SurveyLA’s Findings for Wilmington and Harbor City

By David J. Barboza

The Don Hotel was one of several Wilmington hotels that were popular stopovers for travelers to and from Catalina.

The Don Hotel was one of several Wilmington hotels that were popular stopovers for travelers to and from Catalina.

SurveyLA has recently released three reports of its findings for Los Angeles’ harbor communities. This time I’ll be taking a look at the Historic Resources Survey Report for Wilmington and Harbor City (click here for a map). If you think we missed something in the report or appendices, please let us know. Keep in mind that SurveyLA is saving industrially zoned land for last. Since industrial land is an important part of the history of Wilmington and Harbor City, there could be more survey findings later.

Wilmington and Harbor City would not have been recognizable names locally in 1784. That year the Spanish crown granted the area as part of Rancho San Pedro. In 1854 the land was acquired by Americans. One of the early notables was Phineas Banning, who had a wharf built in present-day Wilmington by 1858. That same year the town of “New San Pedro” was founded, but Banning had enough clout to have the name changed to Wilmington in 1863, after his hometown of Wilmington Deleware. The 1860s were an important period for Wilmington. In 1862, it became the terminus for a state-of-the-art piece of communications infrastructure: a transcontinental telegraph line. Local landowners donated a 60 acre site to the Union Army during the Civil War. Fort Drum became the Union’s headquarters for California and Arizona. A few surviving pieces of Fort Drum have been designated as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments (e.g. the Drum Barracks and Officer’s Quarters, HCM #21). After the Civil War, the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad opened. This north-south route ending in Wilmington was the first Railroad in Southern California.

Although Wilmington seemed destined to host the region’s major port, San Pedro would soon eclipse it economically. Beginning in the 1880s the Southern Pacific Railroad gained control of the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad and extended it south to San Pedro. San Pedro was also selected to host the port of Los Angeles (although the modern port now sprawls across both communities). These developments are reflected in Wilminton’s attempts to exist as an independent city. It incorporated as such in 1871 but had to reverse course in 1887 in the midst of waning economic fortunes. It fended off a consolidation attempt by the City of Long Beach in 1905, incorporated as a city again in 1907 and was consolidated into the City of Los Angeles in 1909, the same year as San Pedro, and the same year the Port of Los Angeles opened. The 1920s saw a population boom as Wilmington served as a popular departure point to Catalina Island and oil wells brought new jobs. In 1932 the Wilmington Oil Field was discovered. This field is the third largest in the continental U.S. and is being pumped to this day. Wilmington has also made its mark on the history of organized labor. It participated in the port strike of 1934, which ended favorably for the dockworkers. By the 1950s, Wilmington was home to some key union facilities.

Harbor City was largely agricultural in the 19th century. Light residential and commercial development began in the early 20th century. When the City of Los Angeles annexed the Shoestring Strip (now known as Harbor Gateway) in 1906, Harbor City served as a kind of backup area for Los Angeles’ port development plans in case the consolidations of San Pedro and Wilmington failed (which they didn’t). Most development in Harbor City dates from after World War II. A notable feature is the Harbor Regional Park, located on former marshland which the City began developing in the 1950s. This park is among Los Angeles’ larger parks not located on mountainous terrain and contains a golf course and the campus of Los Angeles Harbor College.

As far as the survey findings are concerned, I’ve added some of my favorites below. Clicking on an image will enlarge it and start a slideshow.


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