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Port History -  The People

Learn about the people who founded the Port and the people who count themselves among the thousands of Los Angelinos who made their living at the Port.

Father of Los Angeles Harbor

Phinneas Banning
Phinneas Banning

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, in 1857, Banning founded a small town adjacent to the wharf, which was built to serve his business empire. He named the town Wilmington, after his hometown in Delaware. Among his other achievements, 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.

In 1869, the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad began service between the bay and Los Angeles. 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 industry became dominant.

Men constructing railroad at Berths 147-148
Men constructing railroad at Berths 147-148

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. However, 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 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.

John C. Walker
John C. Walker

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 political offices 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. This decision effectively dashed plans for port development further up the coast and set the stage for the modern era of the Port.