port of los angeles

The History of the Port of Los Angeles

With a vast and captivating history dating back to the days of European explorers, the Port of Los Angeles has helped to transform a once small settlement into the international city of Los Angeles as we know it today.


The area which is now the Port of Los Angeles was originally discovered in 1542 by explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo. The original name of the port was “Bay of Smokes” which faced the San Pedro Bay and was a shallow, muddy, flat inlet which could not support a wharf.

The area acquired its name as a result of the smoke from fires set by Native Americans who were hunting game on the hillsides that shadowed the San Pedro Bay. Because of this, any visiting ships had two options: they could anchor far out and have the passengers and goods ferried into shore, or take the chance of beaching themselves which could prove to be a dangerous operation.

Late 1800s

In 1871, Phineas Banning improved shipping and passenger transportation to the Port of Los Angeles when he dredged the channel to create a depth of 10 feet and in that same year, the port managed around 50,000 tons of goods. Banning also owned a stagecoach line that connected to both Salt Lake City, Utah and Yuma, Arizona, and three years prior to the dredging he constructed a railroad that connected the San Pedro Bay to Los Angeles.

When Banning passed away in 1885 the port managed 500,000 tons of shipping and his sons continued to promote the port with their own interests in mind.

But in 1893, railroad tycoon, Collis Huntington, wanted to build the Port of Los Angeles in Santa Monica where his railroad line ended and went so far as to construct the existing wharf. Thanks to Senator Stephen White, who requested federal support for the Port of Los Angeles to be constructed at San Pedro Bay, the Free Harbor Fight was settled in 1897 following the endorsement from Rear Admiral John Walker for the port to be in San Pedro Bay.

With the Federal Government’s support for the location, breakwater construction started in 1899 and the locale was annexed by the City of Los Angeles in 1909.

Early 1900s

Two years prior to the annexation of the new wharf, the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners was founded and in 1912, the Southern Pacific Railroad finished construction on its initial large wharf at the port. The 1920s saw considerable growth which resulted in the port surpassing San Francisco as the busiest port on the West Coast.

In the early 1930s, as part of a massive expansion, the outer breakwater was constructed at two miles in length and three miles out to sea. The inner breakwater was created off of Terminal Island which allowed for the construction of seagoing docks as well as smaller docks. The port played a large role in shipbuilding which supported the U.S. Government during World War II and provided jobs for 90,000 people.

1950s – Present

Containerization began in 1959 when the Matson Navigation Company delivered 20 containers to the port. Access to Terminal Island was significantly improved in 1963 with the construction of the Vincent Thomas Bridge that allowed for additional port expansion and increased traffic.

According to “Portrait of a Port” from the February 2007 edition of World Trade Magazine, in 1985, the port handled over one million containers per year. The most recent expansion occurred in 2000 and completed the Pier 400 Dredging and Landfill Program, the largest project of its kind in the United States. According to the Port of Los Angeles statistics, the port┬áprocesses approximately 8 million TEUs every year.

For more information on the history of the port of Los Angeles, be sure to check out KCRW’s special Cargoland series where you can hear firsthand accounts of life at the port.

And for detailed information, maps and contact information for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, be sure to download a free copy of our Comprehensive Port Service Guide.