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Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor, 1880 – 1942


Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor is a new book that examines the people of the San Pedro Bay Islands that have been lost to time and the stories that have disappeared into the ether of commercial development. The book includes never before published images and information about Terminal Island that may prove revelatory to those interested in Los Angeles History.

In the first half of the book, author Geraldine Knatz revives the resort communities of Brighton and Terminal Beach that once flourished in Los Angeles Harbor. These histories are given dimension as Knatz re-discovers some of Los Angeles’ brightest artists and intellectuals who called Terminal Island home between 1880 and 1929.

In the second half of the book, author Naomi Hirahara examines the Japanese Fishing Village, Furusato and the vibrant community that thrived on the island prior to World War II. Hirahara resuscitates the spirit of the community by giving the reader a glimpse of its uniquely Japanese-American culture and relays the personal stories that made it home.

terminalisland2600Terminal Island, showing the bathhouse at the center of the Island, circa 1905

The book is available for purchase at the Japanese-American Museum, Los Angeles Maritime Museum, Point Fermin Lighthouse, and San Pedro Bay Historical Society. It is also part of the collection at the Los Angeles Public Library.


Cavalcade (1933): The Port of Los Angeles becomes Noel Cowards’ England

By Nicholas Beyelia0522-B Film Shoot at Berth 145, October 19, 1932. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection, 0-522B

A couple of weeks ago, I had the task of identifying this image from our collection. It’s a film shoot and the only information available was that the shoot took place in 1932 and it involved the Fox Film Corporation. After some creative searching, I identified the movie in question: Cavalcade (1933). For those that are unfamiliar with the film, Cavalcade is an adaptation of a 1931 Noël Coward play that focused on the lives of a family in England.  It was directed by Frank Lloyd and featured English actors Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook.  The story has been regarded as the prototype for the popular television shows Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. To the best of my knowledge, Cavalcade is the only movie made at the Port that has the distinction of being given an Academy Award® for Best Picture.


On October 19, 1932 Fox Film Corporation (later 20th Century Fox) shot exteriors for the film at Berth 145-146 in Wilmington. The scene featured a crowd of extras seeing soldiers off as they were being transported to the Boer War in South Africa.  Any indications that the events took place outside of England were completely obscured: the camera was kept low so Port of Los Angeles signs would not be seen and several false structures were built for the shoot.  The terminal where the scene was filmed was newly constructed and was awaiting a permanent tenant; within a matter of months the Grace and Calmar Steamship lines occupied the space.

Some Close-ups: Fox Film Trucks: 0522-B - Copy1 A glimpse of extras in uniform: 0522-B - Copy2 See the scene for yourself:

Cavalcade premiered in January, 1933 (wide release in April) to great acclaim.  New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall wrote that the film “is a most affecting and impressive picture…” and, in addition to the Best Picture prize, Cavalcade also won Academy Awards® for and Direction (Lloyd) and Art Direction (William S. Darling). The Academy Award is a registered trademark of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences-©A.M.P.A.S.®

San Pedro Bay’s Seaside Slammer

By Andrea Serna

A copyAerial photograph of Reservation Point at the south end of Terminal Island, containing the Federal Prison, Immigration Station, and U.S. Coast Guard Base, December 1, 1970.  Image CG-0473, Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives. 

Considering the multitude of stoic concrete buildings lining Terminal Island, it can be easy to overlook the large federal correctional institute located on the island’s west side.  The Board of Harbor Commissioners’ meeting minutes and the Los Angeles Times indicate that construction of the prison began in 1936.  The facility received its first inmates in June 1938, initially housing approximately 600 men and 25 women (the prison remained gender-integrated during its various reincarnations until the ban enacted in 1977).  As a consequence of increasing American involvement in World War II, the prison’s inmates were relocated so the U.S. Navy could make use of the facilities as housing quarters and receiving station.  Additionally, following the Pearl Harbor attack, the complex was used as a temporary detention and interrogation station, holding numerous Japanese and Japanese-American men, as well as some men of Italian and German backgrounds.  The Los Angeles Times reports that the Navy continued to use the facilities as disciplinary barracks post-war until 1950.  At this time, the state reclaimed the structures, which were then briefly used as a hospital for the criminally insane.  In 1955 the state decided to reopen the prison as a medium-security correctional institute.  Beginning in the 1970s, the prison increasingly accommodated white-collar criminals.

B copyWomen’s Division Special Committee of the Chamber of Commerce visit the Federal Correction Institution on Terminal Island, August 5, 1965.  Image PR-58-6-1, Public Relations Photograph Collection, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives.

Due to its location, the history of the Terminal Island prison has been inevitably intertwined with that of the Port of Los Angeles.  From 1938 through 1943, the prison’s employees and visitors factored into the harbor area’s traffic and transportation debates, including the need for a ferry and for restrictions on parking zones.  From 1947 through 1950, the police department and Harbor Commissioners undertook negotiations for the property transfer from the Navy to the state, and then again in 1953 when the facility was placed under county jurisdiction.  The Board of Harbor Commissioners was also involved in ruling on issues such as prison service contractors’ requests for free use of the ferry and on the construction of nearby leisure marinas, both of which were denied.  As the Los Angeles Times reveals, there were several instances in which prisoners took advantage of nearby Port amenities, such as boats and trucks, to make an escape—placing a leisure marina near the correctional facility would have meant tempting inmates and risking public safety.

Terminal Island’s prison is known to have housed numerous notorious criminals.  Infamous mobster Al Capone was among the prison’s earliest inmates, serving a brief 11-month stint for tax evasion in 1939.  Capone claimed to have found God while staying at Terminal Island.  Charles Manson also served time on Terminal Island for two minor offenses in 1967, prior to his killing rampage.  Mobster Salvatore Bonanno, served just a little over three years on Terminal Island.  In 1975, peace activist Martha Tranquilli served seven months for her refusal to pay taxes, which she claimed was part of her protest against war.  Writer and actor Edward Bunker served two years on Terminal Island, in the mid-1970s, where he authored No Beast So Fierce, later adapted into the film Straight Time.  Additionally, in 1973 G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame spent five months at the facility.

C copyWomen’s Division Special Committee of the Chamber of Commerce visit the prison classroom at the Federal Correction Institution on Terminal Island, August 5, 1965.  Image PR-58-6-4, Public Relations Photograph Collection, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives.

In addition to housing notable inmates, the Terminal Island prison has also made headlines for its innovative programs.  In the 1960s and ‘70s, the correctional institute participated in numerous progressive programs intended to rehabilitate and help transition its non-violent inmates back into society.  One such program, in cooperation with selected educational institutes and employers, allowed qualifying inmates to leave the prison grounds daily for a certain amount of time to attend college classes or maintain a paying job.  Moreover, the prison itself is reported to still have adequate classrooms where various courses are taught, ranging from literature to economics.   The prison’s education and technical skill initiatives, particularly the writing program, were featured in several Los Angeles Times issues.  Despite its merits and permissiveness, the prison had no shortage of escape attempts—some prisoners bribed guards only to attend Dodger baseball games every so often while others simply wanted to make a swift and permanent getaway.  In the 1970s and ‘80s, the prison had its share of controversies when numerous guards were accused and found guilty of extortion, drug dealing, and facilitating escapes.

The prison continues to operate as an all-male minimum security federal correctional institute, housing mostly nonviolent white-collar criminals.  Due to the present caliber of the prison’s inmates, it is often jokingly referred to as the Terminal Island Resort.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website states its current population at 1,129 inmates.

Andrea Serna is a Student Professional Worker at The Port of Los Angeles Archives. She is currently working on her M.A. in History at California State University, Los Angeles.

Digging Into Harbor History: Albert A. Boschke, The Port’s First Dredging Contractor

By Geraldine Knatz

ABPhoto of Albert A. Boschke, Courtesy of his great-great-great-granddaughter, Sherie Drew.

In the early days of the Port of Los Angeles, there were several islands in the harbor. Today, where the West Basin Container Terminal (China Shipping and Yang Ming) is located in Wilmington, was an Island that was known as Smith’s Island.  In some late 19th century records, it was also called Boschke’s Island. Much of the island was underwater at high tide and the swampy wetland area around the island was known as Boschke Slough.   The island and the slough were named after Prussian-born Albert Boschke, an engineer and inventor who came to California to work on the first Army Corps of Engineers dredging project in the Port of Los Angeles.

Born in 1832, Albert Boschke began his career working for the U.S. Coast Survey office in Washington DC where he undertook surveys of many ports including New York, Brooklyn and Boston. In addition to being a surveyor, Boschke was an inventor and filed patents for improvements to dredging equipment.  In 1871 the Army Corps of Engineers began to make improvements to deepen the entrance into Wilmington Harbor which at mean low tide was less than 2 feet deep. The Corps believed that construction of jetties constricting the tidal flow would scour the channel resulting in channel depth of about ten feet. The concept almost worked. Construction of the East Jetty naturally deepened the channel to nearly 6 feet deep.   But the natural action of the tides was insufficient to remove the sand bar that constricted vessel access.

SmithsIsDigitally enhanced map of San Pedro Bay, circa 1890.  Boschke (Smith Island) is highlighted in purple.  Object ID 278-H.  Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives.

On July 23, 1874, a contract was given to Mr. A. Boschke for dredging a channel across the sand bar. Boschke was to mobilize his equipment and start removing the bar on September 15th, 1875. After two time extensions, he started his sand pumps on October 16, 1875.  But the project was troubled by equipment failures.  An 1875 Army Corps report states “He worked along doing little or nothing for about a month when he broke down entirely and took off his machinery.” Beset by difficulties in removing the bar, Boschke decided to build a new dredge. He resumed dredging on Feb 5, 1876 and worked slowly and steadily to deepen the channel.

Boschke and his wife Martha had moved to California from Massachusetts with his two sons Albert and George from a previous marriage. The 1880 census shows Boschke living with his wife Martha in Wilmington along with George and two  additional children born to Albert and  Martha named Benjamin (or Guy) and Ida.  Harbor Department records of old agreements  show a transaction between Joseph B. Banning and Albert Boschke  for 5 and 1/3 acres  “of the tract of land known as Boschke’s Island,”  for the sum of $5.00 that sale being recorded July 22, 1895. Boschke built a home and garden on the island.

BosIsAlbert Boschke home on Boschke Island in the late 1880’s. Albert’s wife Martha is standing behind the fence holding a hat over the fence.  Sitting on the bow of the boat on the left is Albert Boschke’s son Benjamin (or Guy) and daughter Ida is sitting in the boat on the right. Courtesy of San Pedro Bay Historical Society

In 1890 Boschke became a director of the Harbor and Canal Dredging and Land Company which was capitalized with 1 million in stock. The Boschke-designed improvements for dredging equipment helped him build a reputation in the dredging field. The Boschke Rotary Steam Shovel Dredger was designed so when a hard substrate was encountered, rather than smashing the shovels, the machinery was released. In addition,  the hub of the wheel of the dredge was stationary so it would avoid tangling with submerged grasses.

rssdPhoto of Boschke Rotary Steam Shovel Dredge from Steam Shovel and Dredge, Vol. 13, p. 583, 1909.

In 1891, when Albert was in Northern California on business, the oil lamp in Ida’s bedroom exploded.  Ida was seriously burned on the face and arms and Martha Boschke’s mother, Mrs. Henderson, was killed. The fire department was unable to get their hose cart on to the island as the only access was via railroad trestle and their house on the island burned to the ground.

In the year 1900 Albert Boschke was 78 years old and living in Alameda County with a 47 year old widowed daughter, Auvergne Astor, and two boarders. Census records for that year indicate that he was a widower but wife Martha was still alive! She also listed herself in the 1900 census as a widow living in Wilmington. One might surmise they had marital difficulty!

Albert Boschke died in the year 1910. At the time of his death, Auvergne Astor was named executor of his estate which consisted primarily of patent rights and stock in companies organized to build and operate dredges.  His son Albert Boschke, the chief engineer for the Oregon railway, said at his father’s death that the estate was worth more than a million dollars. Martha, now qualified to call herself a widow, her step-children Albert and George, and children Guy and Ida filed a legal objection to Auvergne Astor as executor. Albert and George charged that Auvergne Astor was not Boschke’s daughter and a fellow engineer testified that he had seen Astor threaten Boschke with a dagger. Auvergne stated under oath she did not know who her mother was but she always knew Albert Boschke was her father.  She also admitted to having lived in Oakland, California under the name Abby Holton. She stated in court she intentionally concealed her identify so not to upset Albert’s wife Martha. Despite the testimony that Astor may have been a fake, paternity does not play a role in determining a will’s executor and the court ruled in favor of Astor. In 1920, Auvergne Astor was living alone in Oakland, California and working as a secretary for a dredging company. Martha Boschke moved to Terminal Island and stayed there until her death in 1928 at the age of 86.

MarthaMartha Boschke, wife of Albert A. Boschke, Courtesy of Sherie Drew.

Albert’s two sons, Albert Lincoln and George, followed their father’s footsteps into engineering. Army Corps records for the Wilmington Harbor work show that in 1884 Assistant Engineer Albert Boschke relieved Assistant Engineer A. J. Smith. George continued in his engineering career working for the Southern Pacific Railroad.  After the devastating hurricane of 1900 killed approximately 8000 thousand residents in Galveston, George was selected to build the seawall at the Port of Galveston.

There is nothing today that remains of the 1870’s Corps project in Los Angeles and there is  no monument to Albert Boschke at the Port of Los Angeles. George Boschke is, however, memorialized by the Port of Galveston for the seawall that is still standing.

GBMemThe Monument to the Galveston seawall, designed by George W. Boschke and built from 1902 to 1904, was designated a National Civil Engineering Landmark in 2001 by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Courtesy of Sherie Drew.


By Nicholas Beyelia

0610-I - Copy Circus elephant being loaded onto the S.S. Sea Centaur bound for Honolulu at Berth 159, December 12, 1946. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection, 610-I. 

The above image of the elephant being loaded onto a cargo ship is among the most cherished images that exist in our photograph collection. The image has been featured on a number of Harbor Department publications and has drawn a lot of questions about animals at the Port of Los Angeles throughout the years. The fact is, Los Angeles Harbor has been the destination for an assortment of unpredictable and unusual goods including animals.  At its peak, fauna accounted for as much as 6,600 tons of the cargo imported/exported into Los Angeles Harbor.  Most of these numbers were, of course, related to livestock raised for commercial purposes, but a small number included exotic animals, like our elephant friend, bound for zoos, pet shops, circuses and even Hollywood movies.

In 1958, the Bombay Sentinel reported that a number of animals were brought to the Port on behalf of businessman Louis Goebel. Goebel was the owner of Jungleland USA, a theme park in Thousand Oaks, California.  The article reported that 22 zebras from Kenya startled dockworkers with their “cantankerous” nature: “For a few moments the handlers expected a stampede through the crowded docks. But the sturdy crates withstood the violent kicking and the disgruntled zebras were safely delivered to Goebel’s animal farm.”  In June 1964, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner featured a similar story of animals being imported for Goebel’s menagerie. The article opened by declaring that the crew had “really earned their pay today” and proceeded to explain that 20 “haughty” camels proved to be the cause of distress for a number of San Pedro longshoremen; the workers were spit upon as they struggled to lead the “reluctant immigrants” to a quarantine station. The Sentinel story did, however, note that the more peaceable animals like ostriches and wallabies managed to charm even the most hardened dockworkers.

camel2Camel being unloaded from a ship ca.1940. Courtesy Los Angeles Harbor Department Graphics Division.

Most of the animals that arrived at the Port were destined for zoos throughout the United States.  The Bombay Sentinel reported in June, 1958 that Dr. Charles Schroeder, Director of the San Diego Zoo, arrived at the Port of Los Angeles to greet 400 birds, reptiles and animals being shipped from Australia to the Port of Los Angeles on board the Matson Navigation Company’s freighter, Sierra. The animals, bound for the San Diego Zoo, included Tasmanian devils, wombats and dingoes; however, the star of the bunch was a rare New Guinea “yodeling” dog.  Schroeder was particularly elated to see this singing dog and told the press “this is the first time the breed has been seen outside the island of New Guinea and Australia.”

Nearly 10 years earlier, the Los Angeles Times reported that American President Line freighter S.S. President Grant unloaded 2500 animals from Siam [Thailand] including six baby elephants, four honey bears, 180 monkeys, 14 gibbons, 4 Siamese golden cats, 1900 birds and 100 snakes; the Times stated that most of these arrivals were bound for zoos and aviaries throughout California as well as New York and even New Hampshire; sadly, the paper also mentioned that a number of the monkeys were bound for test labs. Smaller stories about the transit of zoo animals were peppered throughout the press over the decades including a 1964 report from the Long Beach Press Telegram that showed polar bears being loaded on a ship bound for Peru. The accompanying caption explained the bears were being transferred from the San Diego Zoo to the Lima Zoo and were accompanied by 15 lbs. of food.

The Sentinel interviewed Port of Los Angeles Traffic Manager, J.F. Parkinson, who informed the paper that the number of animals transported through the port in 1958 would likely surpass the previous year. Parkinson went on to tell the reporter that the most unusual animal he had seen pass through the Port was a pair of Komodo Dragons; he added that he was unlikely to see them again since “the Dutch East Indies Government placed a ban on their export to prevent the species from becoming extinct.”

Currently, the transport of animals through the Port of Los Angeles is somewhat of an anomaly.  Since the switch to container-based shipping, most companies do not offer the sort of accommodations necessary to transfer animals safely across the ocean.  According to the Port of Los Angeles Wharfinger Division, the last time any animals arrived at the Port was 2007.

Special thanks to Port of Los Angeles staff members Jennifer Mosher and Jim Holdaway for their assistance with this post.

Nicholas Beyelia is a Student Professional Worker at the Port of Los Angeles Archives. He holds a M.A. in History from California State University, Los Angeles and is an M.L.I.S candidate at San Jose State University

Wilmington’s Pink Palace: The Matson Cruise Terminal, 1953 – 1985

by Nicholas Beyelia

matsonAn image of the Matson Terminal taken from a departing ship ca. 1955. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Community History Collection,  2012.29.04

Matson Inc. is a familiar entity here in the Harbor Area. The Matson Company, which now calls the Port of Long Beach its Southern California home, has been involved with the transport of commercial goods for well over 100 years.  While Matson’s business is currently related to container based transport of commercial goods, it was, at one point, known for luxurious passenger services that traveled to exotic destinations throughout the Pacific.  From 1953 through the late 1960s, Matson Navigation Inc. operated passenger services to Hawaii and the South Pacific at the Port of Los Angeles from Berth 195-198. The terminal’s Mediterranean-inspired aesthetic and vivid pink hue made it an object of fascination for both the public and the Harbor Department, which promoted it as “Matson Terminal – The World’s Finest.”

The Matson Company occupied a total of 48 acres along the East Basin in Wilmington; this area included the terminal, a 26 acre parking lot and an adjacent 200 ft. shed, just northeast of the terminal.  The terminal operated along a 1649 ft. wharf and was designed and constructed by the Los Angeles Harbor Department. The building’s style reflected elements of Mediterranean Revival that were common to Southern California architecture, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century.

The building itself had dual facades: a southwest entrance at Berth 195 and a northeast entrance at Berth 198. The Northeast corner of the structure housed administrative operations for the Matson Company; it was three stories high and had a large tower with clocks on both the north and east side of the tower.  The West façade of the terminal at Berth 195 served as the ‘main’ entrance and featured an imposing cupola that would greet visitors driving in from Wilmington. The building was painted a distinct shade of pink referred to in Harbor Department publications as “coral.”

0066-MMatson Terminal Entrance at Berth 198, June 30, 1953. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection, 0066-M. 

0044-M Matson Terminal Entrance at Berth 195, June 9, 1953. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection,0044-M.

The mezzanine level of the terminal functioned as a waiting area that allowed both passengers and guests seeing them off to interact.  The main (interior) waiting area was decorated in a classic mid-century modern style replete with wall-to-wall terrazzo flooring.  The exterior waiting area was a 120-foot concourse that overlooked the East Channel of the harbor.

0121-MThe Main Waiting Room at the Mezzanine level on opening weekend, July 11, 1953.  Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection, 0121-M.

On June 28, 1950, while still in the planning stages, the Matson Company made an inquiry with Los Angeles Harbor General Manager, Arthur Eldridge, to see if a helicopter landing pad was possible at the location site. The Matson Company cited Los Angeles Times reports that indicated helicopter taxi services were on the verge of booming, and constructing a landing pad “would be a step forward and in keeping with increased development in this type of service.”  The landing pad was included in the final design and was located in the parking lot just north of the terminal.

Opening weekend ceremonies took place July 11-13, 1953 and were initiated by the arrival of the S.S. Lurline, Matson’s premiere liner.  The Los Angeles Times reported that Miss Virginia Tibbetts of Hawaii acted as “official hostess” of the events and noted the ceremonies were “highlighted by a long distance address” from Vice President Richard M. Nixon to newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Norris Paulson via a “gold” telephone. Farrant L. Turner, Secretary of Hawaii, and Randolph Sevier, President of Matson Navigation Company, attended the ceremonies and sent letters to the Harbor Commission that indicated their gratitude for the festivities and their continued enthusiasm regarding future exchanges.

The terminal remained active throughout the 1950s and became an important fixture in Harbor Department publicity. The initial publicity campaign touted the terminal as the “World’s Finest” and expounded on its “modern” amenities including motor operated cargo ramps, acoustical tile ceilings, linoleum floors, venetian blinds and a kitchenette for Matson employees that was “fully equipped with electrical appliances for every need.”  The terminal would later be featured on the cover of the 1958-1959 Annual Report as well as more ephemeral items like postcards and matchbooks.

AR5859The 1958- 1959 Annual Report shows the southern side of the terminal that faced the East Basin.

Cruise line passenger services remain popular, however, passenger numbers have fallen dramatically since the first half of the twentieth century when they were at their peak; the Matson Terminal was, ultimately, a victim of this downturn.  By the start of the 1960s, air travel was proving to be both faster and increasingly affordable leading many to choose an airline rather than board a cruise liner.  Matson Inc., feeling this shift, began to focus on the expanding container shipping industry and, by 1970, they had withdrawn their last passenger ship from service.

The Cruise Terminal was repainted white in the 1970s and became a popular location for television and commercial film shoots. The Harbor Department actively sought new tenants for the facility but, unfortunately, it lay abandoned throughout much of the 1970s and early 1980s. Despite hopes for its return to operations, the Matson Terminal was demolished in 1985 to make way for active commercial ventures.  The site was eventually leased to WWL Vehicle Services Americas, Inc., a company responsible for the processing of and logistics associated with imported automobiles; WWL continues to make use of the property.

Nicholas Beyelia is a Student Professional Worker at The Port of Los Angeles Archives. He holds a M.A. in History from California State University, Los Angeles and is an M.L.I.S candidate at San Jose State University

Homer Hamlin Globetrotting Engineer: Planning Los Angeles Harbor 1907 – 1912

By Nicholas Beyelia

RotterdamRotterdam Harbor, 1911. Image 48 – “Report Upon Investigation of Eastern and Foreign Harbors, 1912.” Courtesy Los Angeles City Archives. C. Erwin Piper Technical Center

Part of being an archivist is understanding the context in which archival materials were created. When I started at the Port of Los Angeles Archives, one of my first projects was to process our collection of maps from the Engineering Division. After my initial evaluation, I noticed the name “Homer Hamlin” on nearly every map and blueprint we had. I knew, of course, that this meant I would have to learn who Hamlin was and what role he played in harbor development.  A year later, I have become fairly proficient on the subject of Mr. Hamlin and how he factored into the history of the Port of Los Angeles.  One of the more interesting discoveries I made was that Hamlin made a trip around the world for the benefit of the Port of Los Angeles.

Following the initial hurdle of Free Harbor Fight in the 1890s and the establishment of The Harbor Commission (1907) to govern the Port of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Harbor was on its way to becoming a fully operating commercial port.  Despite these milestones, the Port still had no permanent municipal facilities that could accommodate commerce.  The next step in the development of the Port of Los Angeles would have to involve the planning and development of modern structures and facilities that could handle the onslaught of commercial traffic.  More importantly, plans had to be in place and construction underway before the conclusion of a gargantuan project nearly 4000 miles away: The Panama Canal.  Municipal planning of Los Angeles Harbor would, therefore, have to be both extensive and thorough.

Homer Hamlin was the primary individual in charge of planning the Port of Los Angeles for commercial purposes.  Hamlin served as Los Angeles City Engineer from 1906 through 1917 and, according to The Los Angeles Herald, was officially appointed as engineer in charge of harbor improvements on September 8, 1909 by the Board of Public Works.  A 1911 amendment to the existing City Charter (Article XVI, Sect 174) formalized the responsibilities of the City Engineer to serve as ex-officio Harbor Engineer and “in addition to his duties otherwise prescribed in this Charter, he shall perform such engineering and surveying necessary for the public work done under the direction or supervision of the board [The Board of Harbor Commissioners], as said board may require.”  In this particular case, it would mean that Hamlin would be required to travel to inspect, evaluate and compare the strengths and weaknesses of operating commercial harbors and their facilities.

HomerHomer Hamlin, c.1907

As early as 1909, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce suggested that Hamlin be sent abroad to study more established commercial harbors. This suggestion prompted the Los Angeles Times to joke that Hamlin’s inevitable visit to Europe was to “look over the fall styles in deep-sea harbors.” September, 1911, the Bureau of Harbor Improvement decided to ask the City Council to appropriate $1500 for Hamlin’s trip. The Los Angeles Times reported shortly thereafter that “In order that Los Angeles harbor may have the very latest in harbor and wharf improvements, City Engineer Hamlin will be sent on a junketing trip to the principal harbors of the country.” The Times explained that his duties during the trip included determining “what improvements are necessary before the plans for the proposed wharves are completed.” On September 30, 1911 Hamlin applied for a passport in Los Angeles that was to be sent to the Hotel Belmont in New York. From New York, Hamlin traveled to a number of international ports to inspect the facilities and make determinations that would ultimately be adapted to help modernize Los Angeles Harbor.

HHPassportAppHamlin’s passport application, 1911. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925; Collection Number: ARC Identifier 583830 / MLR Number A1 534; NARA Series: M1490; Roll #: 147.

During his trip, Hamlin inspected the harbors of New York, Montreal, Boston, Baltimore, Liverpool, Antwerp, Hamburg, and Rotterdam (among others).  Hamlin took extensive notes on his observations and supplemented them with photographs. Hamlin returned to New York from Liverpool on the infamous R.M.S. Lusitania, December 15, 1911. Shortly after his return to Los Angeles, Hamlin submitted a 38-page report to the Advisory Board for the Bureau of Harbor Improvement and the Los Angeles City Council.

HHReport“Report Upon Investigation of Eastern and Foreign Harbors, 1912.” by Homer Hamlin. Courtesy Los Angeles City Archives. C. Erwin Piper Technical Center

AntwerpPort of Antwerp, 1911.  Image 50 – “Report Upon Investigation of Eastern and Foreign Harbors, 1912.” Courtesy of Los Angeles City Archives. C. Erwin Piper Technical Center

On January 15, 1912 Stoddard Jess, one of the Harbor Commissioners reported the following: “…with the return of City Engineer Hamlin from his investigations of harbors, both in this country and abroad, and with the money that should be forthcoming next month from the sale of bonds, the time has arrived for the inauguration of an active campaign in harbor development.”  It was under Hamlin’s direction that Port planning and development commenced and would result in the completion of the first municipal wharf at The Port of Los Angeles in 1914.

The images and report for Homer Hamlin’s 1911 trip are held by the Los Angeles City Archives, C. Erwin Piper Technical Center, 555 Ramirez Street, Space 320, CA 90012. All images reproduced with permission. To view Hamlin’s report and photos please contact The City of Los Angeles Archives at (213) 473-2441, or visit

Nicholas Beyelia is a Student Professional Worker at The Port of Los Angeles Archives. He holds an M.A. in History from California State University, Los Angeles and is an M.L.I.S candidate at San Jose State University.