Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Port Los Angeles: A Phenomenon of the Railroad Era. By Ernest Marquez. San Marino: Golden West Books, 1976. Preface. Introduction. Illustrations. Maps. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. 142 pages. $12.95.
Reviewed by Professor Robert G. Athearn, University of Colorado, author of Rebel of the Rockies: A History of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (1962), Union Pacific Country (1971), and six other books dealing with western history generally. His latest work, The Coloradans, will be published by the University of New Mexico Press in the fall, 1976.
The history of railroad town-building and the general influence of the roads upon the location, welfare and ultimate fate of countless names on the land is well documented. The Denver and Rio Grande Railway, for example, created Colorado municipalities, blackmailed others into buying bonds to gain rail service, and in some cases by-passed little settlements whose residents were unwilling to pay up and thereby they denied such places service and, in some instances, a future. In southern California a somewhat similar situation developed during the last quarter of the nineteenth century as Senator John P. Jones, who had made a lot of money in the Nevada mines, laid out the town of Santa Monica, organized his own Los Angeles & Independence Railroad and, in 1875, built a wharf that could accommodate oceangoing steamers.
Then the colossus of northern California, the Southern Pacific Railroad, moved in and took over. Its managers foresaw that if Santa Monica became the principal port serving the Los Angeles area their monopoly would be threatened, particularly if the dangerous Jay Gould who was then deeply interested in the Union Pacific — a road that was looking for a Pacific Coast outlet of its own — were to acquire the Los Angeles & Independence. Buying that infant line posed no problem to the Southern Pacific. It was on the scene, it had shown unfailing powers of strangulation upon earlier occasions, and the proposed victim was suffering financially from hard times and some mining failures that had hurt its sponsor. The time was ripe for another Southern Pacific acquisition. Jones sold out for about a quarter of the money he had sunk into his venture, one that petered out before it could get out of the suburbs of Los Angeles en route to Nevada and the outstretched hands of roads that rivalled the Southern Pacific.
Before the 1870s were over the new owners of the Santa Monica wharf abandoned it and the coastal village that had aspired to international fame as a seaport became a near ghost-town of some 350 residents. San Pedro, regarded by government engineers as the better site, appeared to have acquired the title of port city. Events, however, altered that dream also. Federal money was slow in coming to San Pedro, the Southern Pacific began to have doubts that it could control that place forever, and so, in the spring of 1890 when a management change placed Collis Huntington at the head of the Southern Pacific, Santa Monica once again came into favor. Huntington was an advocate of the earlier port site, partly because it was four miles closer to Los Angeles, partly because he saw it as the company’s port.
By 1893 the Southern Pacific had completed its famed “long wharf” at Santa Monica and as oceangoing traffic began to use its facilities Port Los Angeles came into existence. However, the fanfare had scarcely died away before a new threat appeared. Rival San Pedro’s desire for government approval and for federal funds was realized by 1896 when government engineers decided that it was the better of the two ports. The decision meant that within another decade the elaborate long wharf at Santa Monica began to be ignored by larger steamers and the expensive structure commenced to deteriorate. By 1920 it was dismantled and Port Los Angeles, only twenty-seven years old, expired.
Ernest Marquez, whose family was granted lands during the Mexican period in what became the Santa Monica area, has executed a concise, unbiased account of the influence railroads exerted upon the one-time Rancho Boca de Santa Monica and upon southern California in general. The handsome volume is highly illustrated, clearly written, very reasonably priced and, all in all, is a very attractive historical package.