When the sailing vessel Pilgrim arrived at San Pedro to trade for cattle hides in 1834, seaman Richard Dana was struck by the area’s desolate quietude: It was, he wrote, “entirely bare of trees and even shrubs; and there was no sign of a town, — not even a house to be seen.”
To Dana and his crew mates, who carried their cargo by hand across the rocky beach and up the slippery, mustard-covered hills to be loaded onto carts bound for the pueblo, San Pedro Bay’s shortcomings as a harbor were clear. It was too shallow, too small and too exposed. There wasn’t even a wharf.
That didn’t stop boosters 50 years later from dreaming big things for their muddy little harbor. Phineas Banning had shown them the way in 1871 when he dredged a channel from the bay to Wilmington. With enough money, men and steam power, a mud flat could become a shipping hub for the ages.
Congress gave San Pedro the decisive edge in the battle of the ports in 1897, naming it the official port of Los Angeles. Within the span of 15 years, the port was fully dredged, the breakwater was constructed, the town of San Pedro was annexed by Los Angeles, and goods began flowing into the harbor via the newly constructed Panama Canal.
The neighborhood thrived as the commercial fishing and cargo handling industries boomed, and the Army base expanded on the bluffs overlooking the harbor. A bustling commercial district stretched west from the water’s edge, with 7th Street and its beautiful Warner Grand Theatre at the heart of it.
Homes bought by the dockworkers were built within walking distance (or a short streetcar ride) from the waterfront. A ferry ran from the mainland to Terminal Island, for those workers who had cars. San Pedro, part of L.A. but wholly apart from it in so many ways, developed its own distinctive, proudly blue-collar vibe.
Massive cargo container ships, increased mechanization of ship loading and unloading, and the collapse of the fishing and shipbuilding industries brought hard times to many in San Pedro, even as the port itself became more central to the economy of L.A. and the nation as a whole.
Meanwhile, the city is reinvesting in the waterfront, hoping to position it as a leisure destination.