‘Great Free Harbor Fight’ : At Stake Was the Port Site for the Growing City of L.A.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Queenan is the author of "The Port of Los Angeles--From Wilderness to World Port," published in 1983, and "Long Beach and Los Angeles: A Tale of Two Ports," published in 1986

It was called the “Great Free Harbor Fight” and it came down to a classic David and Goliath confrontation on the floor of the U.S. Senate between a hitherto undistinguished senator from California and a powerful railroad tycoon and his congressional cronies. At stake was the official harbor for the city of Los Angeles.

It all took place nearly a century ago and had a young senator named Stephen M. White caved in under the enormous pressure of railroad baron Collis Huntington and his congressional allies, the Port of Los Angeles would be in Santa Monica instead of San Pedro.

San Pedro had always been regarded as the natural spot for the harbor because the Palos Verdes Peninsula protects it from most heavy seas and gales. Even before the founding of Los Angeles, the pious but practical padres at Mission San Gabriel did a brisk business with smugglers who landed at San Pedro, swapping hides and otter pelts for supplies the Spanish authorities in Mexico would not send them.


San Pedro grew slowly but steadily through the 1800s, along with the tiny community of Los Angeles 20 miles to the north.

Soon after the Civil War ended, the Southern Pacific railroad was founded in San Francisco, and tracks began to reach southward along the coast. The founders were four of the most illustrious names in California history--Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins. All four had grown wealthy selling picks, shovels and other equipment to miners during the Gold Rush.

The four men rotated the presidency of the railroad, but Huntington soon emerged as the dominant member of the group, in no small part because of his forceful personality.

In its early years, the Southern Pacific served only California. The only rail connection to the East was via the Union Pacific, completed in 1869. Eventually, the SP would join the ranks of transcontinental railroads with a route across the Southwest into Texas.

As it reached southward, the railroad immediately made the old horse and wagon system obsolete, and it ruthlessly exploited its monopoly over all transportation in the state. SP agents, sometimes led by Huntington, would meet with town officials as its tracks were laid south and make their demands: considerable cash, a wide right of way and a large piece of property in the town center for a depot. If the town leaders objected, the route would be shifted to bypass the community, leaving it to die on the vine.

Everyone knew Los Angeles desperately needed outside railroad connections. In 1871, Southern Pacific named its price: $600,000 in cash, the usual wide right of way, 60 acres of choice downtown property, and the 20-mile Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad, then the crucial link with the harbor.


Only after a year of bitter wrangling did the city accept the terms. The railroad gained a complete monopoly over all commercial shipping in and out of Los Angeles, and its agents took full advantage. For some goods, it cost more to ship from Los Angeles to San Pedro than from San Pedro to Hong Kong.

In 1874, Sen. John P. Jones of Nevada, one of the Comstock Lode millionaires, had the temerity to announce that he would build a short rail line from Los Angeles to a new seaside community to be called Santa Monica.

On Nov. 31, 1875, the day that Jones’ Los Angeles & Independence Railroad was completed, the Southern Pacific cut all its rates in half, then halved them again the next day. Jones’ railroad quickly failed and, with all other potential buyers scared off, he sold it to the Southern Pacific for one-quarter of its original value.

However, any kind of competition was intolerable to Huntington, and when a St. Louis group ran a new line from Los Angeles to what is now Terminal Island in 1891, the railroad baron developed a secret agenda unknown even to his SP partners.

First, he quietly purchased most of the Santa Monica waterfront. Early in 1892, he startled the populace of the region by starting to build his own harbor in Santa Monica, including a wharf stretching nine-tenths of a mile into the bay.

The Long Wharf (it was, in fact, the world’s longest) became a tourist attraction. Sightseers would ride the old Jones rail line, now operated by Southern Pacific, to the beach to watch it taking shape.


Even before the new harbor opened in July, 1893, Huntington named it Port Los Angeles, strong-armed area firms into shifting their business from San Pedro to Santa Monica if they wanted to use his railroad and had it designated a sub-port of entry for the U.S. Customs District. This was unprecedented recognition for a private, partly completed port with no federal approval, but a good example of Huntington’s clout.

In retrospect, it seems certain that Huntington was acting on inside information about legislation being considered by his congressional allies. In 1890, Congress concluded that Los Angeles needed a deep-water port and agreed to appropriate $4 million to build a breakwater, which every viable commercial harbor needed as protection from the open sea. Only San Pedro and Santa Monica were considered, and the Great Free Harbor Fight was on.

The stakes were high, because city leaders and businessmen knew only too well that if Santa Monica were chosen, the Southern Pacific would shut out all competition and strengthen its control on area transportation.

At the Los Angeles Times, publisher Harrison Gray Otis weighed in against the powerful railroad, urging “the people . . . and their representatives to oppose a scheme to use government funds . . . for the special use and benefit of a single corporation.”

Out-of-town newspapers also commented harshly. “It will be seen that Mr. Huntington’s enterprise throughout its entire extent is as exclusive as if it were surrounded by a Chinese Wall,” stated the New York World.

But Huntington had influence at high levels. Among those in his debt was Sen. William B. Frye of Maine, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and the most powerful man in Congress when it came to port allocations. Predictably, the Commerce panel repeatedly rejected proposals to improve the San Pedro harbor.


Meanwhile, three successive panels of engineers were appointed by the government to submit recommendations for the breakwater site. All three chose San Pedro, principally because of its protected location. They noted that Santa Monica had no shelter from the open sea, and that its porous, sandy bluffs--the Palisades--offered little solid ground for shoreside development.

Undeterred, Huntington pushed ahead with his friends in the Senate Commerce Committee to craft and orchestrate powerful support for the 1896 Rivers and Harbors Bill, which would award the breakwater appropriation to Santa Monica and the Southern Pacific.

Until then, 43-year-old Stephen M. White had voted for San Pedro in Senate roll calls but otherwise remained aloof from the battle, much to the dismay of those who had hoped he would counteract Huntington’s influence in Congress. But for two full days in June, 1896, he took the Senate floor and delivered a devastating indictment of the Southern Pacific’s predatory policies, and offered an amendment to the bill stating that if Santa Monica were chosen, any other railroad could use its harbor for a reasonable fee.

Huntington and Sen. Frye pleaded with White to withdraw his amendment, but White refused to budge. With the bill now beyond the control of the Commerce Committee, the full Senate quickly adopted the measure, including White’s amendment. In March, 1897, another board of engineering experts made the final breakwater decision in favor of San Pedro.

White returned a conquering hero. Crowds cheered as his homebound train passed by, and a parade through Los Angeles was held in his honor. The staunchly Republican Los Angeles Times called the Democratic senator “the greatest man the state has produced in its half-century of existence,” and $25,000 was raised for a statue of White, which now overlooks the Port of Los Angeles.

Huntington soon lost interest in Santa Monica when his grand design failed. Business steadily declined and the Long Wharf was finally dismantled in 1921. Neither protagonist lived long after the climactic showdown. Huntington died in 1900 at the age of 78. For White, the strain of preparing his case with virtually no legislative help caused deep emotional problems and he died in 1901 of alcoholism at the age of 49.


Collis Huntington’s nephew perpetuated a much more benign family image than his curmudgeonly uncle. Henry Huntington founded the Pacific Electric Railway, whose fleet of Red Cars are fondly remembered as the most popular method of transportation in the region for years, and his former home in San Marino is now the Huntington Library and Museum, one of the area’s most prestigious cultural institutions.