Wednesday, October 11, 2017

San Pedro: Slice of History

Adrien Machefert (Artist), "Life and Travels of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.” mural portraying early San Pedro and its harbor activity, c. 1939
Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Works Progress Administration Collection

On October 8, 1542, the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed into a natural harbor and marshland at the northwestern end of San Pedro Bay. He called it Bahia de Los Fumas (Bay of Smokes) for the smoke rising from the surrounding hillsides where Native Americans hunted.

So began the area’s historic road to becoming the nation’s preeminent port. The pathways on this road were many, some smooth, others uncertain, and some treacherous. From Cabrillo’s “discovery,” to Spanish settlement in 1769, to settlement surges during the Mexican and American eras, to becoming Los Angeles’s official port in 1897, opportunities in pleasure and tourism, industry and commerce inspired many.

In this post, we look at aspects of the port’s history through a quieter lens, the place where the hermit fisherman Tommy Leggett made his home.

Inspired by the photograph below, the following essay was written by Shelly Kale, CHS's Publications and Strategic Projects Manager, for publication in the forthcoming issue of California History 94, no. 4 (Winter 2018), © 2018 by the Regents of the University of California. Reprinted by permission. The author has further illustrated it to provide a visual sense of time and place. California History is published by the University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society. 

Helen Lukens Jones (Photographer), San Pedro Fisherman, c. 1900
 California Historical Society, California Counties Photography Collection

“A hermit’s life is one shifted by the tide of progress.”1
This photograph, made at San Pedro Bay around the turn of the twentieth century, depicts the solitary fisherman, surrounded and nourished by the ocean’s bounty. The clutter of accoutrements of life at sea—nets, ropes, barrels, the catch of the day—nearly dominate the scene. Ocean and sky reflect a peaceful allure.

The fisherman appears as a bridge between the land on which he works and sea and sky. A close-up might show the customary signs of his vocation: a face deeply lined and tanned from exposure to salt and sun, hands calloused or hardened from working ropes and nets. Yet, his position in the photograph is critical to the seascape, anchoring our eye as if to emphasize the scene’s human element. Sitting on a jetty, corncob pipe in mouth, he cleans his catch with seeming disregard of time in an idyllic partnership with the sea.

As the nineteenth century came to a close, however, the San Pedro mainland and bay islands were not the same places of “peace and refuge”—as Los Angeles Harbor historian Geraldine Knatz describes them—of only a few decades earlier.2 The area was, in historian William Deverell’s words, one of “breathtaking coastal beauty and the site of ruthless industrial ambition.”3 Here humans led the inevitable march of progress to today’s super-port complex of Los Angeles/Long Beach, with the largest volume of commerce in the United States, importing an estimated $200 billion of cargo each year.4

David Deis (Cartographer), Tongva Sites of Los Angeles (detail showing San Pedro Bay)
Published in Patricia Akida, ed., LAtitudes: an Angeleno’s Atlas (Heyday, 2015)

The transformation, of course, is inscribed in the region’s human history. Native Americans found abundance here, establishing villages from Redondo Beach (Engnovangna) to San Pedro (Harasagna, Ataviangana, Xujungna) to Alamitos Bay (Puvungna).5 As early as 1850, when California achieved statehood, San Pedro merchants eager for economic development requested that Congress establish San Pedro Bay as an official Port of Entry.6 San Pedro’s incorporation as a city in 1888; selection in 1897 as the official Los Angeles-area port (following the decade-long “Free Harbor Fight” with Santa Monica Bay); incorporation into Los Angeles in 1909; the port’s role in commerce and industry during two world wars and the post-World War II boom and the onset of the container age in the 1960s—all are signposts along the road to the port’s national preeminence by the turn of the twenty-first century.7

Detail, Port of Los Angeles Petition, 1850
Courtesy Los Angeles City Archives

Letter, John Temple to U.S. State Senator Thomas Hart Benton, May 27, 1850
Letter accompanying a petition to Congress to make the Port of San Pedro a Port of Entry
Courtesy Los Angeles City Archives

“Los Angeles Harbor, 1930—with tonnage second only to New York Harbor”
California Historical Society Collections at the University of Southern California

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Map of Port Facilities at Los Angeles, Calif., 1967
Courtesy Los Angeles Archivists Collective

And what of the hermit’s life during this “tide of progress”? Writer and amateur photographer Helen Lukens Jones’s photograph above of fisherman Thomas (Tommy) Leggett cleaning his catch of crabs—perhaps on the old East Jetty in East San Pedro on Rattlesnake (later Terminal) Island—provides no visible clue.8 But we know that he occupied various squatters’ shacks around the bay, beginning with Mormon Island in 1876. There he lived in the old “Parson’s House,” a squatter’s claim owned by Captain Albert A. Polhemus.9 According to David E. Hughes, ranking civilian engineer at the Los Angeles Engineer District in the first half of the twentieth century, the house was “in the way of repairing scows, so one evening when he [Leggett] came in from fishing he found his shack on Terminal [Rattlesnake] Island, instead of Mormon Is, but was soothed by offer of wood and water.”10 

Detail, Topographic map, San Pedro Bay, 1894

California Topographic Maps, University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas Libraries

Despite the insecurities of a squatter’s life, Leggett was, as his island squatter neighbor and friend Charles Fletcher Lummis wrote, “one of the gentlest, most unselfish, and most lovable of neighbors.”11 Lummis was one of the over 100 residents from the 1880s to the 1910s who made Terminal Island home, squatting in his beloved harbor cabin the Jib-O-Jib.12 He provided care for “Uncle Tommy” prior to his death and as the administrator of Leggett’s estate, arranged for his funeral and the sale of his belongings (two shotguns, a rifle, a stove, a lamp, a few saws, nets, skiffs, sail, and mast, among few other articles), and notified family members across the Atlantic.13  

Charles F. Lummis (Photographer), The Jib-O-Jib, 1908 (printed mid-1900s)
Braun Research Library Collection, Autry Museum of the American West
Gift of Mr. Charles F. Lummis, P.15607

Leggett lived on Rattlesnake Island in the 1880s (his residence appears on an 1885 map) and at Timms’ Point in San Pedro.14 At the end of the decade, he was evicted from that residence and returned to Rattlesnake (then Terminal) Island, where he died on July 14, 1909. During his nearly thirty years at the harbor, he would see the San Pedro coastline burst with commercial fishing vessels; the growth of shipping and railroad infrastructure, businesses, and homes; and the construction of the Port of Los Angeles. In the year of his death, consolidation with the City of Los Angeles would intensify the area’s transformation, bringing city services to San Pedro and funding for further harbor development.

Hansen & Solano, Map of a Part of the Rattlesnake Island (details) showing “Leggit” residence (top of detail at right), October 27, 1885
The Huntington Library, Manuscripts Department, Solano-Reeve collection

F. H. Maude, Pacific Stereopticon Co., Lantern slide of fishing fleets at Terminal Island, 1900s
Braun Research Library Collection, Autry Museum of the American West, LS.13664

To Leggett it must have appeared that the world had rushed in to San Pedro Bay, but this writer is convinced that, as much as possible, he would have maintained the seafaring routine for which he was known: “Tommy lived by his wits, and sustained himself by the bounty of the sea,” Geraldine Knatz has written, “At night he would take his boat out for a 10- to 12-mile run, dragging his nets, getting back early the next morning. He scraped by, earning a few dollars here or there, selling fish and investing it in nets. That didn’t set too well with the Department of Fish and Game, who issued a complaint against him in February 1900 for fishing without a license. Hermits just don’t get fishing licenses.”15

Charles F. Lummis (Photographer), Thomas Leggett, May 21, 1909
Braun Research Library Collection, Autry Museum of the American West,
Gift of Mr. Charles F. Lummis, P.32473

The author thanks Geraldine Knatz, PhD, former executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, and Liza Posas, head librarian and archivist of the Autry Museum’s Braun Research Library, for their research assistance.

1.      Geraldine Knatz, “The Hermits of Terminal Island—Part 1: The Tale of Tommy Leggett,” Historical Archives at the Port of Los Angeles, September 23, 2015; Portlaarchives,, accessed October 5, 2017.
2.      Naomi Hirahara and Geraldine Knatz, Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor (Los Angeles: Angel City Press, 2015), 21.
3.      Ibid., 9–10, 19.
4.      James Preston Allen, “A Long Journey from Brighton Beach,” Random Lengths News, August 15, 2015;, accessed October 5, 2017.
5.      L. J. Weinman and E. G. Stickel, Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor Areas Cultural Resource Survey (Los Angeles: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, April 1978).
6.      Henry P. Silka, San Pedro: A Pictorial History (Los Angeles: San Pedro Bay Historical Society, 1984). Although the designation finally was granted in 1853, the San Pedro port would never compete with San Francisco, the state’s first official Port of Entry, where the “world rushed in” during the Gold Rush.
7.      Accounts of the port’s history include William F. Deverell, Railroad Crossing:  Californians and the Railroad, 1850–1910 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994) and “The Los Angeles ‘Free Harbor Fight,’” California History 70, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 12–29; J. M. Guinn, “The Lost Islands of San Pedro,” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California 10, no. 1/2 (1915–1916): 95–100; Anna Marie Hager, “A Salute to the Port of Los Angeles from Mud Flats to Modern Day Miracle,” California Historical Society Quarterly 49, no. 4 (December 1970): 329–335; Los Angeles Harbor Department, The Port of Los Angeles: From Wilderness to World Port (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Harbor Department, 1983); Charles F. Quenan, Long Beach and Los Angeles: A Tale of Two Ports (Northridge, CA: Windsor Publications, 1986).
8.      San Pedro was part of the first Spanish land grant in California. In 1784, King Carlos III granted 75,000-acres to Juan Jose Dominguez, a retired Spanish soldier. The Spanish named Rattlesnake Island La Isla de la Culebra de Cascabel (Isle of the Snake of the Rattle) for its large number of rattlesnakes. When the island was purchased from the Dominguez heirs in 1891 by the Terminal Company, it was renamed Terminal Island on the expectation that it would become the terminus for a rail route from Utah to Los Angeles.  See Guinn, “The Lost Islands of San Pedro,” 98–99; Hirahara and Knatz, Terminal Island, 3035.
9.      Geraldine Knatz, “The Capture of Mormon Island,” History of the Port of Los Angeles, unpublished manuscript, 2017.
10.   Hughes, D. E., Memorandum on Resurvey of Mormon Island, July 4, 1916, David E. Hughes Papers (18801942), University of California Riverside, Box 1, Item 7, in email correspondence from Geraldine Knatz to the author, October 3, 2017. The memorandum includes handwritten addenda dated May 26, 1930. In his capacity as civilian engineer, Hughes built breakwaters and fortifications for Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor.
11.   Hirahara and Knatz, Terminal Island, 67.
12.   Holly Rose Larson, “The Dear Old Jib-O-Jib (Squatters at the Harbor),”, accessed October 1, 2017.
13.   Charles Fletcher Lummis Papers, 18881928, Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center, Los Angeles, CA; MS.1.
14.   Hirahara and Knatz, Terminal Island, 2122.
15.   Knatz, “The Hermits of Terminal Island.”

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

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