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

January 21, 2014

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.


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  1. Researchers of mid 19th century Washington, DC have long relied on Mr. Boschke’s legendary “Topographical map of the District of Columbia / surveyed in the years 1856 ’57 ’58 & ’59 by A. Boschke; engraved by D. McClelland, Washington, D.C.”

    There are several mentions of Boschke in Washington’s Evening Star newspaper starting with the May 11, 1857 (p. 3) edition which mentions publication of this map. The Library of Congress link to the map is 18

    Does anyone know Albert Boschke is buried? I would like to pay my respects on my next trip to California!

  2. Geraldine Knatz permalink

    Jerry- Yes, I am aware of Boschke’s map of District of Columbia. I had that information in this piece but it was getting too long so I deleted it and kept it to the information about the port. I have made a connection to the Boschke family so i will ask where he is buried and get back to you. Geraldine

  3. Geraldine Knatz permalink

    Albert passed away at A.L. Astor’s home in Piedmont, California. He is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, CA.

    This article from the San Francisco Call, Volume 107, Number 120, 30 March 1910 provides some of that information.——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——#

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