CityDig: How Los Angeles Annexed the Port on a Shoestring

This 1961 map shows off the narrow strip of land that ties L.A. to San Pedro and Wilmington
Map of the Territory Annexed to the City of Los Angeles, California
Map of the Territory Annexed to the City of Los Angeles, California

John C. Shaw, Corrected to 1961

This beautiful map of territory annexed to the City of Los Angeles exhibits the highly inventive “shoestring addition” that resulted from the Free Harbor Fight of the 1890s. While the annexations here date back to 1859, the story of the harbor in San Pedro Bay begins during the Spanish colonial period in the 18th century. Early on, ships anchored in the bay and delivered provisions to the monks and missions. Since the Spanish crown restricted trade, though, only Spanish ships were allowed to use the harbor (not that that was a hinderance to smugglers). Mexico took over in 1822, and the restrictions were abolished. With oxcarts and wagons transporting goods from the harbor to the pueblo of Los Angeles, business boomed.

Entrepreneur Phineas Banning (now known as the father of the Port of Los Angeles) saw in the harbor an opportunity. After California attained statehood in 1850, he dredged a channel to make the harbor more navigable. He then built L.A.’s first railway, the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad, completing it in 1869 with a depot at Alameda and Commercial. Banning’s railroad dramatically sped up trade between L.A. and the harbor. Goods could be shipped at $6 per ton, and people could ride out to San Pedro for a buck and a half.

Enter Collis Huntington and his economic steamroller, the Southern Pacific Railway. Huntington had his sights set on making Santa Monica the port of the City of Los Angeles, which would allow him to monopolize local shipping and leave San Pedro a second-string operation. Huntington built the wharf in Santa Monica—at the time the longest in the world—and set out to wheedle federal funds for the development of a harbor. Thus began the great Free Harbor Fight. Opposing Huntington were United States Senator Stephen White and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, who demanded a “free harbor” independent of Southern Pacific. The L.A. Times, under publisher Harrison Gray Otis, swayed public opinion against Huntington. In June of 1896, White stood in a Senate filled with Southern Pacific-friendly members and railed against the railroad’s monopoly. His rant paid off. In March of 1897 a board of engineering experts led by Rear Admiral John C. Walker chose San Pedro as the official port of Los Angeles. Control of the port would be shared with Long Beach.

There was, however, a sticky stipulation for Los Angeles: if the city was to annex the port cities of San Pedro and Wilmington, a contiguous connection was required between them and L.A. Many solutions were proposed, but the shoestring addition (seen here in yellow) was the brainchild of Hollywood realtor Gabor Hegyi. The city employed eminent domain to bully its way into possession of the land, running a 16-mile corridor from Los Angeles to the harbor. The shoestring was annexed the day after Christmas in 1906. The following year the Board of Harbor Commissioners was created, and in 1909 both San Pedro and Wilmington were annexed. The move was hardly made on a shoestring budget—Los Angeles forked over $30 million in bond measures to improve the harbor from 1910 to 1924. White, a hero of the Free Harbor Fight, died in 1901, six years before the realization of his dream.

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Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.