"This is the story of the Port of Los Angeles an extraordinary monument to the power of human energy, vision and selflessness. Indeed, the history of its growth and development incorporates so many of the elements of high drama that it reads like the inspirational fiction of turn-of-the-century America. It is, in fact, a rich and pungent slice of authentic frontier Americana in its purest form..."
-Charles F. Queenan, From Wilderness to World Port, 1983.
The first official documentation of the harbor was by Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. On October 8, 1542, Cabrillo came across a marshland and natural harbor at the northwest end of San Pedro Bay and named the area Bahia de Los Fumas or “Bay of Smokes” after the smoke that rose from the nearby hillside of Native American hunters. This fairly desolate area remained largely intact until 1769, when Spanish officials and missionaries set their sights on colonizing the U.S. West Coast. This led to the first commercial ventures in San Pedro in the mid-1800s.
Mission San Gabriel Arcángel
San Pedro Harbor was used as a trading post by Spanish missionary monks from Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. The monks met ships at the water's edge with provisions from Spain. The first American trading ship to call in San Pedro was the Lelia Byrd in 1805. At that time, it was illegal to conduct business with any other country but Spain; however, due to the distance and loose regulations, trade with other countries thrived. In 1822, an independent Mexican government lifted the Spanish restrictions on trade that led to a surge of settlement and commercial ventures in San Pedro. By the time California joined the Union in 1850, business in the harbor was flourishing.
A host of politicians, businessmen and community visionaries are responsible for San Pedro Bay fulfilling its ultimate destiny of becoming the largest cargo gateway into North America. One such visionary was Phineas Banning, who founded Wilmington (named after his hometown in Delaware) and is known as the Father of Los Angeles Harbor. His entrepreneurialism and influence positioned the Port for future success as the maritime and trade center for a rapidly growing West Coast city.
Stephen M. White
Another person to play an important role in the development of San Pedro Bay was Stephen M. White, also called the Savior of the Bay. White, a senator from California, stood up to big business and political forces, pushing through regulation that led Congress to declare San Pedro Bay as the official port for Los Angeles in 1897. White was instrumental in ensuring the harbor breakwater was constructed in San Pedro, not Santa Monica.
Founding of the Port of Los Angeles
The City of Los Angeles and the Harbor Area experienced unparalleled population growth in the early 20th century. City leaders recognized the Port's growth opportunities and created the Board of Harbor Commissioners on December 9, 1907, thus marking the official founding of the Port of Los Angeles. The cities of San Pedro and Wilmington were annexed to the City of Los Angeles on August 28, 1909, making the Port of Los Angeles an official department of the City of Los Angeles.
A Harbor is Born
Various industries began popping up in and around the Port in the early 1900s. Fishing, canneries, oil drilling and shipbuilding were major industries that generated jobs and commerce to Los Angeles and its growing population. By 1912, dredging and widening the main channel, and completing major sections of the federal breakwater, enabled the Port to accommodate larger vessels. These expansions proved effective once the Panama Canal opened in 1914, giving the Port of Los Angeles a unique strategic position for international trade and a clear advantage over northern West Coast ports as a destination point for east-to-west seaborne trade because of its proximity to the Panama Canal.
The Port's growth came to a standstill with the onset of World War II. The United States military commissioned the Port to conduct only war-time efforts, and the Port did so with diligence and success. Shipbuilding became the prime economic industry at the Port. Every boat repair and shipbuilding company assisted in the construction, conversion and repair of vessels for the war effort. San Pedro Bay shipyards collectively employed more than 90,000 workers and produced thousands of war-time vessels at record pace. After the victory of World War II, Port of Los Angeles officials again began focusing their attention to the continued expansion and development of the Port.
Up until the mid-20th century, the Port received cargo in crates, pallets, and small lots of varying sizes and shapes. Because of the lack of uniformity and security, unloading cargo was painstakingly slow and the frequency of damage, pilferage and loss of cargo was high. Providing a better solution, the containerized cargo revolution came to the Port in the late 1950s. Containers can easily be loaded, sealed and shipped on vessels, railroad cars, and trucks. Almost every manufactured product or its components are shipped in a container. Containerization is an important element of the innovations in logistics and security that propelled the Port of Los Angeles to critical national importance.
The Port of Los Angeles: A History (Four-Part Series)
This landmark documentary series was part of an oral history project celebrating the 100th anniversary of the official founding of the Port of Los Angeles by the City of Los Angeles in 1907. Combining rare film and photos with excerpts from more than 100 interviews, this four-part series tells the story of America's busiest port from 1542 to 2008, a man-made transformation from isolated mudflats to one of the world's most important harbors. It is also a vivid self-portrait of the people and Port communities of San Pedro and Wilmington, and a timeline for more than 200 years of American economic, political, and social change.
The Port of Los Angeles: A History, Part I - From Mudflats to Modern Port (1542-1920)
This episode tells how the harbor emerged from an isolated Spanish—then Mexican—trading stop to a booming American harbor.
The Port of Los Angeles: A History, Part II - Birth of an International Port (1921-1941)
This episode chronicles the 1920s, the impact of the Depression, the rise of the local International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and Los Angeles as an international trading center.
The Port of Los Angeles: A History, Part III - War, Peace, and Prosperity (1941-1960)
This episode documents the Port's dramatic role during World War II and the 1950s, with personal perspectives that illuminate the emergence of the United States as a world power.
The Port of Los Angeles: A History, Part IV - The Past is Prologue (1960-2008)
This episode charts the impact of the container age, modern labor, civil rights and environmental movements, and the Port's role in the 21st century global economy.