The Harbor

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For our March meeting of LASA, we explored the history and current operations of the Los Angeles Harbor complex.  When we met in the morning at the Los Angeles Public Library, Bill Deverell spoke to us for an hour or so about the intricate history of the harbor, dating back well over a hundred years.   Los Angeles at the end of the nineteenth century had a lot of assets.  A Mediterranean climate, rail connections to the north and east, rising population, the excitement and fervor of real estate booms (and busts), and a civic culture focused on economic growth and spatial expansion.  What Los Angeles did not have was a viable deep-water port.  With the Panama Canal on the horizon, city leaders, boosters, and the business establishment knew that the growth juggernaut of Los Angeles would stagnate if a major port could not somehow be carved out of the ocean’s floor up against the Pacific Coast.

And that’s just what happened.  The last decade of the nineteenth century saw a fierce rivalry break out between competing railroad companies about just where that port could and should be established.  One company set its sights on Santa Monica, one on San Pedro and Wilmington.  Both courted the favor, and the resources, of the federal government.  Congressional appropriation, of millions of dollars, was the only way that a harbor could come to pass in Los Angeles – the waters off the coast, either at Santa Monica or San Pedro, were too shallow to allow giant ships to load or offload up against the coast.  A harbor would have to be dug out.

For nearly ten years, the railroad companies, the people of Los Angeles, and local, state, and federal officials wrestled over the future of Los Angeles, the future of the port, and the future of the American West.  Santa Monica or San Pedro?  The battle was ferocious, with no holds barred.  It took place in the newspapers, in the elections, in speech after speech, and between closed doors in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms of deal-making and power-brokering.

And it was electrifying.  By the latter 1890s, Angelenos knew that the economic future of all of Southern California was tied to the “harbor fight.”  Good and bad reasons were tossed back and forth about putting the harbor here or there.  A harbor in Santa Monica wouldn’t work, opponents said, because the ocean currents would hopelessly complicate the excavation and even make shipping dangerous. Or a harbor there would ruin the European look and feel of a place already attractive to tourists and the wealthy.  Or a harbor in Santa Monica would add to the power of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the state’s largest landowner and employer, and create monopolistic conditions of economic clout and greed.  On the other hand, opponents of San Pedro made similar arguments about currents and dangers, and pointed out that wharf facilities already existed – they did – in Santa Monica, so as to make a harbor there more efficient.  Rumors swirled round that the San Pedro adherents were ruled by outsiders, businesses and businessmen from St. Louis, and that they did not have the true interests of Los Angeles or Angelenos in mind by pushing their favored site.  Or people claimed that the Los Angeles Times, in backing San Pedro, must have murky ambitions of its own, plans that would somehow penalize Angelenos in the end.

It was a boxing match for the future of Los Angeles.  Filled with intrigue and shenanigans on both sides, the story is an exciting one to tell and delve into – a noir-ish tale which anticipates larger-than-life stories of Los Angeles and water which would come in the 20th century.  But at its heart, the harbor story is also about the ambitions of a place and its people, the meteoric rise of Los Angeles to a global economic and demographic clout, and the creation of one of the world’s great harbor complexes.  In the end, San Pedro/Wilmington won out, and by the first years of the twentieth century, a massive excavation project had established a deep harbor near the mouth of the Los Angeles River.  In the century which followed, the Los Angeles harbor proved to be more important than even the overblown harbor fight rhetoric claimed.  An economic driver of gargantuan proportion, its influence stretches westward across the Pacific and eastward across North America.  The harbor story is an amazing one – an exciting drama of ambition, hubris, rivalry, and vision.  As they squared off to do battle a hundred and twenty years ago, the antagonists in the harbor fight agreed on at least one critical thing: Los Angeles deserved a great harbor, a world-class harbor, and it was going to get one.  And it did.

Then we went there.