The King of Transportation
by John E. Fisher, LACHS Board Member
Since the beginning of history, the human race has depended on animals — horses, mules, camels and oxen — for long distance transportation across land. Such was the case in Southern California. Los Angeles and other settlements along El Camino Real were accessible only by horseback and stagecoach. That would begin to change with the efforts of a person who would become known as the “King of Transportation,” Phineas T. Banning.
Banning was a mule skinner, stagecoach driver and entrepreneur in a freight transportation company after arriving in San Pedro in 1851. He built trade routes to Ft. Tejon, Yuma, Tucson, and Salt Lake City and used his San Pedro wharf as the base for his shipping business.
Soon he would achieve greater successes. When a storm ripped apart his San Pedro wharf in 1857, he built a new one a few miles to the south. He then transformed a marshland, known as “Goose Town,” into a shipping wharf at the end of what is now Avalon Boulevard. Around that wharf, he carved out a town that he would call New San Pedro. He would later re-name it Wilmington, after the capital of his home state of Delaware.
In 1865, he began two two-year terms to the State Senate and was focused on seeking funds to build Los Angeles’ first railroad. In the grander scheme of things, he believed that a railroad would revive Los Angeles after the national economic collapse resulting from the Civil War. But on the personal level, he would greatly gain from this effort to transport goods from the Wilmington wharf to the young city along the “river on wheels.” His bill passed the Legislature in 1868, and a $225,000 bond for the San Pedro and Los Angeles Railroad was approved by Los Angeles voters by a mere 28-vote margin. Conflict of interest notwithstanding, Banning was a major stockholder in the railroad and was awarded the construction contract.
On October 26, 1869, the first railway in Southern California opened along the 22-mile Dominguez Route ending at what is now Commercial Street. In 1873, the line was sold to Southern Pacific to entice them to extend the national rail network from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This linkage was realized in 1876.
Soon thereafter, Banning improved the wharf into a deep-water port where large seagoing steamers would dock. Banning’s seaport was eventually absorbed by the Port of Los Angeles and the “King of Transportation” also would become known as the “Father of the Los Angeles Harbor.” The linkage of the city with the national rail network, the development of the wharf into a harbor, and the accessibility between these two points was the catalyst, which activated the transformation of Los Angeles from a dusty pueblo to a major metropolis.
During the automobile era, the road was built alongside the Dominguez Route that is now known as Alameda Street. Due to the growth of the county, numerous grade crossings were added, thus resulting in collisions, delay, and deteriorated freight operation. In April 2002, the Alameda Corridor was completed that rebuilt Banning’s railroad below the street network. This national model of freight rail transportation permanently reaffirmed Banning’s vision of a “river on-wheels.”
Banning’s 24-room 1864 mansion survives as a Los Angeles City landmark museum in the Wilmington district, set on 20 acres of parkland at 401 East M Street.
John E. Fisher is a LACHS Board Member and is a retired Assistant Manager of the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
Resources and more information:
The Banning Museum
Early Views of San Pedro and Wilmington - Water and Power Associates