In 1861, the port city of Wilmington — then called New San Pedro — became the West Coast headquarters of the Union Army for the duration of the Civil War.
New San Pedro had been founded just three years earlier, when transportation magnate Phineas Banning built a wharf and cargo facilities at the sheltered northern end of San Pedro Bay. After writing President Lincoln with his concerns about Southern sympathizers in the region, Banning donated some land north of the port, where the Army built Camp Drum and directed military operations in California and Arizona.
The transnational telegraph network extended to the city in 1862, speeding communication between the camp and the military brass in Washington, D.C. The following year New San Pedro was renamed Wilmington, in honor of Banning’s Delaware birthplace.
With the war’s end, the focus of the city turned once again to commerce. In order to connect the port with the rapidly growing city of L.A., Banning began construction on the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad, the region’s first, in 1868.
The establishment of the railroad cemented Wilmington’s position as Southern California’s preeminent port until 1897, when Congress designated neighboring San Pedro as L.A.’s official port. Unable to effectively compete with the deeper and federally funded harbor to the south, Wilmington fell into a period of decline.
In 1909, the city of Los Angeles annexed Wilmington, and its port operations were consolidated with San Pedro’s. That created a bustling shipping complex that stretched from the newly constructed breakwater at the mouth of the bay to the Long Beach city limits.
Tourism gave Wilmington’s economy a boost in 1919, as the neighborhood became the point of departure for excursion boats headed to Catalina Island, drawing thousands of travelers to the many hotels lining Avalon Boulevard.
The discovery in the 1920s of oil in and around Wilmington supercharged the neighborhood’s growth. According to the city of L.A.’s official history of Wilmington, its population before the oil boom was just over 2,000; by 1930, it exceeded 15,000.
Today the oil industry is still an important employer in the neighborhood, with two major refineries working night and day to process crude from the Wilmington Oil Field, the nation’s third-largest.
Shipping and port operations also remain at the heart of Wilmington’s economy, so much so that many of the industry’s major labor organizations have their local headquarters in the community.
A rich history: Southern California’s past comes to life at the Banning Museum and the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum, both of which offer a glimpse of life in the 19th century.
On the waterfront: Although nothing remains of the historic waterfront, the Banning’s Landing Community Center on its former site offers eye-popping views of America’s busiest port.
Reclaiming the bay: The city’s ambitious plan to reconnect the neighborhood to the water via three new parks is well underway, with Phase I now open at Wilmington Waterfront Park.
The price of industry: Emissions from the area’s many refineries, tractor-trailers, trains and ships make the air in Wilmington some of L.A.’s dirtiest.
Lisa Massion, who has 20 years of real estate experience in Wilmington, said it’s tough to find a spot in the neighborhood right now.
“Wilmington is located in a rent-controlled area, so there’s a scarcity of rentals,” she said, adding that low inventory and high demand are creating a similar situation for buyers.
Most of the neighborhood’s homes were built from the 1920s through the ’50s, and Massion said there’s a healthy number of cottages with gabled roofs and bungalow-court developments.
Nowadays, community highlights include Los Angeles Harbor College, the Harbor Park Golf Course and the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum.
In the 90744 ZIP Code, based on 15 sales, the median sales price for single-family homes in October was $484,000, up 13.9% year over year, according to CoreLogic.
Seven of the nine public schools in the Wilmington boundaries scored above 700 on the 2013 Academic Performance Index, and three scored above 800. Those include Gulf Avenue Elementary at 833, Wilmington Park Elementary at 814 and Hawaiian Avenue Elementary at 810.
Wilmington Middle scored 778. Phineas Banning Senior High, the area’s main high school, scored 665.
Times staff writer Jack Flemming contributed to this report.