shipment, jetty work was authorized by Congress in 1896 and, in a half-dozen years, a million was expended with further approvals followed in 1907 and 1910 and work was ongoing.

At Seattle, Ballou commented, “engineering problems do not call for much comment” as the Union and Washington lakes were to receive connections with Puget Sound for the former and a pair of rivers for the latter. Channels were dredged, turning basins established, cuts made between Union Lake and Salmon Bay and locks were approved by Congress in 1910 at the bay. The future meant a channel through the bay and the two lakes with an estimated cost of just north of $3.5 million, of which some 70% was appropriated for the locks and “accessories,” while the City of Seattle promised to pay for the channels while insuring against any problems with lowering the level of Lake Washington and the raising of Salmon Bay.

Times, 1 January 1913.

With California, San Diego had a bar cut by a natural channel of 500-foot width and just over 20 feet in depth at low water, but, in 1875, Congress provided $80,000 for a dike across the mouth of the San Diego River so that silt would not deposit in the harbor and cause damage. Fifteen years later, that body approved the building of a jetty at the port’s entrance and a deepening of the channel.

In 1910, further deepening and widening was authorized so that the Pacific Fleet could use the port as a coaling station and this work was anticipated to be completed by the time the Panama Canal opened and the Panama-California Exposition (including the creation of the remarkable Balboa Park) followed in 1914-1915. The City of San Diego deeded 22 square miles of land to the federal government and provided $1 million for wharf improvements, while 1,000 acres remained for development and a railway was in construction along the waterfront to improve freight hauling.

At San Francisco, Ballou noted, it “has the great advantage that it is a practically natural harbor” with rock removal from the Bay and in the ocean outside its mouth that only major concern and recent projects involving more than a half million dollars with another quarter million ready to spend. He concluded that “it is evident hat San Francisco harbor must remain the only one on the Pacific Coast, for many years, that can admit the largest of the world’s vessels.”

Oakland worked on improvements for almost four decades, but, the author judged, “it is now a greater harbor than it has commerce for, and speculation is rife as to what benefits will accrue from its future enlargement.” Nearly two-thirds of tonnage was overland freight sent to San Francisco. Work since 1874 consisted of high-tide walls, tidal basins, channels, and a jetty along with deepening of the tidal canal, waterways and channels with some $700,000 appropriated by Congress, a little more than 20% to be expended in 1912.

This left Los Angeles and Ballou wrote that the harbor “was created by the annexation of San Pedro’s outer and Wilmington’s inner harbors” and he added that “originally San Pedro Bay was an open roadstead, protected on the west by a bluff known as Point Fermin, but exposed from other directions.” This led to the nearly $3 million appropriation by Congress in 1897 for a breakwater of 8,500 feet from that point into the ocean.

There was enough money to extend this 9,250 feet from Deadman’s Island out to water that was 40 feet deep and, Ballou continued, “this portion of the work consists of two straight arms, connected by a curve 1,800 feet long, having a radius of 1,910 feet” with the west at 3,000 feet in length and the east at 4.450 feet. Therefore, Deadman’s Island was joined to the shore with a breakwater over 11,275 feet in length, with this from 122-194 feet wide at the base, 38 feet width at low water and 20 feet wide above and 14 feet high above it. The writer noted:

This breakwater can only be described as one of the greatest extant, creating, as it does, a magnificent roadstead in the ocean.

Blocks on three tons or more each were used for a total of well in excess of 2.5 million tons. Ballou ended by noting that Irving T. Bush, founder of the Bush Terminals in Brooklyn in New York City visited the harbor facilities at Los Angeles to recommend “how they can be made to anticipate the further increase of trade to result from the opening of the Panama Canal.” He suggested “the construction of a wharf three-quarters of a mile long” making it almost 3,000 feet longer than any in existence.

While the article has a quintet of photo illustrations, one of which shows the “filling in the shallows” at Los Angeles, the cover features two photos of the breakwater with one showing a man strolling on the wide edifice and the caption noting that it “creates an outer harbor of refuge, 375 acres in extent,” while the other shows one side and gives it dimensions, noting, however, that stones ranged from 100 pounds to 20 tons each, which varied from what was in the article.

In any case, it was clear that this breakwater, after initial work called for in 1896 was finished in September 1910, the gap between it and Point Fermin was completed just before Christmas in 1912, really stood out among the many improvements being conducted in the several harbors of the coast from San Diego to Seattle and that it represented a future for the Port of Los Angeles that would elevate it to one of the world’s major harbors.

Recent news reports, however, indicate that the port is glaringly inefficient with one stating that Los Angeles and Long Beach combined ranked dead last of 370 ports worldwide with respect to the time spent exchanging cargo. The delays in shipping during the pandemic is one thing, but so are calls by environmental groups for drastic reduction in emissions as climate change worsens and with these two issues, it can easily be seen how severe the challenges are for the port’s future.

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