Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Historic Seaports of Los Angeles

BY J. M. Guinn.

 Of the half a dozen or more ports through which at different times the commerce of Los Angeles has passed, but two can be classed as historic, namely San Pedro and Wilmington. Los Angeles was not designed by its founder for a commercial town. When brave old Felipe de Neve marked off the boundaries of the historic plaza as the center from which should radiate the Pueblo de Nuestra Senora La Rayna de Los Angeles, no vision of the future city of broad streets, palatial business blocks and princely homes climbing the brown hills above his little plaza and spreading over the wide mesa below, passed before his mind's eye.

When the military and religious services of the founding were ended and the governor gave the pobladores (colonists) a few parting words of advice; admonishing them to be frugal and industrious, to be faithful servants of God and the king; no suspicion that the little germ of civilization that he had that day planted on the banks of the Rio Porciuncula would ever need a seaport entered his thoughts. The Spaniards, though the discoverers of the new world and bold seamen withal, were not a commercial or trading people. Their chief desire was to be let alone in their vast possessions. Philip II once promulgated a decree pronouncing death upon any foreigner who entered the Gulf of Mexico. Little did the pirates and buccaneers of the Gulf care for Philip's decrees. They captured Spanish ships in the Gulf and pillaged towns on the Spanish Main; and Drake, the brave old sea king of Devon, sailed into the harbor of Cadiz, with his little fleet and burned a hundred Spanish ships right under Philip's nose, "singeing the king's beard," Drake called it. Nor content with that exploit, down through the Straits of Magellan, and up the South Sea coast sailed Francis Drake in the Golden Hind, a vessel scarce larger than a fishing smack, spreading consternation among the Spanish settlements of the South Pacific; capturing great lumbering galleons freighted with the "riches of Ormus and of Ind;" plundering towns and robbing churches of their wealth of silver and gold, silver and gold that the wretched natives under the lash of cruel task masters had wrung from the mines. It was robber robbing robber, but no retribution for wrongs inflicted reached down to the wretched native. Surfeited with plunder, and his ship weighed down with the weight of silver and gold and costly ornaments, Drake sailed more than a thousand leagues up the California coast, seeking the fabled Straits of Anian, by which he might reach England with his spoils; for in the quaint language of Chaplain Fletcher, who did preaching and praying on the Golden Hind, when Sir Francis did not take the job out of his hands and chain the chaplain up to the main mast, as he sometimes did: "Ye governor thought it not good to return by ye Streights (of Magellan) lest the Spaniards should attend to him in great numbers."

So, for fear of the sea robbers, who hunted their shores, the Spaniards built their principal cities in the new world back from the coast, and their shipping ports were few and far between. It never perhaps crossed the mind of Governor Felipe de Neve that the new pueblo would need a seaport. It was founded to supply, after it became self-supporting, the soldiers of the presidios with its surplus agricultural products. The town was to have no commerce, why should it need a seaport? True, ten leagues away was the Ensenada of San Pedro, and, as Spanish towns went, that was near enough to a port.

But since that November day, one hundred and eighty years be-fore, when the ships of Sebastian Viscaino had anchored in its waters, and he had named it for St. Peter of Alexandria, down to the founding of the pueblo, no ship's keel had cut the waters of San Pedro bay. It is not strange that no vision of the future commercial importance of the little pueblo of the Angelic Queen ever disturbed the dreams of brave old Felipe de Neve.

There is no record, or at least I have none, of when the mission supply ships landed the first cargo at San Pedro. Before the end of last century the port had become known as the embarcadero of San Gabriel.

The narrow and proscriptive policy of Spain had limited the commerce of its California colonies to the two supply ships sent each year from Mexico with supplies for the presidios and missions. These supplies were exchanged for the hides and tallow produced at the missions. San Pedro was the port of San Gabriel mission for this exchange, and also of the Pueblo of Los Angeles.


It is not an easy matter to enforce arbitrary restrictions against commerce, as Spain found to her cost. Men will trade under the most adverse circumstances. Spain was a long way off and smuggling was not a very venal sin in the eyes of layman or churchman.

So a contraband trade grew up on the coast, and San Pedro had her full share of it. Fast sailing vessels were fitted out in Boston for illicit trade on the California coast. Watching their opportunities, these vessels slipped into the bays along the coast. There was a rapid exchange of Yankee notions for sea otter skins, the most valued peltry of California and the vessels were out to sea before the revenue officers could intercept them. If successful in escaping capture the profits of a smuggling voyage were enormous, ranging from 500 to 1000 per cent above cost on the goods exchanged; but the risks were great. The smuggler had no protection from the law. He was an outlaw. He was the legitimate prey of the padres, the people and the revenue officers. It is gratifying to our national pride to know that the Yankee usually came out ahead. These vessels were armed and when speed or stratagem failed they fought their way out of a scrape.

But it was not until the Mexican government, more liberal than the Spanish, had partially lifted from foreign trade the restrictions imposed by Spain that commerce began to seek the port. First came the hide droghers from Boston with their department store cargoes. Trading and shopping were done on board the vessel, and the purchasers passed from ship to shore and back on the ship's boats; while lumbering carretas creaked and groaned under the weight of California bank notes, as the sailors called the hides that were to pay for the purchases. As long as the ship lay at anchor, and the bank notes held out, the shores of the bay were gay with festive parties of shoppers and traders. Every one, old and young, male and female of the native Californians, and even the untutored Indian too, took a deep interest in the ship's cargo. The drogher's display .of "silks and satins new" was a revelation of riches on which the rustic maiden's mind could revel long after the ship had gone on her way.

Just when the first house was built at San Pedro, I have been unable to ascertain definitely. In the proceedings of the Ayuntamineto for 1835, a house is spoken of as having been built there "long ago" by the Mission Fathers of San Gabriel. Long ago for past time is as indefinite as poco tiempo for future. I think the house was built during the Spanish era, probably between 181 5 and 1820. It was a warehouse for the storing of hides, and was located on the bluff about half way between Point Firmin and Timm's Point. The ruins are still extant. Dana, in his "Two Years Before the Mast," describes it as a building with one room containing a fire place, cooking apparatus, and the rest of it unfurnished, and used as a place to store goods. Dana was not favorably impressed with San Pedro. He says: "I also learned, to my surprise, that the desolate looking place we were in furnished more hides than any other port on the coast.  We all agreed that it was the worst place we had seen yet, especially for getting off of hides; and our lying off at so great a distance looked as though it was bad for southeasters."

This old warehouse was the cause of a bitter controversy that split the population of the pueblo into factions. While the secularization of the missions was in progress, during 1834 and 1835, Don Abel Stearns bought the old building from the Mission Fathers of San Gabriel. He obtained permission from Governor Figueroa to bring water from a spring a league distant from the embarcadero, and also to build additional buildings; his object being to found a commercial settlement at the landing, and to enlarge the commerce of the port. His laudable efforts met with opposition from the anti-expansionists of that day. They feared smuggling and cited an old Spanish law that prohibited the building of a house on the beach of any port where there was no custom house. The Captain of the Port protested to the Governor against Stearns' contemplated improvements, and demanded that the warehouse be demolished. Ships, he said, would pass in the night from Santa Catalina, where they lay hid in the day time, to San Pedro and load and unload at Stearns' warehouse, and "skip out" before he, the captain, could come down from his home at the pueblo, ten leagues away, to collect the revenue. Then a number of calamity howlers joined the Captain of the Port in bemoaning the ills that would follow from the building of warehouses, and among other things charged Stearns, with buying and shipping, surreptitiously, stolen hides. The Governor referred the matter to the Ayuntamiento, and that municipal body appointed a committee of three sensible and public spirited men to examine into the charges and report. The committee reported that the interests of the community needed a commercial settlement at the embarcadero; that if the Captain of the Port feared smuggling, he should station a guard on the beach; and finally, that the calamity howlers who had charged Don Abel with buying stolen hides should be compelled to prove their charge in a court of justice, or retract their slanders. This settled the controversy, and the calamity howlers, too, but Stearns built no more warehouse at the embarcadero.

The first shipwreck in San Pedro bay was that of the brig Danube of New York, on Christmas Eve, 1828. In a fierce south-eastern gale she dragged her anchors and was driven ashore a total wreck. The crew and officers, twenty-eight in number, were all saved. The news of the disaster reached Los Angeles, and a cavalcade of caballeros quickly came to the assistance of the shipwrecked mariners. The query was how to get the half drowned sailors to the pueblo, thirty miles distant. The only conveyance at hand was the backs of mustangs. Sailors are proverbial for their incapacity to manage a horse, and those of the Danube were no exception to the rule. The friendly Californians would assist a sailor to the upper deck of a mustang, and sailing directions given to the rider, the craft would be headed towards the pueblo. First there would be a lurch to port, then to starboard, then the prow of the craft would dip toward China, and the rudder end bob up towards the moon; then the unfortunate sailor would go head foremost over the bows into the sand.

The Californians became convinced that if they continued their efforts to get the sailors to town on horseback, they would have several funerals on their hands, so they gathered up a number of ox carts, and loading the marines into carretas, propelled by long horned oxen, the twice-wrecked sailors were safely landed in Los Angeles.

Antonio Rocha was the owner of the largest house in the pueblo, the adobe that stood on the northwest corner of N. Spring and Franklin streets, and was used for many years after the American occupation for a court house and city hall. Antonio's heart was as big as his house, figuratively speaking and he generously entertained the whole shipwrecked crew. The fattest beeves were killed, the huge beehive-shaped oven was soon lighted, and servants were set to baking bread to feed the Christmas guests. Old man Lugo furnished the wine. The sailors ate and drank bumpers to their entertainer's health, and the horrors of shipwreck by sea and mustang were forgotten.


San Pedro was the scene of the only case of marooning known to have occurred on the California coast. Marooning was a diabolical custom or invention of the pirates of the Spanish Main. The process was as simple as it was horrible. When some unfortunate individual aboard the piratical craft had incurred the hatred of the crew or the master, he was placed in a boat and rowed to some barren island or desolate coast of the main land, and forced ashore, A bottle of water and a few biscuits were thrown him, the boat rowed back to the ship, and left him to die of hunger and thirst, or to rave out his existence under the maddening heat of a tropical sun.

In January, 1832, a small brig entered the bay of San Pedro and anchored. Next morning two passengers were landed from a boat on the barren strand. They were given two bottles of water and a few biscuit. The vessel sailed away leaving them to their fate. There was no habitation within thirty miles of the landing. Ignorant of the country, their fate might have been that of many another victim of marooning. An Indian, searching for shells, discovered them and conducted them to the Mission San Gabriel, where they were cared for. They were two Catholic priests, Bachelot and Short, who had been expelled from the Sandwich Islands on account of prejudice against their religion.

In the many sided drama of life of which San Pedro has been the theater, War has thrust his wrinkled front upon its stage. Its brown hills have echoed the tread of advancing and retreating armies, and its ocean cliffs have reverberated the boom of artillery. Here Micheltorena, the last of the Mexican born governors of California, after his defeat and abdication at Cahuenga, with his cholo army, was shipped back to Mexico.


Here Commodore Stockton landed his sailors and marines when in August, 1846, he came down the coast to capture Los Angeles. From San Pedro his sailors and marines began their victorious march, and, the conquest completed, they returned to their ships in the bay to seek new fields of conquest.

To San Pedro came Gillespie's men, after their disastrous experience with a Mexican revolution. Commodore Stockton had left Lieutenant Gillespie, with a garrison of fifty men to hold Los Angeles. Gillespie, so it is said, undertook to fashion the manners and customs of the Californians after a New England model. But he had not obtained the "consent of the governed" to the change, and they rebelled. Under the command of Flores and Vareles, three hundred strong, they besieged Gillespie's force on Fort Hill, and finally compelled the Americans to evacuate the city and retreat to San Pedro, where they went aboard a merchant vessel, and remained in the harbor. Down from Stockton's fleet came Mervine in the frigate Savannah, with 300 sailors and marines, intent on the capture of the rebellious pueblo. Once again San Pedro beheld the on-ward march of an army of conquest. But San Pedro saw another sight, "when the drums beat at dead of night." That other sight was the retreat of Mervine's men. They met the enemy at Dominguez, were defeated, and retreated, the wounded borne on litters, their dead on creaking carretas, and their flag left behind. Mervine buried his dead, five in all, on the Isla de Los Muertos, and then if not before it was an Island of Dead Men. Lieutenant Duvall, in his log book of the Savannah, speaking of the burial of the dead on Dead Man's Island, says it was "so named by us." In this he is mistaken. Ten years before, Dana, in his "Two Years Before the Mast," tells the story of the English sea captain, who died in the port and was buried on this small, dreary looking island, the only thing which broke the surface of the bay. Dana says: "It was the only spot in California that impressed me with anything like a poetic interest. Then, too, the man died far from home, without a friend near him, and without proper funeral rites, the mate (as I was told) glad to have him out of the way, hurrying him up the hill and into the ground without a word or a prayer." Dana calls the isle, "Dead Man's Island."


There are several legends told of how the island came by its gruesome name. This is the story an old Californian, who had been a sailor on a hide drogher, long before Dana's time, told me thirty odd years ago: Away back in the early years of the present century some fishermen found the dead body of an unknown white man on the island. There was evidence that he had reached it alive, but probably too weak to attempt the crossing of the narrow channel to the main land. He had clung to the desolate island, vainly hoping for succor, until hunger, thirst and exposure ended his existence. He was supposed to have fallen overboard at night from some smuggler, and to have been carried in by the tide. From the finding of the body on the island, the Spaniards named it Isla del Muerto, the Island of the Dead, or the Isle of the Corpse. It is to be regretted that the translating fiend has turned beautiful Spanish into gruesome English: Isla del Muerto, translated Dead Man's Island.

There have been ten persons in all buried on the island, nine men and one woman, namely: The lost sailor, the English sea captain, six of the Savannah's crew a passenger on a Panama ship in 1 851, and the last, a Mrs. Parker in 1855. Mrs. Parker was the wife of Captain Parker of the schooner Laura Bevain. Once when a fierce southeaster was threatening, and the harbor bar was moaning. Captain Parker sailed out of San Pedro bay. His fate was that of the "Three Fishers," who

"When sailing out into the west,
Out into the west as the sun went down.
And the night rack came rolling up ragged and brown;
But men must work and women must weep,
Though storms be sudden and waters be deep;

And the harbor bar was moaning." Nothing was ever seen or heard of the Laura Bevain from that day to this. The ship and its crew He at the bottom of the ocean. The captain's wife was stopping at the landing. She was slowly dying of consumption. Her husband's fate hastened her death. Rough but kindly hands performed the last officers for her, and she was buried on top of Dead Man's Island. The sea has not given up its dead, but the land has. This vanishing island, slowly but surely disappearing, has already exposed the bones of some of the dead buried on it.

At the time of the American conquest of California, San Pedro was a port of one house, no wharves stretched out over the waters of the great bay, no boats swung with the tide; nature's works were unchanged by the hand of man. Three hundred and five years be-fore Cabrillo, the discoverer of California, sailed into the bay he named Bahia de los Humos, the Bay of Smokes. Through all the centuries of Spanish domination no change had come over San Pedro. But with its new masters came new manners, new customs, new men. Commerce drifted in upon its waters unrestricted. The hide drogher gave place to the steamship, the carreta to the freight wagon, and the mustang caballada to the Concord stage.

Banning, the man of expedients, did business on the bluff at the old warehouse; Tomlinson, the man of iron nerve and will, had his commercial establishment at the point below on the inner bay. Banning and Tomlinson were rivals in staging, freighting, lighter-ing, warehousing and indeed in everything that pertained to shipping and transportation.

When stages were first put on in 1852, the fare between the port and the city was $10.00; later it was reduced to $7.50; then to $5.00. And when rivalry between Banning and Tomlinson was particularly keen, the fare went down to a dollar. Freight, from port to pueblo, by Temple & Alexander's Mexican ox carts, was $20 per ton, distance, thirty miles. Now it can be carried across the continent for that.

In 1858, partly in consequence of a severe storm, that damaged the wharf and partly through the desire of Banning to put a greater distance between himself and his rival, Tomlinson, he abandoned old San Pedro on the bluff and built a wharf and warehouse at the head of the San Pedro slough, six miles north of his former shipping point, and that much nearer to Los Angeles. The first cargo of goods was landed at this place October 1, 1858. The event was celebrated by an excursion from Los Angeles, and wine and wit flowed freely.

The new town or port was named New San Pedro, a designation it bore for several years, then it settled down to be Wilmington, named so after General Banning's birthplace, Wilmington, Delaware; and the slough took the name of the town. That genial humorist, the late J. Ross Browne, who visited Wilmington in 1864, thus portrays that historic seaport: "Banning, the active, energetic, irrepressible Phineas Banning, has built a town on the plain about six miles distant at the head of the slough. He calls it Wilmington, in honor of his birthplace. In order to bring Wilmington and the steamer as close together as circumstances will permit, he has built a small boat propelled by steam for the purpose of carrying passengers from steamer to Wilmington, and from Wilmington to steamer. Another small boat of a similar kind burst its boiler a couple of years ago, and killed and scalded a number of people, including Captain Seely, the popular and ever to be lamented commander of the Senator. The boiler of the present boat is considered a model of safety. Passengers may lean against it with perfect security. It is constructed after the pattern of a tea kettle, so that when the pressure is unusually great, the cover will rise and let off superabundant steam, and thus allow the crowd a change to swim ashore."

"Wilmington is an extensive city located at the head of a slough in a pleasant neighborhood of sand banks and marshes. There are not a great many houses in it as yet, but there is a great deal of room for houses when the population gets ready to build them. The streets are broad and beautifully paved with small sloughs, ditches, bridges, lumber, dry goods boxes and the carcasses of dead cattle. Ox bones and skulls of defunct cows, the legs and jaw-bones of horses, dogs, sheep, swine and coyotes are the chief ornaments of a public character; and what the city lacks in the elevation of its site, it makes up in the elevation of its water lines, many of them being higher than the surrounding objects. The city fathers are all centered in Banning, who is mayor, councilman, constable and watchman, all in one. He is the great progenitor of Wilmington. Touch Wilmington and you touch Banning. It is his specialty, the offspring of his genius. And a glorious genius has Phineas B. in his way! Who among the many thousand who have sought health and recreation at Los Angeles within the past ten years has not been the recipient of Banning's bounty in the way of accommodations? His stages are ever ready, his horses ever the fastest. Long life to Banning; may his shadow grow larger and larger every day! At all events I trust it may never grow less. I retract all I said about Wilmington, or most of it. I admit that it is a flourishing place compared with San Pedro. I am will-ing to concede that the climate is sulubrious at certain seasons of the year when the wind does not blow up sand; and at certain other seasons when the rain does not cover the country with water; and then again at other seasons when the earth is not parched by drought and scorching suns."

During the Civil war the government established Camp Drum and Drum Bannicks at Wilmington, and spent over a million dollars in erecting buildings. A considerable force of soldiers was stationed there and all the army supplies for the troops in Southern California, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico passed through the port. The Wilmingtonians waxed fat on government contracts and their town put on metropolitan airs. It was the great seaport of the south, the toll gatherer of the slough. After the railroad from Los Angeles was completed to Wilmington in 1869, all the trade and travel of the southwest passed through it and they paid well for doing so. It cost the traveler a dollar and a half to get from ship to shore on one of Banning's tugs and the lighterage charges that prevailed throttled commerce with the tightening grasp of the Old Man of the Sea.

In 1880, or thereabouts, the railroad was extended down to San Pedro and wharves built there. Then commerce left the mud flats of Wilmington and drifted back to its old moorings. The town fell into a decline. Banning, its great progenitor, died, and the memory of the olden time commercial importance of that once historic seaport lingers only in the minds of the oldest inhabitants.

AHGP California

Source: Annual publication of the Historical Society of Southern California and Pioneer register, Los Angeles, Part I. Vol. V.,1900


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