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The Gifts of Phineas Banning

Phineas Banning (1830-1885)

The growth of Los Angeles was by no means a sure thing. In the mid-1830s, Richard Henry Dana described the area when the ship he was on landed near San Pedro for a cargo of animal hides. The description comes from Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast:

What brought us into such a place, we could not conceive. No sooner had we come to anchor, than the slip-rope, and the other preparations for southeasters, were got ready; and there was reason enough for it, for we lay exposed to every wind that could blow, except the northerly winds, and they came over a flat country with a rake of more than a league of water. As soon as everything was snug on board, the boat was lowered, and we pulled ashore, our new officer, who had been several times in the port before, taking the place of steersman. As we drew in, we found the tide low, and the rocks and stones, covered with kelp and seaweed, lying bare for the distance of nearly an eighth of a mile. Leaving the boat, and picking our way barefooted over these, we came to what is called the landing-place, at high-water mark. The soil was, at it appeared at first, loose and clayey, and, except the stalks of the mustard plant, there was no vegetation. Just in front of the landing, and immediately over it, was a small hill, which, from its being not more than thirty or forty feet high, we had not perceived from our anchorage. Over this hill we saw three men coming down, dressed partly like sailors and partly like Californians; one of them having on a pair of untanned leather trousers and a red baize shirt. When they reached us, we found that they were Englishmen. They told us that they had belonged to a small Mexican brig which had been driven ashore here in a southeaster, and now lived in a small house just over the hill. Going up this hill with them, we saw, close behind it, a small, low building, with one room, containing a fireplace, cooking-apparatus, &c., and the rest of it unfinished, and used as a place to store hides and goods. This, they told us, was built by some traders in the Pueblo (a town about thirty miles in the interior, to which this was the port), and used by them as a storehouse, and also as a lodging-place when they came down to trade with the vessels. These three men were employed by them to keep the house in order, and to look out for the things stored in it. They said that they had been there nearly a year; had nothing to do most of the time, living upon beef, hard bread, and fríjoles, a peculiar kind of bean, very abundant in California. The nearest house, they told us, was a Rancho, or cattle-farm, about three miles off; and one of them went there, at the request of our officer, to order a horse to be sent down, with which the agent, who was on board, might go up to the Pueblo.

Even then, the Pueblo of Los Angeles was the center of the hide trade, but it lay more than a day’s journey from the port of San Pedro. Dana adds:

I also learned, to my surprise, that the desolate-looking place we were in furnished more hides than any port on the coast. It was the only port for a distance of eighty miles, and about thirty miles in the interior was a fine plane country, filled with herds of cattle, in the centre of which was the Pueblo de los Angeles,— the largest town in California,— and several of the wealthiest missions; to all of which San Pedro was the seaport.

 

Phineas Banning’s House in Wilmington

Fortunately for Southern California, there was a recent settler from Wilmington, Delaware, named Phineas Banning who ran a stage line and had definite ideas for turning Los Angeles in a port city. His house in Wilmington, California, was during the 1860s right up against a gigantic marsh. Banning decided to have the marsh filled in and a breakwater constructed off San Pedro so that vessels can load and unload at San Pedro in relative safety. In addition, he arranged for the railroad to come down to Los Angeles and San Pedro.

Ironically, it was a transportation accident that snuffed out the life of the transportation genius who made L.A. into a major city: He was run over by a horse and carriage in the street and died soon after of the injuries sustained in the accident.

Today, Banning’s house is a fascinating museum of life in 19th century Southern California. Martine and I visited it on Saturday for the first time in several years.

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