Monday, December 17, 2012

Local Swimmer Completes Remarkable Feat From Deadman's Island

On August 28, 1910 Los Angeles athlete Mabel Lawson swam from the southern end of Deadman's Island at San Pedro to the bath house at Long Beach, a total of 7 miles.  Reports at the time state that no man or woman had been able to do this before. Hundreds of people on the Long Beach pier cheered her arrival.

Mabel Lawson image; Los Angeles Herald , October  28, 1910

Deadman's Island ca. 1910
This small island was removed
 in the late 1920s.
USC Digital Library

Lawson used the English overhand stroke and covered the distance in 4 hours 20 minutes.  She lost half an hour battling the tide rip, and more minutes when a gigantic fish swam along side and scared her. Her aquatic exploit was a test of strength and endurance, however, and was not to set a speed record.

Her victorious swim was all the more impressive considering the fog bank "held her in most of the way and she had to swim within sound of the surf to prevent getting lost" -- the same thick fog that had delayed her endeavor for several days.

The athletic Lawson was 19 at the time and weighed 145 pounds. Part of her training consisted of being "massaged daily with olive oil to lessen the action of the sea water or retain as much as possible the heat of her body while in the water." She credited her coach William Mehler, a lifeguard employed by the bath house, with her development as a swimmer.

Lawson boasted afterwards that she "could have gone three or four times further had it been necessary" and challenged other local swimmers to race against her. She had previously swam for two summers, but this was her first long swim.

Sources: Los Angeles Herald, Los Angeles Times, Oakland Tribune 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Navy Once Again in San Pedro

As part of Los Angeles Navy Days 2012, the new guided missile destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108) recently visited San Pedro and docked at the World Cruise Terminal in the Port of Los Angeles. 

The ship is a 509' 1/2" multi-mission vessel designed to operate independently or with an associated Strike Group. The ship's weapons include Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, AEGIS Weapons Systems, and SH-60B/R LAMPS MK 111 Helicopters.

Public tours of the ship were available for free, while on August 18 invited guests were treated to dinner aboard and mingled with Rear Admiral Mike Shatynski, Wayne E. Meyer's Commanding Officer William H. Baxter, Los Angeles Air Force Base Lieutenant General Ellen M. Pawlikowski, other military officers and Navy crew. 

Rear Adm. Shatynski delivered a State of the Navy speech, and discussed the Navy's budgetary challenges, the Persian Gulf, and other topics.  Later, guests enjoyed a thorough tour of the ship from Navy officers.

Many thanks to the Navy League for sponsoring and coordinating such an interesting and educational event. Here are some photographs:

USS Wayne E. Meyer in the Port of Los Angeles. The USS Iowa can be seen in the background.

The bridge

The mess hall
One of the ship's weapons systems. The blue lights of the Vincent Thomas Bridge can ben seen in the background.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

The U.S.S. Iowa Has Arrived

The Big Stick is now at her permanent new home in the main channel of Los Angeles Harbor, next to the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. The Iowa will open next month for tours.  Here are some photos from the museum's back deck:

Note the container ship on the right, and Vincent Thomas Bridge in the back:

The following image shows the beginning of the water cut (on left) that will be adjacent to the museum.  The Iowa can be seen in the rear right of the photo, behind the Crowley tugs and to the right of Fire Station 112:

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The History of the U.S.S. Iowa at San Pedro and Long Beach

With the exciting news that the USS Iowa (BB-61, commissioned in February 1943) will soon be towed to the Port of Los Angeles where she will become a major waterfront attraction, it's worth taking a look back at the prior visits of the battleships named Iowa to the Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor areas.

USS Iowa (BB-4)
"Queen of the Navy"

The BB-61 will not be the first battleship named Iowa to anchor at San Pedro.

March 11-12, 1900: the Los Angeles Times reported 4,000 people visited an earlier battleship with the same name, the BB-4 (commissioned on June 16, 1897) -- at San Pedro Harbor. This ship sailed from San Diego and was on her way to Santa Barbara when she visited Los Angeles Harbor for a couple of days, coated in dust from the coaling she had received down south. Three tugs from the Banning Company, the Warrior, Collis, and Falcon, helped ferry visitors for 50 cents each to the famous battleship.

USS Iowa (BB-4) at anchor early 1900s.
U.S. Naval Historical Center photo
Late October 1900, the BB-4 returned and, along with the cruiser Philadelphia (C-4), lay about a mile off San Pedro. (The Philadelphia had served as the flagship of the Pacific Station until February 1900, when it transferred its flag to the Iowa.) Two tugboats from San Pedro and smaller launches from Terminal helped ferry visitors to the Iowa.  As reported at the time, the whole of the ship, from "conning tower to stoke hole was thrown open to the visitors." The conning tower was made with walls that were two feet thick.

Before her arrival at San Pedro and the West Coast, the BB-4 had played an important role in the Spanish-American War in the Battle of Santiago (July 1898), helping to smash Spain's naval forces in the Western Hemisphere. The BB-4 served along the West Coast until 1902.

Group under 12-inch guns on the BB-4,
1898; Library of Congress photo 

The USS Iowa (BB-4) was largely tied up during World War I, and afterwards the aging battleship was used for experimentation concerning "the control of ships by wireless."  In December 1922, the Iowa's death sentence was read aboard Admiral E.W. Eberle's flagship California in Los Angeles Harbor.  The Iowa, once referred to as the "Queen of the Navy," was to be used as long-range target practice.


USS Iowa (BB-61)
"The Big Stick"

San Pedro's soon-to-be waterfront attraction, the BB-61, was commissioned on February 22, 1943, and was decommissioned nearly a half century later.  Between these years, she was was no stranger to the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbor areas.  Here is the history of the Big Stick's local visits, including the story of her famous AWOL canine mascot named Victory.   

U.S. Naval Historical Center
November 1, 1945: The Iowa led two groups of warships into L.A. Harbor. The cruiser Atlanta accompanied the Big Stick, along with the destroyers Barton, Hale, Nicholas, Walke, and Walker. The other group consisted of the light cruisers Amsterdam and Topeka, along with the destroyers Allen Sumner, Franks, Heermann, Moale, Taylor and Woodworth.  The ships Marine Tiger and Thetis Bay also entered the harbor, and together carried about 4,500 troops of the Avengers of Bataan 38th Infantry Division.  A day earlier, the battleships Wisconsin (Iowa's sister ship), Alabama and South Dakota, light cruiser Vicksburg and the destroyer Buchanan had also dropped anchor at Los Angeles Harbor.  On November 9, the Iowa left San Pedro to visit Santa Barbara briefly so residents there could view the mighty battleship.

November 29, 1945: USS Iowa's "Dog Mascot Goes A.W.O.L. Again"
Search parties looked all over the Long Beach environs for the small brown and white canine named "Victory" or "Vicky/Vickie" for short, with no initial luck. The Times reported that Vicky had been with the Iowa since its commissioning, had substituted for President Roosevelt's dog Fala when the the commander-in-chief went to the Tehran conference aboard the ship in 1943, and "was the first American dog in Japan" after the Japanese surrender. Vicky, who was said to have a "number of decorations on his white collar," had gone "absent without leave" before (in San Francisco & on an island in the Carolines), but had always returned before the Iowa left port. 
The Iowa crew's calls for help from Long Beach and Los Angeles residents apparently worked.  A report a couple of weeks later states that Vicky was aboard the ship in Long Beach Harbor playing with Times newspaper carriers who were visiting. It was also noted that Vicky's "201,778-mile voyage aboard the Iowa has earned him the reputation of the most-traveled dog in the Navy."

December 3, 1945: Fifteen hundred Southern California transplants, former residents of the state of Iowa, visited the Big Stick which was at anchor off Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbors. Captain Frederick I. Entwistle, commanding officer of the ship, presented the Iowans with a "ship's pennant, the ship's banner and the American Flag flown by the Iowa in its raid off the shores of Japan." The Long Beach Iowa Society gladly accepted these historic gifts.  Long Beach Mayor Herbert E Lewis proclaimed at the time that "Long Beach is as proud of the Iowans as the Iowans are of the U.S.S. Iowa."

December 16, 1945: The Times also reported that the USS Iowa, "the biggest battleship in the world," went into the "biggest drydock on the North American continent," -- the 1100-foot long Morreel Drydock on nearby Terminal Island. This was the first drydocking the Iowa had received since the war ended.

This drydock was described as an enormous bathtub able to accommodate any ship afloat. While Morreel handled the 887-feet long, 45,000-ton battleship with ease, due to the ship's weight, the drydock pumps emptied the "bathtub" in less than an hour. This operation usually took up to two and one-half hours.

Captain George T. Paine, commander of the Terminal Island Naval Shipyard, boasted how this showed that the area had the facilities to care for "any and all needs of the Fleet." It was also reported that more than 70 naval vessels were then undergoing repair or conversion at the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors.

April 7, 1946: The USS Iowa, flagship of the U.S. 5th Fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Frederick C. Sherman, dropped anchor in Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor after a 13-day sail from Japan.  According to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, from about this time through September 1948, the Iowa "operated from West Coast ports, on Naval Reserve and at sea training and drills and maneuvers with the Fleet."

August 7, 1948: 850 midshipmen from colleges around the country steamed into Los Angeles Harbor aboard the Iowa, where they transferred to four destroyers inside the breakwater and went to San Diego.  The Iowa, along with other warships, had just completed an eight-week cruise near Hawaii.

August 12, 1950: 50,000 Iowans gathered at Recreational Park in Long Beach for the 45th annual Iowa picnic.  Although this event did not occur on the battleship, W. Ward Johnson of the Iowa Association of Long Beach presented an important gift to the state of Iowa: the flag that had flown on the mast of the Iowa through World War II and was given to the association in 1945 (see the Dec. 3, 1945 entry above).  Governor Earl Warren also made ominous remarks at the festivities, warning that the Korean War could reach American shores and that a single atomic bomb dropped on a large city could lead to 400,000 casualties and 200,000 deaths.

November 3, 1951: The Times reported that the Iowa dropped anchor in the Long Beach-Los Angeles Outer Harbor, which was then to become her home port. Captain William R. Smedberg III was in command and after a two-hour inspection, granted many sailors of the ship liberty. The Iowa stayed near Long Beach until November 19, when she went to Hawaii for a month-long training cruise and then planned to return to the area.

The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships notes that "after Communist aggression in Korea necessitated an expansion of the active fleet" the Iowa was recommissioned in August 1951, and "operated off the West Coast until March 1952, when she sailed for the Far East."

December 1951: As part of Navy repair contracts awarded to local shipyards, the Long Beach Marine Repair Yard was awarded a small contract for work on the Iowa.  The reported amount for the work was $815.

USS Iowa in 1952, U.S. Navy Photograph
January 13, 1952: 5000 Iowans and former Iowans flocked aboard the Iowa at the shipyard in Long Beach. The ship's crew held hosted an open house for members of the Iowa State Society of Long Beach. Visitors inspected the nine 16" guns, ship's silver and anchor chains. It was also reported at the time that this open house was just one of several slated for the shipyard and the Iowa for the coming weeks. The shipyard was said to have employed have more than 6,000 workers.

January 16-17 1952: The crew of the Iowa donated 1020 pints of blood to the Long Beach Chapter of the Red Cross.

January 20, 1952: About 12,000 people, including employees, descended upon the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, to tour the Iowa for an open house, and also visited the escort carrier U.S.S. Sicily, and other fighting ships. They also watched "Herman the German" lift and move a  270-ton railroad crane from one pier to another.  Herman the German was an enormous floating crane seized from Germany at the end of World War II.  A model of this crane can be seen at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro.

YD-171, more commonly known as "Herman the German" at the LBNS
Port of Long Beach image

February 1, 1952: Dense fog caused a series of mishaps in the Los Angeles area, including one involving the Iowa. As reported at the time, the Admiral, a 58-foot long boat "transporting 49 sailors to the USS Iowa in the Outer Harbor, struck the Long Beach breakwater at about 2:15 a.m."   The seamen and two members of the Admiral crew climbed onto the rocks and had to yell off and on until 10:00 a.m. until a fishing vessel named the American Star heard their pleas and rescued them.  

USS Iowa (BB-61) off Koje, Korea,
firing her 16-inch guns at the enemy coast
October 17, 1952
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph
November 3, 1952: The Times reported that the Iowa had earned the name "The Gray Ghost of the Korean Coast," during the previous eight months.  On this day, the Iowa tied up at her home port at Long Beach where thousands were on hand to greet the ship's crew.  The paper noted the Iowa fired "4000 16-inchers and 8000 five-inchers while steaming 40,000 miles in Korean waters" and although enemy batteries fired at her, she was never hit.

*If you know of any other historical visits of the USS Iowa to the Port of Los Angeles,  please post!

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Naval Historical Center, Popular Mechanics

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Phineas Banning Hailed as Friend of the Workingman

In 1867, the several hundred appreciative employees of General Banning -- widely acknowledged as the founder of the Port of Los Angeles -- presented him with a fine gift. As recounted in the Wilmington Journal in February 1867:

"On Saturday evening last the employees in the different establishments of General P. Banning, wanting to testify their respect to that gentleman as the workingman's friend, presented him with a most superb watch and chain.

The instrument is of fine American manufacture, and finished in the highest style of art...The presentation was made by Capt. E.E. Hewitt...The General, in response, replied in a very happy and felicitous manner, and was several times interrupted by the applause of those present.

The testimony was worthily bestowed, and was the free-will offering of those who, knowing Gen. Banning, wished to attest their appreciation of the workingman's friend."

Sunday, June 5, 2011

San Pedro Astronaut Blasts Off Into Space

After a brief delay due to high-altitude crosswinds, former San Pedro resident Dr. Anna Lee Fisher launched into space on November 8, 1984 on board the Space Shuttle Discovery.
Anna L. Fisher, (M.D.)
NASA Astronaut, NASA photo

On this historic 8-day mission, Dr. Fisher and her fellow astronauts deployed two satellites, operated the Radiation Monitoring Equipment device, conducted an experiment for 3M Company, and completed the first space salvage mission by recovering two disabled satellies (Westar 6 and Palapa B-2).  Dr. Fisher operated the shuttle's robotic arm during the satellite rescue operation.

She also became the first mother in space.

While in space, the Discovery crew spoke with President Reagan, who asked Fisher if she would recommend a space career to her 14-month-old daughter.  She replied: "That I would Mr.'s truly an incredible experience..."

The Los Angeles Times reported that Dr. Fisher once had to keep secret the fact that she was pregnant.  In a training exercise, she rescued an "unconscious" crew member from the launch pad in a simulated emergency. As she recalled: "It was a hot day in Florida, and I had breathing equipment on, and I carried somebody out of the commander's seat and another guy out of the pilot's seat. And nobody knew I was pregnant."

As they prepared for descent to earth, the Discovery crew was concerned about a small amount of leftover maneuvering fuel aboard the two retrieved satellites, but a spill was considered unlikely and they would have been able to jettison the satellites if needed.  During their in-flight news conference, the astronauts said that the recovery of the two disabled satellites proved that "astronauts can move large objects by hand in the weightlessness of space."

STS 51-A crew in training with shuttle Discovery on launch pad;
October 25, 1984. Anna Lee Fisher (2nd from right) NASA photo
About a month after the successful landing, Dr. Fisher returned triumphantly to her hometown of  San Pedro where she received a very warm welcome. She addressed about 1000 students at San Pedro High School, her alma mater where she had earned the title "most likely to succeed."

Fisher (who has three degrees -- including an M.D. -- from UCLA)  stressed the importance of education, and said "Don't be afraid to dream, because there are a lot of neat opportunities out there."

She also attended a plaque dedication in her honor, a plaque located adjacent to the Los Angeles Maritime Museum that is still well-maintained twenty-seven years later. To see a recent photo of this plaque, click here.

On a personal note, I had the pleasure of meeting Anna Lee Fisher several years ago when she visited her mother Elfriede Tingle in San Pedro, when her mother still lived there.  Mrs. Tingle was my neighbor, and it's my privilege to have met and know such two wonderful and interesting people.

Dr. Anna Lee Fisher's current NASA biography here; latest Space Shuttle news here.

Sources: NASA, Los Angeles Times

Friday, March 11, 2011

Historic Tsunamis of the San Pedro Area

In light of the devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake that just struck Japan and the resulting tsunami warnings issued for the California coast, I am republishing research I have done on two tsunamis (August 1868 and May 1960) that impacted the Port of Los Angeles:

A Tsunami Strikes San Pedro and Wilmington, August 1868

‘A Most Startling and Remarkable Tidal Phenomenon’

On August 14, 1868 a tsunami struck the harbor area.  A tsunami is a series of large sea waves usually caused by a large earthquake beneath the sea floor or less frequently by an underwater landslide or volcanic eruption.

For the rest of the article, click on this link and go to page 4:

USS Wateree
Beached at Arica, Chile, after she was washed ashore by a tidal wave on 8/13/1868


"Largest Earthquake in the World" Impacts Los Angeles Waterfront, May 1960

On May 22, 1960, a magnitude 9.5 earthquake struck south central Chile.  The United States Geological Survey calls this "the largest earthquake in the world."  In Chile, approximately 2,000 people were killed,  3000 injured, and another 2,000,000 were left homeless.

The Governor's Office of Emergency Services for California estimates that the waves generated by this massive earthquake caused about $500,000 to $1,000,000 worth of damage to the state, and notes that two people were killed.

Locally, the Los Angeles Times reported that boats and piers were smashed along San Pedro's waterfront, where a series of tidal currents surged back and forth surged through the port's narrow Cerritos Channel. Some 300 yachts and small boats were ripped from their slips, and early estimates were that 15-20 boats had sunk. The surge was estimated at up to 8-9 feet high in places at times. A strong current caused the port's Terminal Island ferry Islander to be swept off course by 300 yards, while "monumental traffic jams" occurred in both the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbor areas.

A Port of Los Angeles report states that the "Chilean earthquake and tsunami of May 1960 was the maximum event recorded in recent history to impact the Ports."

For more on this devastating earthquake, click on these links:

Monday, February 28, 2011

San Pedro Real Estate Agent Claims Albert Einstein Stole His Theory; Sues in Federal Court

In February 1931, San Pedro real estate agent Ira D. Edwards sued renowned physicist Albert Einstein in United States District Court. Edwards charged that Einstein pilfered the complex "Unified Field Theory" from Edwards' booklet entitled "The Why and Wherefore of Things" published and copyrighted in November 1929.

Albert Einstein speaking, ca. 1940
Library of Congress photo

Edwards asked the court to grant an injunction forbidding Einstein from using the unified field theory. He also wanted Einstein subpoenaed to answer the charges, and "such further relief as the court may see fit and full costs of the action."

Einstein's research associate Dr. Walther Mayer swiftly ridiculed the suit as "simply one of those annoying things that people are subjected to at times."

Professor Einstein was lecturing on the unified field theory at the Mt. Wilson Laboratories at this time, and was in fact residing at his bungalow in Pasadena when first told of Edwards' lawsuit. Einstein  remarked that "I never heard the name before," and in his formal reponse to the suit noted while his lectures were based on mathematics, Edwards' work was not. 

Stories about this lawsuit appeared in newspapers around the country.  Even Time magazine mentioned it.

Ira D. Edwards was well-known in the San Pedro business and real estate community.  As World War I was drawing to a close in 1918, Edwards, as president of the Community Association of San Pedro, worked to promote the development of the local harbor areas of his hometown, Wilmington, and Long Beach.  He was particularly interested in developing new housing for shipyard workers.

Edwards' San Pedro friends said that while they knew Edwards as a resourceful real estate dealer who had "been heard to expound ideas about the universe which they were not able to grasp," they had not read his book.

Unfortunately for San Pedro's real estate guru and would-be theoretical physicist, however, Federal judge William Cosgrave agreed with Einstein and quickly dismissed Edwards' lawsuit for copyright infringement in March 1931.

More on the unified field theory here:

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, Billings Gazette (Montana), Bakersfield Californian, New Castle News (Pennsylvania), Nevada State Journal, Zanesville Signal (Ohio)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Happy Birthday President Reagan -- San Pedro Remembers "the Gipper"

To commemorate what would have been Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday, I have updated with new research the following article I wrote that was published in More San Pedro (Daily Breeze) in 2008, and previously published on this blog:

Ronald Reagan's Visits to San Pedro and the L.A. Harbor area
Ronald Reagan was no stranger to San Pedro and the harbor area. He visited frequently decades before he was elected Governor of California in 1966 and 40th President of the United States in 1980.

Reagan first came to the area when he traveled to Catalina Island in the mid-1930s as a radio sports announcer to familiarize himself with the Chicago Cubs while they held spring training there. On November 13, 1941, just a few weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he underwent a physical examination at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro. This exam stated that Reagan was “permanently incapacitated for Active Duty due to compound myopic astigmatism -- bilateral, severe – distant vision 6/200 both eyes without glasses.” He was seen during this period at the base and also with his first wife Jane Wyman at the base.

Reagan (who in 1937 was appointed a second lieutenant in the Officers’ Reserve Corps of the Calvary) went on active duty in 1942 after he passed another exam, although he was classified as limited service only. Reagan soon transferred from the Calvary to the Army Air Force (AAF). Among other assignments, he served one tour of duty as liaison officer at the Los Angeles Port of Embarkation in Wilmington, and was also the adjutant with the 18th AAF Base Unit at Culver City. On September 8, 1945, Captain Reagan was ordered to Fort MacArthur again, this time for separation, which was effective December 9, 1945. Reagan and his second wife Nancy reportedly visited the former stately Matson passenger/cargo marine terminal at Berths 195-198 in Wilmington (dedicated in 1953) during its heyday.

On October 2, 1966, while campaigning for Governor, Reagan attended San Pedro’s Fishermens' Fiesta. He praised the traditional blessing of the fleet stating: "There's a new sparkle in the waves and new gold in the summer because of this wonderful custom."  (John Mardesich's "North Pacific" boat won the competition with a Flintstones' theme.) 

On March 16, 1968, Governor Reagan officiated at the groundbreaking of the final $10.5 million link that tied the Harbor Freeway to the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Other officials at the ceremony were local Assemblyman Vincent Thomas and Los Angeles City Councilman John S. Gibson Jr.

Sources: "An American Life" by Ronald Reagan, The National Archives, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram

Monday, January 17, 2011

Smallpox invades Los Angeles; San Pedro Quarantined

   Outbreak, alarm and yellow flags

In the early months of 1887 smallpox made a deadly resurgence into California. According to the State Board of Health, this disease first appeared in the city of Los Angeles on February 16 after having been imported from Mexico. It ultimately caused fifteen deaths (from about 120 cases) in the city through June of this same year. An estimated 10,000 people fled Los Angeles to avoid contagion. From early 1887 to the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 1888, smallpox caused ninety-four deaths throughout the State.

Unknown victim of milder case of smallpox (not from the 1887 L.A. epidemic). From
"This case of smallpox was 'made mild' by a vaccination, according to the caption on this undated photo."

Unknown victim of severe smallpox
 (not from the 1887 L.A. epidemic), NLM 
Smallpox is a highly contagious and often fatal disease characterized by fever, rashes, pustules and scabs. The World Health Organization states that smallpox  is "one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity...decimating populations and changing the course of history." Vaccination is the only prevention.

Smallpox outbreaks have occurred for thousands of years, but the disease is now eradicated. The last case in the United States occurred in in 1949, and the last natural case in the world occurred in Somalia in 1977.

An earlier outbreak of smallpox in the City of Angels occurred during the Civil War years. The Los Angeles Star reported in November 1862 that the town's native American population had suffered seven cases of smallpox wth two deaths.  In February of the next year, the local Board of Health was aware of 319 cases of the disease.
During the 1887 outbreak, houses in Los Angeles containing smallpox were ordered to be marked with yellow flags. Twenty thousand circulars about smallpox were distributed throughout California that included the following:

"After an absence of many years, smallpox has again been imported into our State...The State Board of Health feels its imperative duty to present certain suggestions and precautions...No time should be lost, but a general vaccination insisted is our great privilege to live in California, the inhabitants of which are too intelligent and well informed not to see the importance of this measure when smallpox invades their town.."

Fortunately the form of smallpox that struck Los Angeles, while prevalent, was of the mildest character. But as the State Board of Health noted at the time, if the type of this disease had not been "devoid of any epidemic tendency, the spread of this disease would have been unlimited, and the death rate consequently increased."

Quarantine poster used in CA. in the early 20th century
Although the form of smallpox was mild, the 1887  epidemic caused alarm and some panic throughout the state. California Medical Inspectors were sent to San Pedro and other state entry points to "inspect all trains and vessels, and detain every case of a suspicious nature, vaccinate all passengers exposed, etc." Dr. W.A. Weldon was assigned to San Pedro (and was later appointed local Coroner by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors).

The Los Angeles area at the beginning of 1887 was doing quite well. Real estate was booming. Two transcontinental and four local railroads were running. Streets were being paved with asphalt. Businesses were opening, many schools were being built, and thousands of people from the East and elsewhere were flocking to the growing and well-sanitized city for health and pleasure. Over 45,000 people lived in the city of L.A. at this time.

Aerial photo of Los Angeles in 1887
 As might be expected, news of a smallpox outbreak was not welcome. Indeed, the local press reacted quickly and harshly against the often exagerated claims from San Francisco and elsewhere that Los Angeles was "overrun with the plague."  The Los Angeles Times emphasized the "sporadic cases" of a "mild type" of smallpox in the city, opined on the "foolish smallpox excitement," and declared the "scare entirely needless and imbecile."

Los Angeles Mayor William H. Workman in March 1887 diplomatically stated that: "Rumors of the State Board of Health, having in view the quarantining of this city, are entirely erroneous...There is no cause for alarm from smallpox in this city...The authorities are taking the most effective measures to eradicate the smallpox from our midst."

The State Board of Health, however, while acknowledging that the smallpox situation was not as dire as portrayed, nevertheless was upset with what it saw as "extreme secrecy" and lack of urgency and recogntion of potential danger from the Los Angeles press and residents.

The board complained that their "worthy efforts were belittled...Instead of cooperating and doing all in their power to throttle the disease in its first visitations, these would-be sanitarians scoffed and sneered...The result of this was to make people comparatively careless." They lamented that the local media attacked their board members in the "most shameful manner" and impugned their motives.

The "Great indignity," "vicious stab" and "infection" of L.A.;
San Pedro quarantined 

As hostile as it was to the State Board of Health, however, the Los Angeles press was even more bellicose towards the city's northern rival San Francisco, whose local Board of Health (that included San Francisco mayor Edward B. Pond) adopted this resolution in March of 1887:

"Resolved, that the city of Los Angeles be declared infected with smallpox, and as the port of San Pedro is the port of departure from that city, it be declared infected, and that all vessels arriving therefrom shall be placed in quarantine until thoroughly inspected by the quarantine officer.

The Los Angeles Times was outraged, criticizing San Francisco's "narrow-minded capitalists" and stock jobbers" that have "been ever ready to stamp this southern city into the dust."  The Times particularly criticized San Franciso's health board for its "vicious stab," "asininity" and "spite-work" for quarantining San Pedro which was as "unnecessary as vacinating the moon."  When the health board refused to lift the quarantine in early April, the Times sarcastically declared the board "refuses to redeem itself by an intermittent spark of intellect."

Lessons learned 

The State Board of Health learned two important lessons from the epidemic of smallpox in 1887: 1) while isolation and quarantine were critical, they were not were not sufficient in stopping the disease, and 2) vaccinations (as often performed at the time) offered no protection. (In Los Angeles, of the 30,000 vaccinations given during this period, at least one-third had to be given again.)  Thorough vaccination and revaccination were an "almost absolute preventative."

And despite the fact San Pedro was declared infected and quarantined -- with the State Board also reporting that the port town's sanitary condition was so "deplorable" that it could propagate contagious disease -- San Pedro suffered only one case of smallpox during this period.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smallpox Fact Sheet, Smallpox Disease Overview.

Tenth Biennial Report of the State Board of Health of California. For the Fiscal Years from June 30, 1886, to June 30, 1888. Sacramento: State Office: J.D. Young, Supt. State Printing. 1888.

Los Angeles Star. November 1862, February 1863.

Los Angeles Times. January, February, March, April 1887.

World Health Organization. Smallpox.