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  • Writer's pictureBHCA

It’s Not Just a Port

By Maureen Neeley

As residents, we hear so much about the Port of Long Beach, but many of us are not really connected to it and we don’t understand its role in shaping the City we have today.

The bascule or jack-knife bridge for the Salt Lake Railroad was the first span to connect Long Beach and Terminal Island. Taken c 1912; photo is from

An interview with Chris Berry, the Port’s Senior Electronic Communications Specialist, was illuminating. The BHCA wanted to find out how the Port was established here and why those early Port boosters worked so hard to snag this industry for our City. Along the way, Mr. Berry provided some illuminating details that shed an unusual look on the value of investing in a Port.

Early Port History

Railroad magnate, Collis P. Huntington, scoffed at the idea of a port nestled in San Pedro Bay. His company, the Southern Pacific Railway, had a virtual monopoly on Southern California’s transit and Huntington wanted to continue this control by establishing the Santa Monica Bay on the western coast as Los Angeles’s port. He nearly succeeded, but for the tenacity of Senator Stephen White who took up the cause – and outwitted Huntington - for a southern-facing port. In 1899 the first rocks for a breakwater were dumped in San Pedro Bay.

A recently incorporated Long Beach took an active interest in this battle and, in 1909, annexed a portion of Terminal Island, paving the way for its own portion of the Bay and eventual Port. At the same time, Long Beach annexed the southern strip of the City all the way to Orange County, effectively blocking the reach of Los Angeles to any of our City’s waterfront. Smart, right?

So, what did the early Port boosters see in this move? Well, a Port, in any capacity, could bring industry, jobs, growth, and … money. In 1909 Long Beach voters approved a harbor improvement bond (6-to-1-margin) to purchase inner harbor frontage and build Pier 1, the municipal wharf.

The Role of Manufacturing Jobs

Once the Long Beach Port was established in 1911, industry moved in. The Port’s access to transportation (by sea and by rail) was enticing. The low-hanging fruit was lumber: The entire region was in need of building materials, so Long Beach courted mills from the north to supply the rapidly expanding construction business. Boards came in via ship.

Canning was also a big draw, with Frank Van Camp (of baked bean fame) transferring his company’s canning techniques to seafood. He originally made his home in Belmont Heights.

John F. Craig, however, saw great potential in the fledgling Long Beach Port. This Toledo, Ohio ships foundry owner chartered a train to move his company, lock-stock-and-barrel, to Long Beach. His Craig Shipbuilding Company became a lynchpin for the steel industry, manufacturing labor, and eventual contracts with the Federal government for Navy vessels. These in turn led to Long Beach as the base for the Great White Fleet and Pacific home of the U.S. Navy.

1930s-1990s: The Port is Home to Manufacturing

The Port and its access to transportation proved attractive to all sorts of manufacturing jobs. In the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Van Camp and Star Kist Canneries were still in full swing, but they were joined by Procter & Gamble, Ford Motor Company, Spencer Kellogg (vegetable oils), Pioneer Pacific Woolen Mills, and of course, Southern California Edison. These companies were drawn by access to land, labor and transportation, which the Long Beach Port had in spades.

These industries provided jobs that in turn led to the construction of housing for these new workers that then led to expanded schools, health care facilities, food production, professional services, retail, and recreation. In short, those industries that were attracted to the Port created a whole employment sector separate but intertwined with the Port’s mission. These jobs built much of Long Beach from 1909-1990 by providing stable, sometimes union, positions.

Today, these ancillary industries have mostly disappeared from Port property. Access to transportation and the need for local manufacturing shifted elsewhere or disappeared. That - combined with oil drilling, subsidence, the loss of the Navy and the competition in the shipping industry - has created a new Port outlook, taking the industry into the 21st Century. Make no mistake; the instincts of those early Port boosters led to economic opportunities that created a hefty portion of the City we see today. How will contemporary Long Beach guide the Port’s future?

On Wednesday, July 15th BHCA hosted a live community meeting with Chris Berry, Port Manager of Community Relations Mario Gonzalez, and other Port figures. They touched on the early history, but also caught us up on current innovations and challenges. Stay tuned for future live webcast events from the BHCA.

For an insightful review of early Port activities, graphic timelines, and maps, be sure to explore the Port of Long Beach Website.


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