Not a safe harbor for history
Warning that a wave of demolition threatens to engulf Terminal Island, a national preservation group has named the site at the Port of Los Angeles one of America’s most endangered historic places.
A proposed road realignment would require the demolition of three pioneering tuna fish canneries as well as a shipyard that played a major role in both world wars, the National Trust for Historic Preservation said Wednesday.
Additionally, a 61-year-old cannery steam plant and a trio of boat repair buildings that date back to 1903 are due to be razed, the trust said.
“Terminal Island presents an incredible opportunity to transform a vital piece of America’s industrial past for new uses while also preserving an important part of our nation’s cultural history,” said Stephanie Meeks, president of the trust.
Terminal Island is one of 11 sites named on the trust’s annual compilation. Three bridges in Yosemite Valley that may see removal by the National Park Service also made the list.
Port officials expressed surprise at Terminal Island’s inclusion.
“We don’t have any projects in our 10-year capital plan that call for the demolition of any buildings,” said Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the port. “We have no projects right now that impact the historic resources.”
Port planning director David Mathewson suggested that the trust’s listing is based on an inaccurate map of proposed street alignments.
“The consultants didn’t accurately portray the realignment. They didn’t nail it down completely,” he said of the port-commissioned map.
According to historians, the port’s legacy stretches back to the early 1800s when provisions were unloaded from Spanish ships by monks from the San Gabriel Mission.
The fishing industry sprang up around the harbor in 1893 when the California Fish Co. began processing sardines. When the local sardine catch declined 10 years later, the company developed a process to steam-cook and can tuna, which was plentiful in local waters.
Promoted as a cheap substitute for chicken, canned tuna was soon being produced by 10 Terminal Island canneries, including Van Camp’s Chicken of the Sea and Star-Kist. The canneries employed 1,800 workers and an additional 4,800 fishermen.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, thousands of Japanese fishermen and their cannery-worker wives lived on Terminal Island. In 1942, nearly 3,000 of them were among the first in the nation to be uprooted and moved to World War II internment camps.
The local tuna industry began declining in the 1960s, and the area’s last cannery, Chicken of the Sea, closed in 2001. Today the cannery buildings sit vacant.
So do the 16 buildings at the former Southwestern Shipbuilding yard, where 8,600 workers set records for fast ship-building during World War I. The shipyard was operated by Bethlehem Steel Corp. during World War II, when it produced about 40 destroyers and handled repairs for older Navy ships.
Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, said port officials are mistaken when they say no historic Terminal Island buildings are threatened. Three such structures on the Al Larson Boat Shop property have been publicly proposed for demolition, as has the steam plant building, she said.
As for the road realignment map: “It would have been nice if they had told us they’re disowning their map,” she said.
According to Dishman, six other Los Angeles-area sites -- the Century Plaza Hotel, the Ennis House, Santa Anita Racetrack, St. Vibiana Cathedral, Downey’s original McDonald’s restaurant and a South Pasadena area targeted for freeway expansion -- have appeared on previous trust “endangered” lists. All six survive.