With locations all over the city, and lots of books and other materials devoted to local history, libraries are a perfect springboard for exploring Los Angeles. This is the second in a series of blog posts that digs into local history near a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. San Pedro, the southernmost branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, is the destination for this road trip.
The San Pedro Regional Branch Library has excellent resources for exploring the Port of Los Angeles, as well as the neighborhoods and landmarks around it. One of its most incredible resources is unique to the San Pedro library—a filing cabinet full of newspaper clippings from area newspapers dating back decades, along with a corresponding card catalog. Established in 1888, the library has grown alongside San Pedro and opened in successively larger buildings–the current building is the fifth location. The library’s second location deserves a quick mention.
When the once-independent city of San Pedro was annexed into the city of Los Angeles in 1909, their local library became a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. From 1906 until it closed in 1924, the Carnegie-funded library was located on Beacon Street, across from the present-day post office. In 1922, construction on Harbor Boulevard necessitated the lowering of the hill the library stood on. As a result, access to the branch required patrons to enter the library via a gangplank into a window at the back of the library. Meanwhile, staff used a ladder to enter and exit the building. In 1923, the library's annual report noted that it was mostly “men and boys who enjoy acrobatic exercise” that visited the library. The library moved into a new building, with its own structural problems, on Gaffey & 10th Street in 1924.
History overlooking the ocean
Today there are numerous historic sites within approximately two miles of the San Pedro Regional Branch Library. South of the library, down Gaffey Street, are three of the most popular sites—Fort MacArthur, the Korean Friendship Bell, and the Point Fermin Lighthouse. Each of these spots is suitable for a picnic lunch with an ocean view—you can pack one of your own or pick up sandwiches at the nearby Busy Bee Market, a San Pedro staple for decades.
Fort MacArthur, located south of the library off of Gaffey, is a former military reservation that defended the Los Angeles Harbor from 1914 until 1974. During World War I, Fort MacArthur (named after Lt. General Arthur MacArthur, the father of Douglas MacArthur) had artillery batteries with weapons capable of firing a 1500+ lb projectile approximately seventeen miles out to sea. During World War II, Fort MacArthur served as an induction center for soldiers on their way to basic training. It was also part of the Nike air defense system during the Cold War. Two of the former artillery batteries, Battery Osgood and Battery Farley, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and today make up the Fort MacArthur Museum. The library has numerous materials on the history of Fort MacArthur, including books, newspaper clippings, and photos. You can also check out movies that were filmed at Fort MacArthur such as A Few Good Men and Private Benjamin.
The picturesque Korean Friendship Bell, in Angel’s Gate Park and accessible from Gaffey, was a bicentennial gift from the Republic of Korea. The decorated bell, modeled after the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, was given as a symbol of friendship and to honor American veterans. Today the bell is rung on several holidays throughout the year. The day I visited a few people were flying kites, a quinceanera photo shoot was taking place, the ice cream truck parked in the parking lot had a line, and two families were enjoying a picnic in the ocean breeze. (You may recognize the Korean Friendship Bell from its role in the film The Usual Suspects.)
The Point Fermin Lighthouse stands guard on the cliff at the end of Gaffey, just as it has since it was built in 1874. Built from California redwood, the lighthouse now houses a museum and no longer serves as a functional lighthouse. The library has books devoted to local lighthouses, including one focused on the Point Fermin lighthouse keepers themselves. Mary Smith, along with her sister Ella, served as the first lighthouse keepers at Point Fermin. [Spoiler from the book: Mary Smith’s job became a nightmare.] Don’t miss the Huell Howser episode about the mystery of the lighthouse’s missing fresnel lens (see Resources). The surrounding park features beautiful trees that provide plenty of shade (including several massive Moreton Bay fig trees), a bandshell for concerts, and numerous picnic tables.
San Pedro’s Carnegie Library (1906-1924) once stood on Beacon Street in Plaza Park, approximately one mile due east from the current library. Today a historical plaque marks the spot of the library, and the park has numerous shady benches that provide a perfect spot to enjoy the view overlooking the harbor. (A great spot to enjoy a sandwich from the nearby A-1 Imported Groceries & Deli, they’ve been in business since 1947). Across Beacon Street from the park is a 1935 Streamline Moderne post office featuring a lobby mural painted by artist Fletcher Martin. The 1938 mural titled Mail Transportation was funded by the WPA. The post office basement also has a San Pedro Postal Museum that was closed on the day I visited. There are quite a few historic sites and memorials within walking distance of each other along Beacon Street and Harbor Blvd, overlooking the Main Channel of the Port of Los Angeles.
The San Pedro Municipal Building (built in 1928 to house San Pedro’s City Hall, jail, and courtroom) is a short walk down the street from the post office and houses the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Harbor Museum. Several memorials and time capsules are located beside the Municipal Building, as is a nineteenth-century public water fountain that once stood on Beacon Street. (San Pedro history books feature stories of saloons and brothels along Beacon. The drinking fountains were installed around town in hopes of encouraging saloon-goers to enjoy water instead of booze.)
The Los Angeles Maritime Museum, located across Harbor Blvd from the Municipal Building, has great exhibits on the history of the Port of Los Angeles, the local fishing and canning industry plus U.S. Navy artifacts (interesting factoid- the West Coast tuna industry began in San Pedro). The museum is housed in the former Terminal Island Ferry Building (which operated from 1941 until 1963, when the Vincent Thomas Bridge opened). Several memorials celebrating the harbor and its history stand outside, next to the Maritime Museum. If the museum’s exhibits pique your interest to learn more, the Port of Los Angeles and Terminal Island are two nearby destinations that definitely deserve further exploration (they are 4-5 miles east of the library).
The creation and growth of the harbor, which contains the busiest container port in the United States, is a fascinating and complex story. Numerous books on the subject are available at the library, including some dating back to the nineteenth century when the harbor's location was still being determined. Don’t miss an excellent documentary on the port called The Port of Los Angeles: A History, available on DVD at the library, that features interviews with people reminiscing about, working at, or growing up near the port.
Nearby Terminal Island has a long history and is notable for the large community of Japanese Americans who once lived in East San Pedro (on Terminal Island) and worked in the island’s fisheries and canneries. The Lost Communities of Terminal Island is an excellent resource to learn about its history, as is the documentary The Lost Village of Terminal Island that features many people who lived there. The book Removal and Return: The Socio-Economic Effects of the War on Japanese Americans (written in 1949 and available at Central Library) devotes a chapter to the displacement and destruction of the community who once called the island home. Today you can visit the Terminal Island Japanese Fishing Village Memorial.
In addition to the fishing and canning industries, other port businesses have historically included shipping, shipbuilding, lumberyards, and oil refineries. These maritime-related industries have made the port one of the largest employers in Southern California. Thanks to the port’s diverse workforce, the population of San Pedro boomed. In addition to the Japanese American community on Terminal Island, San Pedro has historically been home to large Croatian, Italian, and Norwegian communities. [Interesting factoid- the building that houses the San Pedro Ballet School (Misty Copeland is a graduate) previously held a Norwegian bakery and a Japanese grocery store]. The Friends of the San Pedro Regional Library even published two volumes of the cookbook Around the World, Around Our Town: Recipes from San Pedro that gathered recipes from the various communities.
Literary San Pedro
“Two days brought us to San Pedro, and two days more (to our no small joy) gave us our last view of that place, which was universally called the hell of California, and seemed designed, in every way, for the wear and tear of sailors.”—Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1840)
The best known literary connection to San Pedro may be Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s low opinion of the city (circa 1830s) in Two Years Before the Mast, or as Charles Bukowski’s home during the last 15+ years of his life. But San Pedro, as home/inspiration/setting, is evident in many materials available at the Los Angeles Public Library. Ballerina Misty Copeland, musician Mike Watt, novelist Louis L’Amour, and humorist Richard Armour are a few of the people that grew up or lived in San Pedro and wrote about their experiences. In his autobiography, musician Art Pepper described growing up with an often-absent longshoreman father who took his young son to Beacon Street bars. Author Scott O’Dell often drew upon his time as a child living in San Pedro and on Rattlesnake Island (aka Terminal Island) for his novels such as Island of the Blue Dolphins. Novelist and journalist Louis Adamic (born in Austria-Hungary, present-day Slovenia) wrote about the immigrant men and women he encountered while living in San Pedro. (Adamic preferred San Pedro over Los Angeles and waxed poetic about the smells of the port. It was on a bulletin board at the San Pedro Library that he found a job announcement for a municipal port pilots’ clerk, a position he would hold for four years.)
San Pedro is home to many more historic treasures than can be visited in one day. In addition to the places listed here, there are a great many Victorian, Craftsmen and Queen Anne homes (the Vinegar Hill neighborhood east of the library is an HPOZ/Historic Preservation Overlay Zone), an art deco movie theater (Warner Grand, 478 W. 6th Street), an aquarium dating back to the 1940s (Cabrillo Marine Aquarium), a World War II-era battleship and a WWII cargo ship (both are now museums), and more. Visit the San Pedro Library to view the local history resources–including historical newspaper clippings from area newspapers–and learn more about the southernmost community of Los Angeles.