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The first glimpse I got of USS Iowa came as I drove down the hill to the harbor in San Pedro. I say “glimpse” because I really only saw a sliver through the buildings. It was, of all things, battleship gray and tubular. When I finally got onto Harbor Boulevard, which parallels the Channel, the Iowa dominated the horizon, and I could tell that the tubular thing I’d been looking at from a few blocks away was the 60-foot barrel of one of the Iowa’s nine 16-inch guns.

USS Iowa firing during 1984 naval exercise

The USS Iowa firing its 16-inch guns during a fire-power demonstration during naval exercises off Puerto Rico in 1984. (Dept. of Defense photo)

The Iowa, a World War II battleship about to become a museum, arrived from mothballs in the San Francisco Bay Area a few weeks ago. It’s scheduled to open to the public in San Pedro a week from Saturday (July 7). It’s now officially in its “quiet period,” I guess, as the final retrofits are being finished so it can receive the public.

My first impression—actually, my impression for the whole time I walked along Harbor Boulevard looking through the chain-link fence at the ship—is that the thing is huge. But it was built to be huge, a visible warning of the immense power it had, and by extension, that America had.

The USS Iowa, through the chain-link fence at its new berth in San Pedro. The ship is nearly three football fields in length. It runs from First Street to Third Street.

The Iowa was the first of four battleships put into service late in World War II. (The others were the New Jersey, the Wisconsin, and the Missouri.) They’d been planned in the late 1930s, before the war began. But the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941 sidelined all of the battleships in the U.S. fleet—five were sunk and the other three damaged. (Six of the eight returned to service before the war ended.)

The Iowa and her sister ships were intended to answer two Japanese battleships, the Yamato and Musashi, which were ordered in 1937. The Iowa-class battleships were slightly longer than the Japanese, but had smaller guns (the American battleships had nine 16-inch guns, and the Japanese had nine 18-inch guns). The Japanese battleships could also carry a few airplanes. All of the American Iowa-class battleships survived World War II; neither of the new Japanese battleships did.

The combat decorations awarded to the USS Iowa from 1943-1990 are affixed to the structure just behind the bridge.

The world had changed in the quarter-century between World War I and World War II. While dominating the seas was still the goal of navies, technology had introduced new ways to do that. Battleships, in part because of their immense size and their lack of maneuverability, were vulnerable to torpedoes. And they were also vulnerable to bombs dropped by planes launched from a new type of naval vessel, the aircraft carrier.

Obsolete though it may have been the day it was commissioned, the battleship was still a projection of raw power—immense, ironclad, and with guns that could shoot explosive projectiles that weighed nearly a ton and a half almost 25 miles. A Navy spokesman described the power decades later as lobbing “explosive Volkswagens from Long Beach to Catalina.” It’s an image that has stuck with me for decades.

That’s the power I saw through the chain-link fence in San Pedro. And the history. The Iowa, once known as “The Big Stick,” is now remembered as the Battleship of Presidents. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush were all aboard it. Its strategic value may have weakened over time, but it stood by for 45 years, the “big stick” Presidents could use to back up their soft words.

The Iowa is now the centerpiece of another battle—the economic reinvigoration of San Pedro. The hope is that it can do what nothing else has been able to: bring people to the port and get them to leave some of their money.  The question is whether it’s a big enough stick to do that, or if—as it was when it was commissioned almost 70 years ago—the previous generation’s answer.

The Pacific Battleship Center, which will operate the floating museum, has posted an admission price of $18 to tour the Iowa, $10 for retired military, and free for active-duty military. (This pricing structure probably would have brought far more visitors when San Pedro still had its navy base, army base, and air-force base.) Iowa residents can also visit for free—payback, clearly, for the state’s contribution of $3 million toward preserving and relocating its namesake to San Pedro.

The USS Iowa’s fore guns. The barrel of each is nearly 70 feet long. The bore is 16 inches in circumference. The guns could fire a 2,700-pound explosive projectile a distance of 24 miles.

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60-Second Sunset

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I’ve been away from the blog for too long, but not from the beach. This is a sunset I grabbed on a trip to Florida last month and haven’t had time until today to process and post.

Green Key Beach—also known as Robert K. Rees Memorial Park—is a place I probably wouldn’t have happened upon had I not done a little digital recon. I was looking for a spot north of Clearwater, and preferably north of Pinellas County, where I could see the sun drop into the Gulf of Mexico. A few miles west of New Port Richey, I saw a spit of land that looked like it would give me the vantage point I was looking for. The online maps call it Green Key Beach; Pasco County—which operates the park—calls it Robert K. Rees Memorial Park.

I wish I could tell you more about Rees and why this spit of land with pretty vast recreational facilities is named after him. But I didn’t see any signs at the park. The online mentions from newspapers in the 1970s indicate he served as a Pasco County Commissioner, and in 1971, was accused of assaulting what the St. Petersburg Times called “a disgruntled constituent” in an area bar. It is, after all, that part of Florida where the natural beauty often obscures the history.

The natural beauty also seems to be obscuring Pasco County’s best efforts to collect revenue. I was more than happy to drop a couple bucks into the collection box for the parking fee, but the box was broken and I suspected my dollar bills wouldn’t be there by the time the county officials came to empty out the day’s proceeds.

But there was a sunset that April evening—a glorious one, it turned out. Have a look at the 60-second version and tell me if you don’t agree.

And one added inducement to enjoy the video: the music was composed, arranged, and performed by my 16-year-old daughter Rebecca Skolnick, who was with me at Green Key Beach for the sunset.

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A sliver of sunset

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View Pass-a-Grille, FL in a larger map

The weekend was a cloudy one as a cold front passed through central Florida, but by late Sunday afternoon Rebecca and I decided to head out to see if we could spy the setting sun. Maybe the timing would work out for us, and the trailing edge of the front would come through.

It was my turn to pick the location, and I opted for a stretch in southern Pinellas County called Pass-a-grille, which is one of the communities in St. Pete Beach. We had been there a few times before just knocking around, and it seemed like a good time to revisit it. We were on the cusp of what is known as “The Season”—which is when people from colder climates come to Florida to get out of the snow—and the place would probably be crawling with that odd species known as “the Northern Snow Bird.”

Except it wasn’t. Maybe they’d all been driven indoors by a stiff breeze and cloudy skies. Or maybe they figured it was a better time to hit the bar than the beach.

There were parking spots aplenty, but apparently the meters hadn’t been maintained because nothing I could do would get it to accept my money and issue me a receipt I needed to put on the dashboard. A kindly gentleman who had all the earmarks of being a local told me to just leave the car, that the parking-enforcement people would never come out on such a cold afternoon to write tickets. I trusted him.

Supposedly, the name comes from French fishermen in the area in the mid-19th Century, who’d use this land to grill their catch. The “pass” is an entrance to Boca Ciega Bay, which separates the barrier islands in the area from the mainland.

Just as I was capturing the desolation of a dreary day, a woman walked out onto the pier and into my shot. I was ready to pack it in when I decided that, instead of an intrusion, this was now a new photographic subject.

This couple was also enjoying the sliver of sunset, and with a little positioning across the rocks, I was able to silhouette them against the colors.

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60-Second Sunset #2

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CLEARWATER, FL—I got an opportunity to grab another sunset last night, and it represents a whole new dimension for Shoreline5089, namely a new state.

The place was suggested by my 16-year-old daughter Rebecca. It’s a view of the Florida Western Intracoastal Waterway (foreground) and the Gulf of Mexico (background) as seen from the top of the Belleair Causeway. This bridge is relatively new, and it has substantially greater height than the drawbridge it replaced. That means it has a much better view of the wide-open water and the setting sun.

And it turns out we snuck this one under the weather-wire. A cold front is moving through, and today is a thick slate-gray day in all directions with pretty steady rain.

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The Night the Big Guns Fired

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Gatehouse, where a sentry would have been guarding the entrance to Fort MacArthur when the base was active.

There are two gigantic moments in the 70-year history of Fort MacArthur in San Pedro. One is Christmas Eve 1941, a little more than three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A Japanese submarine torpedoed a cargo ship carrying lumber a few miles outside Los Angeles Harbor. Although the attack took place within sight of Fort MacArthur, not a single round was fired by the coastal-defense guns at the Japanese submarine.

Two months later, the guns did open fire. In what is sometimes called “The Battle of Los Angeles,” the guns shot more than 1,400 artillery rounds in a little over an hour, beginning at about three o’clock in the morning on February 25, 1942. What they were firing at remains a question. There was widespread fear of a Japanese attack on Los Angeles, but there were no enemy aircraft in the skies. Shrapnel damaged many houses and cars up to ten miles away, and the deafening noise of the big anti-aircraft guns scared many people.

I didn’t really know much about either of these big events in the history of southern California until I visited the Fort MacArthur Military Museum, which is on a bluff overlooking Point Fermin. Burrowed into the hillside are thick concrete gun emplacements. The museum itself is located in one of those emplacements, Battery Osgood-Farley.

(Other areas of the Fort MacArthur that I explored on my own in decades past, mainly Battery Barlow-Saxton, are not accessible to the public now because structural collapses have rendered them unsafe.)

The federal government began setting aside land for coastal defense in San Pedro as early as 1888. By the 1920s, large artillery pieces—some weighing hundreds of tons–were added.

But time was always Fort MacArthur’s biggest enemy. It was a fortress designed to protect the port from the early 20th Century’s biggest worry, a naval attack. But by the time of World War II, attack strategies had shifted to the air, and Fort MacArthur, much of it nestled in a ravine, was vulnerable.

The guns were already obsolete in World War II. The Osgood-Farley artillery was declared surplus in 1944, and destroyed for scrap in 1946. They had cost millions to purchase and install. There were questions about how accurate 1920s armaments were in the 1940s, and Fort MacArthur’s weapons were seldom fired.

Except for that night in 1942. Looking at the old newspapers on the museum walls, it’s hard for us now to imagine the fear and vulnerability of a coastal community with a major port, a navy base, major defense manufacturers (aircraft plants in Long Beach, El Segundo, and Santa Monica), and a growing industrial infrastructure. And Fort MacArthur was the American defense outpost closest to Japan.

They knew they were targets of an aggressive imperial force that had already struck American interests in Hawaii and elsewhere.

So what was it that set off the guns that night 70 years ago? Was it Japanese aircraft? Almost assuredly it wasn’t. Studies of Japanese archives after World War II established that, at the time, there were no Japanese aircraft over California. Was it “war nerves,” as the Secretary of the Navy declared hours after the guns went silent? Undoubtedly, hysteria was involved. The day after the Secretary of the Navy spoke, the War Department weighed in. It had been at least five aircraft, Secretary Henry L. Stimson said, commercial planes that had overflown Los Angeles from a secret airfield in the California Desert or in Mexico, that were on a reconnaissance mission to see the terrain and gauge the defenses.

Forty years later, the Office of Air Force History issued a report that attempted to piece together all of the evidence. Its conclusion? That weather balloons sighted at 3:06 am drifting south from Santa Monica started the chain of events that led to the clamorous, anxious night.

But a recounting of the event in a newspaper article after the war may contain the most plausible explanation for what happened. The article was by Matt Weinstock, a reporter for the Daily News (not related to today’s Los Angeles Daily News).

The gun emplacement and observation area atop Battery Osgood-Farley at Fort MacArthur Military Museum.

According to the Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942 site, Weinstock’s article contained this quote from a man who had served in an Army squad that set up radar installations:

"Early in the war things were pretty scary and the Army was setting up coastal defenses. At one of the new radar stations near Santa Monica, the crew tried in vain to arrange for some planes to fly by so that they could test the system. As no one could spare the planes at the time, they hit upon a novel way to test the radar. One of the guys bought a bag of nickel balloons and then filled them with hydrogen, attached metal wires, and let them go. Catching the offshore breeze, the balloons had the desired effect of showing up on the screens, proving the equipment was working. But after traveling a good distance offshore and to the south, the nightly onshore breeze started to push the balloons back towards the coastal cities. The coastal radar's picked up the metal wires and the searchlights swung automatically on the targets, looking on the screens as aircraft heading for the city. The ACK-ACK started firing and the rest was history."

It is, of course, unfair from so far in the future to blame anyone for that calamitous night. Steven Spielberg tried to make light of it in a daffy comedy called “1941,” with John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and John Candy, in 1979.

And, this weekend, the Fort MacArthur Military Museum will commemorate it with a dinner/dance that has become its annual signature event. It’s called “The Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942.”

Entrace to the Fort MacArthur Military Museum, in what was once the concrete of Battery Osgood overlook the Port of Los Angeles and the Catalina Channel.

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60-Second Sunset

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Our newest feature—the 60-Second Sunset.

Why?

It just seemed like a simple enough thing to do, and it could be the best minute you spend all day.

For the record, this is an unenhanced, single 30-minute video shot, digitally compressed into 60 seconds. I shot it yesterday alongside Vista del Mar, the street that runs along the ocean between Playa del Rey and Manhattan Beach, toward the north end of Dockweiler State Beach.

Get the full effect by maximizing the video on your screen.

 

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There are train tracks outside the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. It’s not unusual in the harbor to see tracks. Rail is one of the chief ways they move thousands of tons of cargo. What is unusual is the small passenger platform alongside those tracks.

When I walked over to inspect the platform, I learned that it was a Red Car stop.

The Red Car, heading north toward the platform at the bottom of Sixth Street in San Pedro.

The Pacific Electric Red Car dominated southern California transportation for nearly half a century. It did much to make a set of disparate communities in the sun into a single region.

Truth be told, I have only the faintest memory of the Red Car. I can remember, probably in 1957 or 1958, going with my dad in the car to pick up my mom at the Red Car station in Lynwood, not far from where we lived. She’d been shopping in downtown Los Angeles. I also remember in about 1960 a huge dump of PE Red Cars where the 710 Freeway ended in Long Beach. The Long Beach line was the first of PE’s lines, starting service in 1903. And it was the last. The last streetcar rolled in 1961.

But here, between South Harbor Boulevard and the water in San Pedro, came a Red Car, an electrified trolley coming right to the platform, a vision of my very distant youth clanging its way toward me. This Red Car is a replica, built from the ground up to be exactly likes the ones that rumbled over a thousand miles of track as part of the largest interurban railroad in the world. It now travels back and forth from San Pedro’s World Cruise Center to the 22nd Street terminal, a route of 1.5 miles.

Conductor Jay making the collection rounds as the Red Car heads down the track. The replica is very impressive in how accurate it is in its materials and workmanship.

The Port of Los Angeles built two replica Red Cars and renovated a third one. It launched the Waterfront Red Car Line in 2003 as part of a port-revitalization project. The idea seemed to be that providing easy, inexpensive transportation from the cruise terminal past Ports O’ Call  would give those boarding and disembarking from cruise ships something else to do (and a way to spend some money) during their time in San Pedro.

It doesn’t appear to have worked out that way. The Port seems to have discovered that a transportation hub is a necessary evil of travel, a place to get in and out of as quickly as possible and not part of most people’s sight-seeing agenda.

Still, the Red Car has a few passengers—parents showing their young children how things used to be, old-timers reliving a few minutes of their past, and train buffs. The 20-minute ride from end to end of the Waterfront Red Car Line costs $1. Actually, the $1 fare covers an entire day of riding the Red Car (which, judging from old-time tickets I’ve seen displayed and taking inflation into account, may be a fraction of what an all-day pass cost in the Red Car’s heyday).

I was struck on my rides how pleasant the passage was. The Red Car moves at maybe 10 miles an hour, which is about five times faster than I walk. The wood seats are comfortable, and the backs can be flipped so riders can face forward whichever way the car happens to be traveling, or they can face their traveling companions. And the bell can be hypnotic.

The backs of the Red Car's wooden seats flip to face forward, whichever way the car is heading, or to face traveling companions.

At one stop, the engineer decided the car was a little too warm, so she walked over to one of the windows, flipped up the sill, lowered the window into a wall pocket, and flipped the sill back into its horizontal position. Air conditioning that takes no space at all! It’s the kind of innovation you see in Craftsman-era homes. It was remarkably utilitarian in its day—and it still is.

It would be nice to say that the mobility and connectedness the Pacific Electric Red Car brought to southern California was the point. But in truth, being free to move around the region was a by-product. The point was a commercial venture. Henry E. Huntington, nephew of the Southern Pacific Railroad founder of Collis P. Huntington and once his employee, saw an opportunity at the dawn of the 20th Century to build an urban railroad in southern California by consolidating and connecting smaller streetcar lines.

He wasn’t the first to buy up real estate before the rails were laid, which is what put him in a perfect position to benefit from the increased values the streetcars brought to that land. He had developed a hotel in Redondo Beach, and hired George Freeth, the Hawaiian surfer and swimmer, to make that a destination people would want to travel to on his streetcar. He developed Huntington Park, south of downtown Los Angeles, and the seaside community of Huntington Beach in Orange County, and then connected them to the rest of southern California with his railroad.

Henry Huntington was, for the most part, out of the interurban rail business a decade after he got into it. Southern Pacific, the railroad founded by his uncle which Henry had tried to take over, bought out the Red Cars in 1911.

The tracks-to-land business model worked well for another decade. But after that, there was less southern California land to develop and more competition from automobiles. Ultimately, by 1950, companies with other interests—automobile manufacturing, tires, and gasoline—held a substantial amount of stock of a hundred urban and interurban electric rail lines in the United States. Cars were a more convenient form of transportation. It was a new age.

Just as the United States began to explore a new frontier, Pacific Electric’s southern California tracks went silent. They had forged a region that now favored concrete and asphalt roads.

But riding on the San Pedro Waterfront Line, it’s easy to put all of that out of mind for a few minutes, and imagine how it was getting from Point A to Point B a century ago.

One example of the craftsmanship that went into making the replica Red Cars is the carved adornment in the wood.

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Sorry, Charlie

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As I walked into the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro—which seemed like a place I needed to see if I wanted to understand the harbor-side community—the  volunteer at the desk asked if I’d been there before. “Once,” I said, “a long time ago.”

“Did you ever take the ferry?” he asked.

That catapulted me back decades, and it explained immediately what seemed so familiar about the building.

The San Pedro Ferry Building, which did service from 1941-1963 as the ferry's western side, and now houses the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

I remember going on the ferry when I was a kid—maybe around 1958 or 1960. I don’t remember much about it, other than my dad driving the car aboard a boat, the boat crossing a narrow channel, and my dad driving the car off the boat.

The ferry closed in 1963. The single-span suspension Vincent Thomas Bridge opened, which meant you could drive more quickly from San Pedro to Terminal Island than you could take the boat. But for 22 years, the ferry was the primary connection between San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles.

Today, it’s a testament to more than a century of harbor history. In touring the exhibits, I learned quite a few things I hadn’t known before about the port.

A new form of fishing had been invented here, based on a new technology called the “purse-seine net.” The museum credits the net’s invention to the harbor’s multi-cultural work force—the Japanese, Balkan, Scandinavian, and other fishermen who worked the boats, but it seems that for quite some time, Croatian-Americans made the greatest use of it.

A purse-seine net is a long, wide net that a fishing boat drops into the water, a dinghy mooring one end of it while the fishing boat drags the rest into a big circle. Once the circle is complete, the fisherman pull a cable that gathers the bottom of the net, effectively “pursing” it. Then a winch aboard the fishing vessel lifts the net which captures all the fish in the area around it.

With purse-seine nets, each fishing boat could quickly catch far more fish than it could with smaller nets. It dramatically increased the yield.

And yield was what was needed in the port, the museum exhibits explained, because at about the same time early in the 20th Century, fish processors in Terminal Island figured out how to can sardines, albacore and tuna. Canning, of course, meant fish could be preserved and then shipped over great distances, dramatically enlarging the market from those in the immediate vicinity to those anywhere in the country, or for that matter, anywhere in the world.

Great canneries grew in the port—among them, Chicken of the Sea and StarKist (once known as the French Sardine Company). Then, in the 1980s, the great Terminal Island canneries faltered and finally died. The museum attributes the collapse to foreign competition and government regulation. There’s no doubt canning tuna in countries where workers were paid pennies a day was cheaper than doing it in the U.S.

Oddly, the exhibits didn’t say a word about over-fishing, the propensity of technology to make possible greater and greater yields and at the same time to deplete the fish populations closest to the California shore. That made the fishing fleet go further and further from San Pedro to find the fish, and brought about its own set of problems in international relations.

There is still some commercial fishing based in San Pedro, but it’s a tiny fraction of what it was. Others have taken the technology invented here and beaten San Pedro at its own game.

Original fresnel from the Angel's Gate lighthouse on the breakwater to Los Angeles Harbor, on display at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

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The Journey #6

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The Port of Los Angeles, as seen from above San Pedro

The coastline makes a hard left turn at Point Fermin. The sheer sandstone walls that drop a thousand feet into the ocean in Palos Verdes are gone. The broad surfing beaches of the South Bay are a peninsula away. This is a coastal stretch that’s not particularly scenic. It’s also not very recreational.

This is a different kind of coast—a gritty industrial one. This is where the ocean brings money from something other than sunscreen and burger shacks. This is San Pedro, where the water goes to work.

Standing atop a bluff in late afternoon right past the hard left turn, I’m drawn into conversation with a recreational walker who stops to take in the view. He tells me he’s a San Pedro native, that he works on the docks operating one of the large cranes that unload ships. It’s good work, he says. He works four hours a day and gets paid for eight. He’s been at it for more than 30 years. His father has worked on the docks for nearly 50 years. He makes more than $140,000 a year, he tells me. But he admits not everything on this stretch of working coast is good, that the recession and changing economy have hit San Pedro hard, that many of his friends and neighbors are barely getting by. As a matter of fact, he asks me for some money so he can get his car running and put some gas in it. I give him $10.

A gull on the railing of an observation point on the Main Channel of the Port of Los Angeles.

There’s this same kind of financial disconnect throughout San Pedro. It’s the kind of place that has worked hard, can still work hard, still wants to work hard… but is having a little trouble making it. Its business district has many of the shuttered storefronts that have become a common sight in the economic downturn. But San Pedro also has a substantial number of industrial buildings that haven’t been used for far longer than a few years. For many of them—wharf warehouses, brick industrial shops—the downturn came decades ago and hasn’t gone away.

San Pedro is a model of ethnic diversity. Southern California is incredibly diverse, but even against that background, San Pedro stands out. There are Asians and Europeans, Latinos and African-Americans. But rather than assembling in individual enclaves across a vast area, in San Pedro, ethnicities seem compressed into a single neighborhood and much more thoroughly mixed than anywhere else. There’s a Croatian Heritage Hall down the street from a Mexican restaurant, a Scandinavian worship center near a Japanese restaurant, Slavic names on businesses next door to Italian ones or Hispanic ones.

What made San Pedro the melting pot, and what keeps it that way, is the harbor. Technically, it’s the Port of Los Angeles, one of two harbors in San Pedro Bay. (The other, the Port of Long Beach, is adjacent to the east. It is indistinguishable in look or feel, but administered by a separate set of authorities.) Together, the two ports in San Pedro Bay are, according the the U.S. Dept. of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the largest in the United States, the largest in North America, and the fifth-largest by container volume in the world.

By their nature as commercial hubs, ports become ethnically diverse places. They need to have people who speak and understand multiple languages to communicate with those aboard the vessels; people who can move between, and not be threatened by, those of other cultures; people who feel comfortable with virtually any other language they hear in their midst.

Cruise ships at their terminal next to the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro.

The harbor historically has catered to two different water-bound industries—commercial fishing and maritime trade. The fishing started at the dawn of the 20th Century, being home to a fleet of boats that scoured the nearby waters, and over time, the waters off of South America as well as North America. A huge canning industry grew up in the harbor, but then dwindled in the second half of the century as the same technological and economic forces that brought it into existence made it cheaper to do it in other countries.

The Port of Los Angeles also grew phenomenally beginning in the early 20th Century, as technology (and government assistance) enabled the building of a breakwater and allowed for dredging sand to create deeper channels and more wharf space. But the closure of the Navy base in the harbor and changes from crated to containerized cargo started a downturn.

Today, San Pedro is pinning its hopes on a renovation of its waterfront to accommodate the USS Iowa, a WWII-era battleship that will be taken out of mothballs and towed to a prominent spot near the Vincent Thomas Bridge. By the 4th of July  this year, when the USS Iowa is scheduled to open as a museum and waterfront attraction, San Pedro hopes to begin its renaissance.

In some ways, it’s like boasting of your great earning power… and then hitting a stranger up for $10, isn’t it?

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The Start of a Cultural Shift

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It would be easy to overlook George Freeth. I’d never heard of him until a couple years ago, and I’ve been around southern California beaches virtually all my life.

But it’s George Freeth who was the most visible source of what came to be the California surf culture, and he did it more than a century ago.

Freeth was a Hawaiian, part Polynesian and part Irish, who helped resurrect the sport of surfing in Honolulu. (The missionaries frowned on allowing the natives to surf, since they liked to ride the waves in mixed company without any clothes.)

The story goes that Freeth paddled his 200-pound wooden surfboard over to a tourist who was trying unsuccessfully to ride the waves. The tourist was the great California adventure writer Jack London. London wrote in 1907 about how Freeth helped him learn the astonishing sport of “walking on water” in an article called “A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki” in the magazine Ladies Home Companion.

Banners along the Redondo Beach waterfront in August 2011 announced the 100th anniversary of surfing there. (In fact, Freeth had come there 104 years earlier.)

Later that same year, Freeth came to California to demonstrate surfing, and ended up being hired by Henry Huntington, owner of the Pacific Electric Railway, to help drum up travel to Redondo Beach. Huntington’s railroad had a line, and he began to beef up the destination with the world’s largest salt-water swimming pool and a renovated and enlarged hotel. (Others point to the first California wave-riding being surfing demonstrations in Santa Cruz, in northern California, by three Hawaiians who were attending school there 20 years earlier.)

Freeth was a powerful swimmer, and many credit him with reinventing lifeguarding and serving as the first professional lifeguard. Before him, lifeguards would work in pairs, one swimming a rope to the drowning person and the other on the beach reeling the rope in. As you might imagine, it wasn’t the most effective at saving lives.

Freeth is credited by many with inventing a portable float that a lifeguard could swim out to a distressed person and use to keep that person afloat while bringing them in from the waves. (Some dispute that Freeth introduced the floatation system of lifesaving, crediting it to someone else more than 20 years earlier.)

In December 1908, Freeth is credited with singlehandedly saving the crew of a Japanese fishing boat which had capsized in storm surf just off the Venice Pier. Some accounts say he saved six people over more than two hours; others say it was seven in about an hour; another account says 11. Some say he won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism; others say it was the Congressional Gold Medal. He is listed on official websites as a recipient of neither.

He also gets credit in many accounts for introducing the game water polo to the West Coast of the United States.

The modern George Freeth legend was renewed in 2001 with a scholarly article, “George Freeth: King of the Surfers and California’s Forgotten Hero,” in California History magazine by Dr. Arthur C. Verge, a community college history professor and a Los Angeles County lifeguard.

The bronze bust of George Freeth on the Redondo Beach Pier.

It was followed in 2009 with a feature-length documentary called Waveriders, the first half of which documents Freeth’s life and accomplishments and the second half shows a large group of famous big-wave surfers riding the monster-waves on Ireland’s west coast.

Freeth was memorialized in 2007 with a bronze bust on the Redondo Beach Pier, but the statue was stolen (presumably for the value of the bronze). A replica was struck, and the bust was replaced in 2010.

George Freeth died in 1919 in San Diego County. He was 35.

Some reports claim exhaustion from his rescue of the Japanese fisherman may have contributed to his death, but that’s highly unlikely. The rescue had been more than a decade earlier.

More likely is the story cited by others that he was infected with influenza in the great epidemic then sweeping the world (more than 20 million died of the disease in that epidemic, many of them young, strong people who were in perfect health before they started showing the symptoms).

He was cremated and his ashes returned to Hawaii at the request of his family. His gravestone makes no mention at all of his enormous contributions to southern California culture, professionalism among lifeguards, or water polo.

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