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San Pedro Bay’s Little-Known Whaling History

by Andrea Serna

913-AWhale carcasses on a barge near Berth 148, January 23, 1930. Image 913-A, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photographic Collection.

Whale watching has become one of the most popular pastimes in and around the South Bay and whales remain among the most beloved aquatic creatures in the harbor community. So it may come as a shocking surprise that the area was once home to a thriving whaling industry. Whaling within the vicinity of San Pedro Bay was prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whaling vessels used the harbor area as a base and outfitting center.

Regional whalers practiced shore whaling, which differed from traditional East coast whaling in technique. Lookouts stood on high points along the shore and once they spotted a whale, they used flags to signal their company’s boat and guide them toward the whale. Southern California provided optimal conditions for shore whalers—sunny weather with excellent visibility, mild sea conditions, and access to flocks of migrating whales.

In the late 19th century, whales were hunted for their blubber, which was used to make soap, lamp oil, and axle grease. Whale bones were incorporated into fashion items like corset stays, combs, collar stiffeners, and parasol ribs. Additionally, whalers profited from displaying catches as tourist attractions for a few days, until the carcass began to emit an unbearable odor. It was then removed and processed.

931-ALifting a 50 ton whale at Los Angeles Shipbuilding Company, January 27, 1930.  Image 931-A, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photographic Collection.

Though catches brought attractive profits, whaling was a dangerous business. Whalers risked broken equipment, sunken boats, injuries, and death. In California Shore Whaling, 1854-1900, Thomas L. Nichols’ interviews a local whaler who admits, “It’s almost sure death to hunt. There were a good many graves in those days alongshore of men who had been killed by these whales. When I joined the Portuguese Bend fishermen I found that they were afraid of the whales, but they kept at the business until so many things got smashed that it didn’t pay.”

Whaling stations were located on Deadman’s Island and Portuguese Bend in the 19th century. Reports vary on the stations’ lifespans, though it appears the two operated simultaneously. The station on Deadman’s Island is believed to have been active from 1856 through 1879. Its most successful season was recorded in 1861-1862, with claims that 25 whales were caught in one month. Operations at the Portuguese Bend station appear to have been intermittent; its most successful season was recorded in 1883, when 35 whales were caught. Despite this feat, the station inexplicably closed the next year. The rise of Southern California’s petroleum industry at the turn of the century quickly displaced whaling. Depleted whale populations are also credited for ending 19th century whaling in San Pedro Bay.

88Deadman’s Island, shown here on April 24, 1923, was the site of a whaling station from 1856-1879.  Image 88, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photographic Collection.

Whaling activities in the vicinity of the Port resumed in the mid-1910s. Captain John D. Loop is credited for reviving commercial whaling. He is noted for pioneering new harpoon gun technology, patenting his own whale bomb, and for streamlining a process to pump air into the carcass to keep it afloat for easier shore towing. Loop also arranged expeditions for wealthy tourists, guaranteeing them a whale.

Various companies operated out of the Port as a home base. The most prominent enterprise was the Mexico Whaling Company. This company was based in the Port from 1923 through 1930, under the direction of Captain G.M Bryde. They were succeeded by the California Whaling Company, active in the Port from 1932 through 1937, under Captain F.R. Dedrick. In 1927, local investors attempted to start their own enterprise, the Los Angeles Whaling Company. This venture proved problematic and short lived due to customs issues and labor disputes.

In this second era of Southern California whaling, whales were sought after for consumer meat and soil fertilizer. Due to concerns over dwindling whale populations, in 1936 the Coast Guard was entrusted with protecting California’s whales by regulating whalers’ activities. However, exceptions took place during World War II, which saw a brief reanimation of the industry since whale meat was encouraged as wartime diet. Once austerity measures ended, whaling quickly declined.

Whaling was outlawed in California in 1972. Whale populations have bounced back since and these majestic creatures are now abundant and frequently spotted off our coasts.

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.


The Harbor Community’s Own Great Pumpkin

By Tara Fansler

Pumpkin00004Adults look on as children pose by a tepee in front of the Union Oil Pumpkin, October 18, 1955. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives.

The communities of the Los Angeles Harbor have a rich history of pageantry, costumes and festivals.  One much-loved community tradition is the Union Oil Pumpkin, which first presided over the harbor area from the hill-top above Gaffey and Anaheim Street in 1952.

The annual appearance of the Great Pumpkin began 61 years ago when the Union Oil refinery in Wilmington, California, painted Hortensphere No. 304 orange, with a jack-o’-lantern face.  A hortensphere is a squat oval tank used to store natural gasoline.  According to a 1954 Los Angeles Times article, the Union Oil pumpkin was the largest jack-o’-lantern in the world at the time.

The following year the Los Angeles Times reported that it took 21 man hours to paint on the face, which consisted of an 83-foot-long mouth and 18-foot-high nose and eyes.  After Halloween, Hortensphere No. 304 was repainted white, which provides better temperature control for the contents inside.  According to the Times, the entire makeover required 180 gallons of paint.

Pumpkin00010Union Oil contractors paint the jack-o’-lantern face on Hortensphere No. 304, October 22, 1954. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives.

The Union Oil Pumpkin received national attention in 1956 when Life magazine profiled Darrell Stuart, the contractor hired by Union Oil to paint the pumpkin.

Festivities at the pumpkin grew larger over the years.  The 1954 festivities were fairly small, with just a few costumed children of Union Oil workers invited to the plant to light the pumpkin.  In 1955 Union Oil staged an elaborate photo shoot with a tepee encampment for children.  The community’s sentiment towards the pumpkin’s annual appearance was not lost on the Union Oil Corporation.  A 1968 advertisement for Union 76 oil featured the Great Pumpkin and proclaimed, “Community Relations (like corporate growth) is no small thing to Union Oil.”

Pumpkin00007Union Oil Pumpkin with 76 sign, November 4, 1960. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives.

Union Oil’s presence in the harbor was making news long before the Great Pumpkin first appeared on the hilltop.  The Harbor Department’s 1912/1913 Annual Report stated, “Oil is becoming more and more the fuel of commerce,” and outlined plans to partner with the US Navy to open an oil fueling station in the harbor.  The report also touted that the Port was perfectly situated to be a fueling station when the Panama Canal opened the following year, especially with “four of the west’s greatest oil companies operating in the harbor.”

Union Oil was named as one of these great oil companies, with a pipeline leading directly to the harbor from its oil fields in Fullerton, storage tanks on the east side of the harbor, and large holdings on the west side of the harbor near present day Cabrillo Beach.

The Harbor Department’s 1915/1916 Annual Report announced that Union Oil Company had recently purchased a 200-acre site “immediately adjacent to tidewater,” and was building a $2 million refinery, the product of which would be exported through the Port of Los Angeles.
0570View of the Union Oil Refinery, November 21, 1924.  Object ID 0570.  Materials Testing Laboratory Photographic Collection, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives

Photographs of the refinery (the future pumpkin patch) first appear in Harbor Department Records in 1924.  The hortensphere is not present in the photographs, but other cylindrical storage tanks can be seen on the hill.  It is unlikely that residents could conceive the amount of oil the massive tanks held, or the amount of oil being exported through the harbor annually.  A 1955 Los Angeles Times article about the Great Pumpkin tried to help readers understand just how much oil was stored in each tank with the following piece of trivia: “If the tank (No. 304) were filled with pumpkin meat instead of oil, you’d have enough for 26,880,000 pies.”

Tara Fansler is the Director of Archives & Collections at the Port of Los Angeles.

World Cruise Terminal Golden Anniversary

By Nicholas Beyelia

The Los Angeles Harbor World Cruise Terminal, located at Berth 93 in San Pedro is among the most unique architectural structures located at the Port of Los Angeles.  Upon its completion, the structure was heralded as a masterpiece of mid-century architecture and was featured in the August 1963 edition of Arts and Architecture magazine, the September 1963 edition of Architectural Record Magazine and the January 1964 edition of the German architectural periodical, Der Baumeister.  The design team responsible for the structure would be the recipients of several awards for their vision including a 1963 Architectural Award of Excellence from The American Institute of Steel Construction and an American Institute of Architecture outstanding aesthetic design award.  The terminal, conceived in collaboration with AIA award winning architect Edward H. Fickett, F.A.I.A., turns 50 this year.

In December, 1958 the Los Angeles Harbor Department entered into a contract with architect Edward H. Fickett, F.A.I.A., the architectural firms of Kistner, Wright & Wright Architects and Engineers, S.B. Barnes & Associates to develop, as a joint venture, a concept for a modern passenger and cargo terminal that would be both visually appealing to cruise passengers and functional amongst the commerce along the main channel.  Plans for the structure were submitted to the Harbor Department as early as 1959 and approved shortly thereafter.

Joyce Fickett 009 - CopyEarly Concept for the Terminal. Image Courtesy of Joyce Fickett.

Construction of the terminal complex began in 1960 and was scheduled to conclude in 1963 (including the corresponding cargo terminal). Anticipation was high for the completion of the structure with The Los Angeles Times reporting on its progress in October, 1961. The Times explained that construction required approximately 5,200 tons of steel to be erected by the U.S. Steel American Bridge Division over a 455,530 sq. ft. framed area. The structure required 600,000 high-strength bolts and 1800 machine bolts “to connect the various steel beams, girders and columns.”

CruiseTerminalplansArchitectural Plans of the Exterior, Los Angeles Harbor Department Engineering Collection.

The terminal was finished on time and a dedication ceremony for the complex was held March 19, 1963. The final cost was reported to be $16 million and the terminal would ultimately become the Los Angeles home to three of the premier passenger cruise lines: the American President Lines, the American Mail Line and the Pacific Far-East Line with Consolidated Marine Inc. managing and operating the facilities. The terminal is often referred to as the “APL Terminal” and the “CMI Terminal” in many periodicals and Harbor Department publications.

Joyce Fickett 003 - CopyThe World Cruise Terminal upon completion. Image Courtesy of Joyce Fickett.

0106-O watermark 2Interior of the terminal at completion. Los Angeles Harbor Department Materials Testing Laboratory Photographs Collection, 0106-O

The style of the Los Angeles Harbor Cruise Terminal stood in stark contrast to other cruise terminals at The Port of Los Angeles, particularly the Matson Cruise Terminal in Wilmington. The Matson terminal, built only ten years earlier, had a distinctly Mediterranean flair that could be seen mirrored throughout architecture in the area; the mid-century modern chic of the Harbor Cruise Terminal was relatively unique to the Harbor region and remains an exceptional piece of modern architecture at the Port of Los Angeles.  Architect Edward Fickett, in particular, became closely associated with a mid-century “California modern” style and would be responsible for some of the most remarkable examples of modern architecture in the Los Angeles area.  Fickett was dubbed “The Frank Lloyd Wright of the Fifties” by Better Homes and Gardens and left an equally innovative legacy of design throughout Southern California. He passed away in 1999. The Los Angeles Harbor World Cruise Terminal stands as one of his outstanding contributions to mid-century modern design.

By the year 2000, exposure to the elements had taken a toll on the façade of the building; interior amenities had become worn and many of the features did not meet modern safety standards.  In 2010, the terminal was given a makeover that included an installation of solar panels and new gangways that complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The cobalt blue light fixtures were replaced with ones that were more energy efficient and both the interior and exterior of the terminal were given a fresh coat of paint. The World Cruise Terminal remains in operation today and it is estimated to currently handle anywhere from 400,000 to 1 million passengers per year.

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.

Executive Director Receives a Key to Port’s Past

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

IreneIrene Giles c. 1929

As Executive Director I often hear a lot of fascinating personal histories related to The Port of Los Angeles. In July 2012, I met Kathy Walsh who had come with a mutual friend to the opening of CRAFTED at the Port of Los Angeles. After hearing of my avid interest in port history, Kathy presented me with a very special gift – a souvenir of the Port of Los Angeles that her grandmother, Irene Giles, had purchased in 1929. Kathy also let me borrow the diary that her grandmother wrote, which is a daily chronicle of her ten month road trip and visit to Los Angeles.

Irene was the daughter of Charles and Etta Giles, farmers from Knox County, Nebraska who had nine children. In May 1929, 16-year-old Irene left her hometown of Hartington, Nebraska for a 10-month trip with her aunt and two uncles. Irene was the oldest child in the Giles family which might explain why she was chosen to go on the trip.


At 514 miles from home, her diary notes the first tire puncture. From then on her diary is a listing of town names, miles driven and tires punctured. Her diary reads:
“Greeley 621 miles
Keystone 646 miles
Sedila 701 miles
Colorado Springs 751 miles
Cimarron 968 miles
Santa Fe 1105 miles
Gallup 1350
Kingman 1735”

page 2

“We got into Needles about 15 to 1 at night and bought tires and tubes. It was so hot we could hardly live and Walter was very sick…..we traveled all night May 5 and arrived in South Gate at 11 0’clock at night after much tire trouble….”

Once in California and staying with people they knew, Irene spent time visiting the beach and the city sights. One entry may be referring to Minnie the Whale, an attraction in Long Beach for many years:

“Walt and I were in Milton’s car. We saw a whale 59 feet long and weighted 65 tons and they had taken two barrels of oil of his tongue. Sure a monster. We also saw the six ton whale again that was 64 feet long it come in at Alamitos Bay in 1896. We went out on the pier and fed the sea gulls and pigeons peanuts and popcorn and they lit [sic] all over us. They would sit on our hand and eat. Bill and Eva bought some souvenirs.”

Her diary also notes many shopping trips although mostly for basic necessities. She did, however, manage to purchase a few mementos of her trip; one of these souvenirs was a thermometer on a brass key with the Port of Los Angeles on one side and Los Angeles City Hall on the other. key With a patent date of 1925, it was not possible to determine who made this particular key but keys of this type were a very common souvenir in the 1920s and 1930s. The same design was used for various tourist destinations with only the medallion at the top changed for each location. Thermometer keys were made well into the 1950s and 1960s but these later ones are often made of plastic.

One can imagine a road trip and 10-month long vacation would have been quite an event for any teenager. Irene was lucky to have an aunt and uncles who gave her an experience I imagine she remembered for the rest of her life. Irene Giles returned to Nebraska, married and had a family.

By the time I got the key from Irene’s granddaughter, the thermometer was gone. Nevertheless, it will become a treasured piece of Port of Los Angeles history.


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

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.