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The Hermits of Terminal Island – Part I: The Tale of Tommy Leggett

September 5, 2013

by Geraldine Knatz, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles

[San Pedro fisherman, ca. 1920s]Tommy Leggett, ca. 1900. Courtesy, California Historical Society. CHS2013.II84

Tommy Leggett lived a solitary existence. Born in England about 1846 -1848, it’s not clear what brought him to the Port of Los Angeles. It was believed he was a prospector along the Missouri River but his early life is a mystery. He must have had some education because he became a naturalized citizen in 1870 in Ohio, and registered to vote in Los Angeles in 1879. He first squatted on Mormon Island around 1876 where the Banning family saw to it that he was furnished with water and wood. A 1883 map of Rattlesnake Island from the Huntington Library collection shows a lone dot with the name “Legget” just across from Mormon Island. Living by his wits as a fisherman, he staked out a spot on Rattlesnake Island to be his own. But a hermit’s life is one shifted by the tide of progress. He then moved to Timms’ Point. Unfortunately, the Southern Pacific Railroad had plans for that area. On April 20th, 1899, Los Angeles Sheriff Burr was dispatched to San Pedro to remove squatters from Timms’ Point, including Tommy Leggett. An offer of a wood cabin in East San Pedro, on the old East Jetty or “old Breakwater” as it was known, enticed him back to Rattlesnake Island, now known as Terminal Island.

Moving to East San Pedro must have felt like a move to the big city for Tommy. He had neighbors! Rows of cabins on the old breakwater were occupied by an eclectic group of locals and Los Angeles weekend visitors. It was a stroke of luck for Tommy to be two doors down from Charles Lummis’ weekend home the “Jib-o-Jib.” Lummis befriended Tommy and often mentioned him in his detailed diary. Lummis described “Uncle Tommy” as one of the “gentlest, most unselfish and most lovable of neighbors.” Lummis would often invite musicians over to his weekend home on the breakwater and Tommy would come listen to the music. Tommy would share his catch with the Lummis family.

Tommy lived by his wits, and sustained himself by the bounty of the sea. At night he would take his boat out for a 10- to 12-mile run, dragging his nets, getting back early the next morning. He scraped by, earning a few dollars here or there, selling fish and investing it in nets. That didn’t set too well with the Department of Fish and Game, who issued a complaint against him in February 1900 for fishing without a license. Hermits just don’t get fishing licenses.

Then in 1908, the cough started. He couldn’t shake it. He began to lose weight. He left the island for a higher altitude moving to an isolated shanty in the foothills north of Los Angeles. He realized he was not getting any better. With no one to take care of him, he returned to the island. Lummis recalls coming home on Friday May 21, 1909 and finding Tommy wandering around the tall grass where he photographed him.  A few weeks later, on June 6th 1909, Tommy made the society pages of the Los Angeles Times, as a guest of Charles Lummis.  Tommy along with Miss Idah Meecham Strohbridge, Mrs. Norman St. Clair and others were entertained by a member of the Ethel Barrymore Company, Mr. Arthur Elliott.

Tommy died in his cabin on the old breakwater in East San Pedro the night of July 14, 1909. His neighbors made an inventory of his worldly possessions which consisted of 33 used fishing nets valued at $330 and 14 new nets valued at $400, some saws, two shotguns, a stove, cooking utensils and two shirts. Besides the nets the most valuable possession on the inventory was the value of his cabin and his “claim” for the patch of the old breakwater he squatted on: $250. He died before he would learn that the claim was worth nothing. All his neighbors signed the inventory list: Charles Lummis, Carl Jorgensen, Charles Turner, I.W. Xson[sic], Lillian and Albert Long.

No one was sure how old Tommy was when he died. The San Pedro newspaper reported that when Tommy died he was the oldest resident of San Pedro at over 60 years of age. As is sometimes the case when hermits pass on, he left a bank account.  According to a newspaper report he was buried at Harbor View Cemetery in San Pedro but there is no record there of his burial.

The photograph displayed here was taken by Helen Luken Jones who later became Helen Lukens Gaut.  She was the daughter of Theodore Lukens who served as Mayor of Pasadena. Jones was a writer living in Pasadena who sent her work to Ansel Adams for review. Her photographic negatives are held by the Pasadena Museum of Art.  Lummis’s photographs of Tommy Leggett are in the Braun Library in Los Angeles.


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  1. Alan H. Simon permalink

    This article is a nice start for your blog. In his wildest dreams Mr. Leggett could not have fathomed that he would be remembered so many years later, let alone be part of a fascinating electronic dissemination of his image and story. I join Tommy Leggett in thanking you for doing this.

    Alan H. Simon
    Hollywood Heritage board member

    • Geraldine Knatz permalink

      Thank You Alan. Since I wrote this I found out so much more about this guy too. Geraldine

  2. Craig Hendricks permalink

    Well done, a great start to your blog. Apparently there was an on-going community of some size on both sides of San Pedro bay, from the 1880s to the 1920s. The local press in Long Beach has several stories from the early 1920s about “squatters” being evicted from their long time houses on the bluffs along the bay when the city or some enterprise wanted the land for development.

    Craig Hendricks
    Long Beach City College

    • Geraldine Knatz permalink

      Craig- just saw that there were comments on the first blog post. Thanks for taking the time- it helps to know people are reading it. Yes, I am finding a ton of material on the community of East San Pedro

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