The Free Harbor Fight: Transportation Meets Chinatown

(Photo: Green Fire Productions)

(Photo: Green Fire Productions)

Unlike its natural rivals—San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle—Los Angeles is a rotten place for a port. But that hasn’t stopped the city known for inventing and reinventing itself from becoming the busiest container traffic hub in the US. The story of how L.A. transformed itself into one of the world’s great shipping centers is rife with corruption, power politics, double-dealing, bribery, and betrayal. It’s a story that could only have dripped from the pen of one of the city’s Hollywood hacks–if it weren’t true.

Despite its worldwide association with sand and surf, Los Angeles began life as an inland community. Its original port was at San Pedro, roughly 25 miles to the south. But San Pedro had been cursed by nature. There was no shelter from waves and wind; it was far too shallow to accommodate shipping; and its bottom was mudflats, making construction of heavy piers or breakwaters difficult. Bringing cargo ashore meant transferring it to longboats from ships anchored several miles out at sea, rowing it ashore, and then hauling it by hand across a rocky beach and up a steep slope. The only alternative to this difficult operation was to beach the ship, an even more challenging undertaking. Writing in his 1834 account of his time as a sailor on a ship plying the California coast, Two Years Before the Mast: And Twenty-Four Years After, Charles Henry Dana called San Pedro a “hated… thoroughly detested spot.”

To make matters worse, there was the problem of land transportation. Traversing the 25 miles between San Pedro and Los Angeles on rudimentary roads was time consuming and difficult. The situation was eased in 1868 with the construction of a railroad, but this was soon to prove problematic due to the arrival on the scene of the story’s mustache-twirling villain, Collis P. Huntington, a robber baron straight out of Central Casting. 

As he was one of the “big four” who constructed the western link of the transcontinental railroad, California certainly owed Huntington a debt of gratitude. However, Huntington made sure that debt was called in. In 1872, his railroad (the Southern Pacific) began laying track on a new route between San Francisco and Yuma, Arizona.  The line was to pass 150 miles away from Los Angeles. In an era when a connection to the rail network meant the difference between civic prosperity and tumbleweeds blowing down the streets, the city was forced to throw itself on Huntington’s mercy. In the end, he agreed to change the route—in exchange for $600,000 (five percent of the assessed land valuation of the entire county), free land for depots and right-of-way, and control of the railroad between Los Angeles and San Pedro.

This gave Huntington virtual monopoly power over all shipping in and out of Los Angeles. In the spirit of the era this monopoly was exploited: the SP charged more to move cargo from San Pedro to Los Angeles than it cost to move it from Hong Kong to San Pedro.  Huntington even stooped to inspecting the books of shippers to determine the maximum he could wring from each customer.

With the city desperate for an alternative, Senator John P. Jones stepped forward. He founded a new port fifteen miles to the west and dubbed it “Santa Monica.” A makeshift town of 1,000 sprung into being within nine months of its establishment in 1875, followed by a wharf and a rail line: the LA & Independence.

Huntington was swift to act. Standard robber baron practice of the day called for squashing competitors by cutting fares to the point that the opponent eventually went bankrupt. So on the LA & I’ s opening day, Huntington slashed fares on the SP San Pedro line by 50 percent, with another rate cut soon to follow. Fierce competition ensued, but Huntington continued to turn the screws, pressuring shipping companies to come to San Pedro on pain of being denied use of the SP network throughout the country. In the end, the SP’s deeper pockets prevailed, and, less than two years after opening, the LA & I was forced out of business. It did, however, found a willing buyer: Collis P. Huntington. 

Of course, the fare cuts in a rate war were never intended to be an act of charity. Huntington’s immediately tore out Santa Monica’s wharf; next, he jacked up the SP’s rates to levels even higher than they had ever been before. The SP thrived, and Santa Monica withered.

For the next fifteen years Huntington kept his boot on Los Angeles’s throat, but eventually competition was to come to the San Pedro-Los Angeles rail route thanks to the Santa Fe Railroad. Another rate war ensued, and with other competitors lining up, Huntington saw the writing on the wall. In response, he reversed course and devised a plan that was remarkable in its daring and opportunism.

Due to its poor natural gifts and decaying facilities, the port at San Pedro was in desperate need of improvements, particularly dredging and a huge breakwater. Only the federal government had the wherewithal to fund such work, but Washington was proving recalcitrant. After an inspection tour, Senator William B. Fry opined that: 

As near as I can make out you propose to ask the government to create a harbor for you, almost out of whole cloth.  The Lord has not given you much to start with, that is certain.  It will cost four or five millions to build, you say.  Well, is your whole country worth that much? It seems you made a big mistake in the location of your city.  You should have put it at some point where a harbor already exists, instead of calling on the government to give you what Nature refused. 

The senator helpfully suggested that Los Angeles be dismantled and moved to San Diego.

If the improvements were to happen at all it was generally assumed that San Pedro would be the site, but Huntington had other ideas. The SP still owned the rail line to Santa Monica, and Huntington resolved to build a port there—with the federal money wrested from San Pedro. 

Huntington chose a site at Santa Monica Canyon, a remote location two miles north of the town. Its primary advantage was its inaccessibility; cliffs hemmed in the beach and rendered the LA & I route the only practical approach. A port there would forever be dominated by the SP.

Huntington secretly bought up land in the town and in 1891 announced he was putting his San Pedro operations on hold and creating a huge new port facility in Santa Monica. Beginning in 1892, he laid down the track, dug a 331-foot tunnel through the cliffs, and began building what would be known as the “Long Wharf,” a massive undertaking that was to become the longest wooden wharf in the world. Huntington even began building a town at the foot of the wharf which he christened “Port Los Angeles.”  Stores, barns, a post office and a dance pavilion were constructed. 

Yet with the prospect of Huntington gaining a stranglehold on the city’s commerce in perpetuity, supporters of the San Pedro site rallied. These included the vast majority of the population of Los Angeles (the Los Angeles Times claimed opinion in favor of San Pedro was “practically unanimous”), plus most of the press, the Chamber of Commerce, almost all California elected officials, engineers who had studied the sites, and the insurance industry. San Pedro backers formed themselves into a “Free Harbor League.” Santa Monica advocates were far fewer in number, but what he lacked in popular support Huntington made up for with the tentacles of his business and political octopus.

Huntington’s tactics were less than subtle. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

Collis P. Huntington is so successful in “controlling” newspapers of the venal sort, individuals with the itching palm, State Legislatures, Congressional committees, boards of supervisors of a certain ilk… that with immediate gall he now makes a bold and bare-faced attempt to bribe an entire community…. Was ever such effrontery?  In the history of corporate audacity and impudence was ever such a piece of work before attempted, or even thought of?  We doubt it….

Are the citizens of Los Angeles slaves and curs, that they should permit themselves to be whipped into line by Collis P. Huntington?  Is this a community of free and independent American citizens, or are we the vassals of a bandit, creatures open to bribery, slaves to a plutocratic master, who has neither bowels of compassion, common decency, nor an organ in his putrid carcass so great as his gall?

The devil is just as sly in the person of old Huntington as he is in the person of Mephistopheles himself.  Los Angeles is at present free of Southern Pacific domination, but that corporation is slowly tightening its coils around us…Its purpose is to… wipe out the competition to this city, as it has been able to do to Northern California, gain control of the deep-water harbor for Southern California, then cap on the screws.

The battle was taken to the halls of the US Senate. Here the robber baron commanded a great deal of power and influence. According to one newspaper account:

The harbor contest at Los Angeles waxes warmer.  C. P. Huntington was seen going the rounds of the hotels today, and although it was Sunday, he made no halt in buttonholing Senators.  Four days ago there was a decided majority in the Commerce Committee in favor of following the wishes of the two Senators from California [to select San Pedro], but since the arrival of Mr. Huntington at the capital it is now a matter of great doubt where the majority will be found.  There is serious speculation in the minds of many people as to the means Mr. Huntington may have used to bring about this change. 

Huntington’s “means” were to carry the day, and the Senate Commerce Committee voted 9 to 6 in favor of Santa Monica. The bill went to the Senate floor.

What followed was a five-day floor fight that was to decide the future of Los Angeles. Turning the tide were the efforts of California Senator Stephen M. White, whose marathon speech chronicled the overwhelming evidence for San Pedro. In the end a compromise was forced; a five-member board of engineers was appointed to decide. Despite widespread fears they would be bribed by Huntington, on March 1, 1897, they chose San Pedro. Senator White was feted as a hero; his statue stands in San Pedro to this day.

The Los Angeles Times crowed:

This is undoubtedly the most important event for Los Angeles and Southern California since the arrival of the Santa Fe system… It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this decision to Los Angeles and Southern California… the location of the government deep-water harbor marks the beginning of a new and marvelous era for Los Angeles and Southern California. 

This assertion was to prove correct, even beyond the Times’s wildest dreams. San Pedro and later neighboring Long Beach were to grow into one of the world’s great ports and a powerhouse of the region’s and even nation’s economies. Even for Santa Monica the story had a happy ending; the Long Wharf would be demolished, but it would not be long before the city found itself back in the pier building business—but this time it would be a string of pleasure piers, which, along with amusement parks, luxury hotels, and exclusive beach clubs would make the city Los Angeles’s playground and ultimately one of the wealthiest and most glamorous communities in the nation.

What lessons does this story have for today? First, it is a testament to the power of transportation facilities to shape urban form. Had Santa Monica become a massive port/industrial complex, and San Pedro the spot for fun and sun, the entire geography of Los Angeles would certainly have been dramatically different. It is possible that the tony Westside would be a working class community and South Central Los Angeles the site of mansions and haunt of movie stars. Also, the story shows that in the modern world natural transportation advantages no longer dictate cities’ economic fortunes as they did in the past. Ultimately, New York became New York due to its splendid natural harbor, and Chicago Chicago thanks to its strategic spot bridging the gap between the Great Lakes and Mississippi/Ohio transportation networks. But in these days of Interstate Highways and manmade ports and airports, we can now manufacture transportation advantages from whole cloth. Witness the rise of landlocked, remote cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, or Salt Lake City.

Washington may be the hub of American transportation policymaking, but it is highly doubtful that anybody is going to purchase the film rights for the MAP-21 reauthorization debate. Leave it to Los Angeles to write transportation history with style.

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  1. Voice of Reason says:

    Yeah… I’m sure that everybody is lining up to go to LA to start a manufacturing plant…

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  2. Dan says:

    Interesting history. What it really says is that the corruption hasn’t changed much in 140 years.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0
  3. dwight schrute says:

    reminds me a bit of the movie Blazing Saddles
    Greed is not a product of the 20th or 21st century.

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  4. Mike B says:

    San Diego was never a good option for a port because there are no rail routes heading to the east. The only viable option is a twisting line that goes through Mexico. To get out of San Diego by rail you have to first go north to LA.

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  5. Julien Couvreur says:

    It seems you forget a critical factor in your historical analysis. Collis Huntington and his railroad company was not the result of the free-market, but a creature of the State and specifically the Pacific Railroad bill.
    He received enormous land grants, subsidies and a number of other privileges.
    Of course, this gave him an enormous leg up compared to his would-be competitors, it skewed the structure of railroads (one big line with concentrated power, as opposed to many local lines between cities and towns), and, more subtly, it skewed the structure of production (industry got to concentrate around this one railroad, instead of decentralize more in local towns).
    The negative effects (which you correctly point out) are ultimately the result of government trying to organize production and industry with massive interventions.

    I recommend you read this essay by Kevin Carson on The Distorting Effects of Transportation Subsidies: http://www.fee.org/the_freeman/detail/the-distorting-effects-of-transportation-subsidies/

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