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

November 26, 2013

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 http://clerk.lacity.org/CityArchivesandRecordsCenter/index.htm.

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. 

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