Phineas Banning

by • September 5, 2010 • BiographiesComments Off1425

Phineas Banning

Phineas Banning (1830-1885) is considered the father of the Port of Los Angeles . When he arrived in 1851 from his birthplace, Wilmington , Delaware , Los Angeles was an isolated outpost, literally on the farthest edge of the American continent. The city’s harbor at San Pedro was little more than a swampy mud flat. But by the time Banning died thirty-four years later, the beginnings of an active port had been established, railroads linked the harbor to the city and on to the rest of the United States , and telegraph lines provided instant communications. Phineas Banning played an important role in all these contributions to the growth of Southern California .

Restless and ambitious, Banning left his home in Wilmington when he was 13. With fifty cents in his pocket, he walked thirty miles to Philadelphia and found a job with his oldest brother’s law firm.  Eight years later, at 21, he was eager for adventure and new opportunities.  Like many young men his age, he headed West, sailing to the Isthmus of Panama for the land crossing to the Pacific and up the coast to the pueblo of Los Angeles , population 1,600.  He went to work as a clerk at the tiny port of San Pedro , basically a shack and rickety pier owned by the Sepulveda family, wealthy Californios who also operated a primitive stage coach line to the pueblo, 20 miles away.  It wasn’t long before the energetic young Anglo saw visions of fleets of wagons and an international port. He’d make both dreams come true. The wagons came first, often with Banning himself at the reins, driving his teams over rutted roads, across deserts, and up and over treacherous mountain passes.

When new arrival Harris Newmark, future successful businessman and local historian, first encountered Banning at San Pedro in 1853, he was taken aback: “There stood before me a very large, powerful man, coatless and vest less, without necktie or collar, and wearing pantaloons at least six inches too short, a pair of brogans and socks with large holes; while bright-colored suspenders added to the picaresque effect of his costume.”  Banning greeted the young West Prussian with a hearty “Wie Geht’s!”  Despite Banning’s frontier informality, Newmark hastened to add that his colorful new acquaintance had just paid $30,000 for fifteen wagons and 75 mules.

With a partner, the ambitious wagoneer initiated a thriving trade between Los Angeles and the Mormon outpost at Salt Lake . Pulled by one hundred and fifty mules, 15 wagons carried thirty tons of cargo. It was a four month roundtrip journey via Santa Fe . When Banning learned that the U.S. government was planning a military fort at the crest of Tejon Pass , he cut his own road in order to serve the new troops. During the same time, he organized a local petition to get the federal government to certify San Pedro as a port for international trade. He had purchased 640 acres of mud flats near San Pedro, and set about to establish a new town. He named it Wilmington after his home city. He then cut a narrow barge canal to carry heavy freight from the harbor to the town. In 1859, the first ocean-going vessel anchored in his new harbor. After that, with pride mixed with a sense of humor, Banning enjoyed being called “Port Admiral.” Thirteen years later the government dredged the harbor, and San Pedro became an official American international port of entry.

Banning was a pioneer in communications as well as transportation. In 1860, telegraph lines were slowly making their way toward Los Angeles from San Francisco . When progress lagged, the Port Admiral ordered wire and began building from his end. Starting in Wilmington , of course, the link was completed on October 8, 1860, and Los Angeles was no longer an isolated outpost.

The Civil War was devastating for many Americans, but it brought Phineas Banning a financial windfall.  Los Angeles had a strong contingent of Confederate sympathizers.  With this in mind, the United States government decided that a Union Army fort needed to be built nearby. An ardent Unionist and abolitionist, Banning and a partner, B.D. Wilson, were more than willing to donate land in Wilmington for what would become Drum Barracks. Along with the barracks came government contracts and increased trade. Banning was commissioned a General in the California militia, adding another military honorific to his self-proclaimed Admiralty.

Ever the visionary, Banning was an early enthusiast for western railroads and new technology. He was ahead of his time with an investment in an early oil company, but it turned up dry, and a highly-touted “steam wagon” proved to be a bust. But in 1868 when the Port Admiral imported a railroad locomotive and built a line linking the harbor and downtown Los Angeles , he produced another bonanza for himself, and made a major contribution to the city’s growing economy. No matter that the little locomotive, named ” Los Angeles ,” arrived with the obscure California city’s name misspelled, Banning was ahead of his time again.

In Southern California Phineas Banning was a big fish in a small pond, but America was a very big pond with very big fish. Among the biggest were the ruthless owners of the Southern Pacific Railway. Putting a town on their route was a matter of civic life or death. Adding Los Angeles to the SP route would cost $600,000 in cash and control of Banning’s Los Angeles and San Pedro Railway. SP partner Charles Crocker reminded city leaders of the consequences if they failed to cooperate, “I will make grass grow in your streets,” he said. To survive and prosper, the city had no choice and Banning lost his railroad.

Banning’s railroad interests had been devoured in one gulp, but throughout California he continued to be respected and influential. His elegant Greek Revival home, built in 1864, within sight of the harbor, was one of the most impressive in the region — then and now. Here he enjoyed hosting visiting dignitaries and socializing with family and friends. Today the 23-room Banning Mansion and a surrounding 20 acre park are open to visitors.

Phineas Banning died in 1885, as a result of an accident with a streetcar in San Francisco . During his life a regional newspaper summed up his importance to Los Angeles and Southern California : “General Banning is one of those irrepressible, large-minded, free-hearted men whose very presence is life and success. Whatever he turns his mind to is bound to triumph.  Southern California boasts no citizen who has done more to advance its interests.”

After their patriarch’s death, Banning’s sons continued his business enterprises, once owning the Island of Catalina . Finally in 1896, after a knock-down-drag-out fight with the Southern Pacific, which wanted to build its own port in Santa Monica , Los Angeles interests, led by feisty California Senator Stephen White with the backing of Harrison Gray Otis and the Los Angeles Times, convinced the United States government to declare San Pedro a ” Free Harbor ” for Los Angeles . In 1910, twenty-five years after Banning’s death, Southern California celebrated the completion of the new man-made Port of Los Angeles , creating the foundation for today’s international gateway, one of the busiest ports in the world. Phineas Banning’s dream became a reality.

– Contributed by Jon Wilkman, 1999

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