From a Desolate Mudflat
Smoke from fires set by Native Americans hunting game on the hillsides overlooking San Pedro Bay inspired Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to name this natural harbor Bahia de los Fumos or "Bay of Smokes." On October 8, 1542, when Cabrillo noted in his log that the bay "is an excellent harbor and the country is good with many plains and groves of trees," this indented coastline was little more than swampy marshland. It would take more than 450 years to turn this desolate site into one of the largest, busiest and most successful manmade harbors in the world.
The tidal flats and marshes of Bahia de los Fumos remained pristine for more than 200 years after Cabrillo's visit, largely because Europe was concentrating its New World colonization on America's East Coast. Then, in 1769, Spanish officials and missionaries turned an eye toward the magnificent coastline, the resource-rich plains and the Indian population of California. Subsequently, the middle of the 19th century saw the first commercial ventures arising in San Pedro and the future of the bay was cast.
Spain’s House of Trades
In an effort to bring European civilization and religion to the Indians, the Spanish in 1771 established a mission at San Gabriel Arcángel, 40 miles inland from San Pedro, and at San Juan Capistrano in 1776. Mission monks were the first traders to use the harbor, hauling ox carts filled with hides and tallow to the water's edge to meet ships carrying provisions from Spain.
During this colonial period, the Spanish prohibited settlers from conducting business with other countries, restricting their trade to two ships a year carrying goods from Spain's House of Trades. Foreign ships were given permission to stop only for urgent repairs or food. Despite these restrictions, San Pedro and the nearby towns and missions on the flats of San Pedro Bay prospered — largely as a result of a thriving cargo-smuggling industry.
At the same time, Spain tried to colonize the territory, sending 11 families recruited from the Mexican provinces of Sonora and Sinaloa to become the first settlers in what was called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de los Angeles de Porcuincula. The new town was founded on September 4, 1781.
The first American trading ship to call at San Pedro was the Lelia Byrd in 1805. Under the command of Capt. William Shaler, the trading vessel brought sugar, textiles and household goods in exchange for otter pelts and provisions. With Spain's trading restrictions still in place, this first Yankee transaction probably was not authorized by Spanish officials.
Spanish restrictions on trade continued until 1822, when an independent Mexican govern- ment lifted the oppressive restrictions, and San Pedro soon became a robust commercial center and an attractive home for new settlers. By the time California joined the Union in 1848, business at San Pedro harbor was booming. It was evident, however, that the harbor needed to be expanded to accommodate the increasing cargo volume destined for the growing Los Angeles population.
Still relatively undeveloped, the harbor did not offer deep-water access, forcing merchants to send small boats and rafts to meet cargo-carrying ships at anchor in the bay. This method was particularly cumbersome in transporting lumber which, as a result of the growing towns surrounding San Pedro, was in enormous demand. Once ashore, there was the added obstacle of expeditiously transporting the lumber to various markets in the region. Recognizing these shortcomings, one inexhaustible man was instrumental in bringing innovative changes to San Pedro Bay — changes that marked the first steps toward developing the bay into one of the great seaports of the world.
In the 1850s, a spirited entrepreneur named Phineas Banning began the first of a lifetime of ventures that would eventually earn him the name "Father of Los Angeles Harbor." These ventures included a freight and passenger transportation business that grew into a shipping firm with 15 stagecoaches and 50 wagons serving five western states. Even more noteworthy, however, was Banning's founding in 1857 of a small town adjacent to the wharf that he built to serve his business empire. He named the town Wilmington, after his hometown in Delaware. Among his other achievements, Phineas Banning provided valuable assistance to the Union cause during the Civil War and, as a state senator, introduced the first railroad bill to the California Legislature.
The Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad began service between San Pedro Bay and Los Angeles in 1869. This 21-mile stretch of track was the first railroad in Southern California and marked the beginning of a new era of development for the harbor region. As the nation recovered from the Civil War, and with business booming, Banning led the crusade to solicit Congress for the first harbor improvements. These included dredging the shallow Main Channel in 1871 to a water depth of 10 feet and constructing a breakwater between Rattlesnake Island (now Terminal Island) and Deadman's Island (formerly located near Terminal Island). In that year alone, 50,000 tons of lumber, coal and other types of cargo moved through the Port as the railroad became the dominant mode of transportation.
The Great Free-Harbor Fight
In the ensuing 14 years, commerce in San Pedro skyrocketed, and by 1885 the Port was handling 500,000 tons of import and export cargo annually. Not only was this sheer volume of commerce taxing the Port's existing facilities. It was clear that West Coast trade could be an extremely lucrative venture for those in control of the Port of Los Angeles and the railroads serving it. This realization sparked one of the greatest struggles for control of West Coast cargo transportation in the history of the United States.
Driven by the ambition of powerful business interests, proposals for new ports in present-day Santa Monica, Marina del Rey and Redondo Beach began surfacing from some of the most influential politicians in California and Washington, D.C. On March 1, 1897, a five-man board of engineers, chaired by Rear Admiral John C. Walker, settled the great free-harbor fight by recommending continued port development in San Pedro Bay. This decision effectively dashed plans for port development further up the coast and set the stage for the modern era of the Port of Los Angeles.
By the turn of the century, the City of Los Angeles had grown to a population of 100,000 residents. City officials knew that the existing infrastructure could not handle further growth in either population or commerce. With that in mind, the City in 1906 annexed a 16-mile strip of land on the outskirts of San Pedro and Wilmington — towns that three years later would join the City of Los Angeles. The Port of Los Angeles was officially founded in 1907 with the creation of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners.
Coming of Age
While City officials were primarily concerned with port infrastructure and how to encourage and utilize regional economic development, they also understood the importance of developing a port of global prominence. This was reflected in additional improvements to the harbor between 1911 and 1912. During that period, the first 8,500-foot section of the breakwater was completed, and the Main Channel was widened to 800 feet and dredged to a depth of 30 feet to accommodate the largest vessels of that era. Concurrently, Southern Pacific Railroad completed its first major wharf in San Pedro, allowing railcars to efficiently load and unload goods simultaneously.
These improvements came at a most auspicious time, allowing the Port of Los Angeles to take full advantage of the greatest maritime engineering achievement of the 20th century — the Panama Canal. On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened for business, and the Port of Los Angeles' location gave it a unique strategic advantage over other West Coast ports. As the nearest major American port west of the Panama Canal, the Port of Los Angeles would become the natural port-of-call for most trans-Pacific and coastal users of the waterway. But the promise of international commerce on a grand scale would be delayed until the end of the World War I.
The 1920s, marked by a boom in petroleum, lumber and citrus trade, was a period of dynamic growth for the Port of Los Angeles. For the first time in history, Los Angeles surpassed San Francisco as the West Coast's busiest seaport and ranked second only to New York in foreign export tonnage. In the peak year of 1928, the Port handled 26.5 million tons of cargo — a record that would stand for nearly 40 years.
The Great Depression caused cargo tonnage to slump severely, and the Port did not pass 20 million tons again until 1937. Still, recognizing the tremendous promise of global trade, Port officials maintained their focus on harbor development during the Depression. Despite a weak economy and a decline in trade, Port improvements continued. The construction of the 18,500-foot-long extension of the middle breakwater was completed in 1937 — in time for the Port to meet the demands of the nation's gravest emergency.
The Port was involved in World War II on a massive scale. Every vessel building operation in the harbor assisted in the construction, conversion and repair of boats and ships for the war effort. Shipbuilding quickly became the Port of Los Angeles' prime economic activity, with California Shipbuilding Corp., Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., Consolidated Steel Corp., Todd Shipyards and other enterprises collectively employing more than 90,000 workers. These companies produced thousands of vessels, patrol boats and landing craft for the war effort.
Following World War II, Port of Los Angeles officials rededicated themselves to the development of new facilities, improvements to the cargo infrastructure and expansion of trans-Pacific trade. These three goals took on particular urgency when one wartime apparatus, the cargo container, was adopted into commercial use and changed the industry forever.
Gearing up for the 21st Century
In August 1958, the Hawaiian Merchant made its first shipment of 20 cargo containers from Berth 135, marking the beginning of the containerized cargo revolution at the Port of Los Angeles. Matson Navigation Co. began full container service in 1960 with the Hawaiian Citizen, and the Port handled 7,000 containers that year. Other shipping lines soon followed Matson’s lead.
In 1963, the landmark Vincent Thomas Bridge opened, replacing passenger ferry service across the Main Channel. Several other developments occurred during this period that would secure the Port’s worldwide prominence. It had become financially infeasible, and in many cases impossible, for large ships to pass through the Panama Canal. One viable and economical solution to this problem was the creation of a “landbridge” from the Port of Los Angeles to destinations throughout the United States via cargo-carrying trucks and trains. Intermodalism would be even more economical when the Port opened its Intermodal Container Transfer Facility in 1986.
In 1995, the Port handled 2.6 million containers in a 12-month period for the first time. Two years later, the Port completed construction of Global Gateway South, a 232-acre container terminal on Pier 300. Operated by APL Limited, the $270 million complex features 12 large shoreside container cranes, an on-dock intermodal railyard and a satellite-based global positioning system to track cargo movements. By 1999, the Port’s container traffic exceeded 3.5 million containers.
A New Era
Today’s Port of Los Angeles is America’s premier gateway for goods and services, and a bustling center for global commerce. Handling cargo as diverse as the world it serves, the Port’s economic impact is unprecedented in terms of regional jobs and economic impact. In this leadership role, the Port of Los Angeles has also prioritized green growth initiatives as well as security, dedicating millions of dollars to ensure the quality of life for the surrounding communities while safeguarding cargo, property and the nation’s largest longshore workforce.
The Port of Los Angeles also serves as a vital ecological habitat, with several hundred species of fish and marine birds making it their home. From its innovative clean air programs to saltwater habitat sanctuary, the Port is committed to environmental leadership and innovation.
Additionally, the Port is a source of recreational facilities. Each year, more than one million cruise passengers travel to and from Los Angeles. Port-supported facilities, such as the Los Angeles Maritime Museum and Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, bring an educational enrichment value to Los Angeles residents and visitors from around the world.
As the number one containerport in the nation, the Port of Los Angeles also sets standards for operational excellence. The Port set a new U.S. container volume record in 2006, with more than 8.5 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) recorded. With 26 major cargo terminals, including seven container facilities, the Port is equipped to handle all types of international cargo. As cargo volume is expected to increase dramatically in response to the demands of a growing regional marketplace, the Port and its terminal operators are further improving operational efficiency to meet the needs of customers, international shippers, consumers and manufacturers.
In a historic November 2006 action, the Boards of Harbor Commissioners of Los Angeles and Long Beach approved an aggressive plan to reduce air pollution by at least 45 percent in five years. The San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan is the world’s first program addressing all port-related emission sources to significantly reduce health risks posed by regional air pollution from port-related operations.
Operational efficiencies go hand-in-hand with environmental programming. Funded in part by the Port of Los Angeles, the $2.5 billion Alameda Corridor project opened in April 2002. This 20-mile rail expressway that directly connects the Port to downtown Los Angeles was designed to speed growing volumes of cargo under and over Southern California streets to America’s transcontinental rail system. Some 200 grade separations with conflicts between vehicle and rail traffic were eliminated along the Alameda Corridor route. The Port’s involvement in developing efficient regional transportation infrastructure continues as it works in partnership with local, regional and statewide agencies to improve the efficiency and reliability of goods movement systems.
The nearly 500-acre Pier 400 container complex, a much acclaimed engineering marvel, was completed in 2004 as the largest single-user container terminal in the world. Operated by APM Terminals, the terminal serves shipping giant Maersk Line. In 2010, the Port added a new terminal operator to Pier 400, California United Terminals Inc., a subsidiary of South Korea-based Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. Ltd.
The Port of Los Angeles marked its Centennial in 2007. On December 9, 1907, the Los Angeles City Council approved City Ordinance No. 19128, founding the Board of Harbor Commissioners and marking the official establishment of the Port. As the leading containerport in the United States today, the Port of Los Angeles looks toward its next 100 years as an undisputed international leader in setting high global standards for industry leading environmental initiatives, terminal efficiency and sustainable growth.