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San Pedro

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Picture of San Pedro Harbor panorama

San Pedro is home to the port of Los Angeles. Pretentiously named Worldport LA, the port complex occupies the west half of a man-made harbor on San Pedro Bay. Combined with the adjacent Port of Long Beach, it’s the largest and busiest harbor in the United States and the fifth busiest in the world. Fishing originally was San Pedro’s dominant industry, but freighters and cruise ships have completely displaced the commercial fishing fleet. Picture of oil tanker hull Picture of a busy harbor Photo of boats Picture of brightly painted shipping containers Photo of a container freighter Picture of a container terminal Pic of shipping containers Picture of a freighter and portainer Photograph of brightly painted container cranes Picture of a portainer spreader

San Pedro was not named for the familiar Saint Peter who guards Heaven’s pearly gates. The Tongva people greeted the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo when he “discovered” San Pedro Bay in 1542. Noticing that smoke from Tongva fires accumulated under what is now called an “inversion layer,” Cabrillo named it Bahia de los Fumos, the Bay of Smokes. This was surely the first recorded reference to Los Angeles smog!

On 26 November 1602, Sebastian Vizcaíno arrived at the Bay of Smokes during his expedition to map the California coast. Following his standard pious practice, he renamed the bay Ensenada de San Andreas after the Apostle Andrew, the saint corresponding to that day on the Catholic calendar. In 1734, the navigator and cartographer José Gonzáles Cabrera Bueno discovered that Vizcaíno had misread the calendar. The saint for 26 November actually is Peter of Alexandria, a fourth-century archbishop martyred during one of the periodic Roman persecutions of Christians. The bay thus received its final name of San Pedro. You’ll survive a shibboleth challenge if you pronounce it “San Pee-dro,” as locals do.

Many people are surprised to learn that San Pedro is part of the City of Los Angeles. It’s on the southern end of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, 30 kilometers away from Downtown Los Angeles and seemingly disconnected from the rest of the city. Los Angeles in the early 20th century was something like Star Trek’s Borg, relentlessly “annexing” numerous nearby cities and towns. In 1906, Los Angeles officials decided the city should have a port. They started by annexing a narrow corridor (less than a kilometer wide in some places) that extends 25 kilometers to San Pedro Bay. That was merely a prelude to annexing San Pedro itself— and for good measure, the town of Wilmington at the north end of the harbor— in 1909. The corridor is officially called “Harbor Gateway,” and unofficially called “the strip.” Residents of “the strip” often are barely aware that they live in Los Angeles, since they get police, fire, and mail service (and their Zip code) from the nearest adjacent city.

Most of the harbor’s 69 kilometers of waterfront are private shipping terminals dedicated to container ships, oil tankers, dry bulk goods such as coal or steel, and other specialized cargo. They’re all leased from the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners and closed to the public. Sections open to visitors include a yacht marina (also the home port of a vestigial sport fishing fleet) and Ports O’ Call Village. The latter is a “themed” shopping mall made up to resemble a New England fishing village, with eateries, fish markets, and tourist tchotchke shops. Harbor cruises that leave from Ports O’ Call Village offer the only readily accessible close-up look at the port. It’s best to take a harbor cruise in the late afternoon, since most of the interesting port machinery is on the east side of the harbor’s main channel.

Container ships are Worldport LA’s the most prominent (and colorful) traffic. Steel shipping containers in internationally-standardized sizes are key elements of the infrastructure that makes the Global Economy possible.

A factory in China can fill a container with boxes of melamine-fortified pet food, contaminated blood thinner, or lead-painted toys, and load it onto a train bound for the port of Shanghai. There it’s loaded onto a container freighter. When the ship arrives at San Pedro, cranes at the terminal load the container onto a truck bound for a local warehouse, where the container is opened in preparation for distributing the goods to unsuspecting consumers on the West Coast. Or perhaps they’ll load it onto a train bound for somewhere on the East Coast, then onto a truck that takes it to the warehouse. The fancy term for this process is intermodal transportation. A severe trade imbalance means that most containers go back to China empty. Sometimes they’re abandoned at ports because new containers cost less than sending them back for reuse.

The containers are eight feet (2.44 meters) wide, eight and a half feet (2.59 meters) high; and 20 feet (6.1 meters) or 40 feet (12.2 meters) long. A 40-foot container— the most common size— can hold just under 27 tonnes of cargo. The international standard for shipping containers is, perhaps uniquely, based on English units rather than metric. American companies originated the standard sizes; by the time the rest of the world decided to adopt an international standard, the American sizes were too firmly entrenched to change. Perhaps the most interesting thing about shipping containers is that they’re painted in colors so intense that the Web versions of these pictures (and most computer displays) can’t reproduce them correctly.

San Pedro’s newest and largest container terminals are on Terminal Island, a man-made island built from a former mud flat in the center of the harbor. Although the name is certainly appropriate, it predates today’s container terminals by nearly a century. The Los Angeles Terminal Railroad Company bought what was then called Rattlesnake Island in 1871 to build a railroad terminal (as in “the end of the line”) for the burgeoning port. Understandably, the name didn’t seem fitting for an important rail terminal, so the company renamed the island after itself. Reservation Point, a peninsula on the southwest tip of Terminal Island, is a federal enclave with a Coast Guard station and a low-security men’s prison.

The cranes at the terminals are as colorful as the containers they lift on and off the ships. They’re often called portainers, although strictly speaking that’s a trademarked name for one kind of container crane. The 21st century longshoreman sits in a cab at the top of the crane and maneuvers a “spreader” along a rail until it’s over the ship. Then he or she lowers the spreader until it locks onto a container, engages a pulley to lift it, and sends the whole assembly down the rail to the dock. A fully-loaded 40-foot container can weigh over 30 tonnes— the equivalent of four bull elephants plus a cow elephant.
Picture of the Vincent Thomas Bridge Photo of a suspension bridge tower

The Vincent Thomas Bridge crosses the harbor between San Pedro and Terminal Island. It resembles San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge, although it’s shorter and painted green rather than red. Named for a long-time member of the California Legislature who tirelessly campaigned for its construction, it carries a lot of truck traffic from the port. It also provides a scenic route from the 110 (Harbor) Freeway to downtown Long Beach.

This suspension bridge once offered pedestrians a great view of the harbor. But like its San Francisco sibling, it was also irresistible to suicide jumpers. To stop the costly disruption suicides caused to port traffic, authorities banned all pedestrians and put a 6-meter-high mesh fence along both sides of the bridge. So unless you’re caught in a traffic jam, you can only enjoy a brief sample of the view.
Picture looking north from Point Fermin Picture of Point Fermin Lighthouse Photo of Point Fermin Lighthouse cupola Pic of Point Fermin light house

Of course, there is more to San Pedro than the port. Point Fermin Park comprises fifteen hectares on a cliff, 30 meters above a rocky shoreline. You can have a picnic while watching the ships entering and leaving the harbor, or enjoy the view of “The Hill” that dominates the Palos Verdes Peninsula. When you’re done, you can walk down one of the trails to the ocean. Captain George Vancouver named Point Fermin in 1793 for Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén de Arasqueta, then president of the California missions.

The Point Fermin Lighthouse is the park’s centerpiece. Both a lighthouse and a proper Victorian home for its keeper, it first lit up on 15 December 1874. The first keepers were two “spinster sisters,” who quit after eight years because they found the lighthouse too isolated.

The original lighthouse lamp burned whale oil. A petroleum vapor lamp replaced it in 1898, followed in 1925 by a modern electric light that could be seen for 35 kilometers.

The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1941, when the federal government shut down all lighthouses during the war. It fell into decay until volunteers restored it for its centennial in 1974. It then served as the park superintendent’s residence until 2002, when a two-year extensive renovation began. Today the lighthouse is a museum, open for guided tours.

Overlooking Point Fermin is Angel’s Gate Park, formerly part of an Army base. It’s now the home of the Korean Friendship Bell. This monument to the United States Bicentennial, and to the friendship between the United States and South Korea, is fascinating and colorful enough to merit its own page.

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