The Homestead Blog

Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.

From Point A to Point B at Port Los Angeles, circa 1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

From Point A to Point B will look at a variety of ways transportation was handled in greater Los Angeles through the 1920s, including horse-drawn conveyances, street cars, automobiles, airplanes, and others.

One key aspect of our transportation system has always been the shipping of goods to and from our harbors and inland routes.  In the Spanish and Mexican era, the handling of imports and exports was rather crude, with ships anchored off-shore and smaller craft conveying goods and material to and from the larger vessels.  San Pedro was an anchorage, but it was anything but a harbor, compared to the more naturally favored locations at San Diego and San Francisco.

Conditions only slightly improved in the first decades of the American era, though San Pedro and the “new harbor” at Wilmington, the brainchild of Phineas Banning (whose hometown was Wilmington, Delaware) gradually saw dredging and seawall building to make some improvements for shipping and passenger service.

The coming of the railroad, first with the local Los Angeles and San Pedro line, finished in 1869 (the year of the transcontinental railroad’s completion) to the harbor facilities at the latter, and then the Los Angeles and Independence, which, in 1875, established a wharf, later called Port Los Angeles, at the new town of Santa Monica, heralded further changes.

Federal government appropriations for harbor improvements, which first came in small measure by the 1870s, were the subject of a major competition between San Pedro/Wilmington and Port Los Angeles.  The so-called “harbor wars” culminated at the end of the 19th century with San Pedro/Wilmington victorious.  Port Los Angeles soon faded away.

Santa Monica long wharf 2

This great circa 1890s montage of the Port of Los Angeles at Santa Monica shows various usages of the wharf for commerce and pleasure.  From the Homestead Museum collection.

The accompanying unmounted cabinet card photo shows Port Los Angeles in the 1890s when the “battle” was on for shipping supremacy.  The unattributed image is compelling because its montage shows the variety of uses for the facility, which had a distinctive curved shape projecting far out into the Pacific where deeper water was available.

The rail line of the Los Angeles and Independence, which was first headed by F.P.F. Temple who later served as its treasurer, runs along the top of the wharf.  When Temple’s bank of Temple and Workman failed in 1876, the LA& I, which was intended to run to the Inyo County town of Independence to ship silver from local mines back to Los Angeles but never got to that stage, foundered and was sold to the Southern Pacific.

At the top right are ships unloading lumber, probably from the Northwest, and the inset is nicely framed by a neatly-knotted rope.  At the bottom are a variety of vessels, including what appears to be one on a pleasure cruise and others that are personal craft for a leisurely sailing trip.

LA harbor dock

The Port of Los Angeles, as it appeared circa 1920s.  From the Homestead Museum collection.

1800s Los Angeles exported a great deal of agricultural products, including the very symbol of the region, the orange, along with other citrus fruits, grains and many more crops.  But, as the city and region grew in the first decades of the 20th century into an industrial and manufacturing power, exports included automobiles, tires, steel, and a good deal more.

Today, San Pedro/Wilmington, which became the Port of Los Angeles, when the city devised an infamous “shoestring” to tie the harbor with downtown and its rail yards, is a massive, complex and highly technologized port.  Its neighbor, the Port of Long Beach, is also a significant and important operation.

While exports are still being shipped out, the two major port facilities are the gateway for an enormous volume of imports, especially from China, Japan, Korea and other Asian manufacturing nations.  Our local railroad network, which has been directly connected to the ports for some 150 years, has expanded dramatically to handle the burgeoning traffic. Here in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, the major railroad lines that pass through the City of Industry, just a short distance north and south of the Homestead, are regularly humming with rail traffic to and from those ports.

We’ve come a long way from the humble harbors of the 19th century and who knows where we’ll go as the 21st century moves along?

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