THE WEST COAST: SAN PEDRO
“Everything loose eventually drifts
down to the sea,”
Louis wrote, “and eventually so did I.”
Upon his arrival in Los Angeles Louis caught the Pacific Electric “Red Car” from the downtown area to San Pedro. The port has never had the romance of New York or San Francisco, probably because it was never deeply tied to the history of Los Angeles as a city. However, San Pedro and its associated ports of Wilmington and Long Beach were major sea ports nonetheless and had all of the rough and tumble attributes of commercial harbors world wide.
"Arriving at San Pedro I registered at the Marine Service Bureau for a ship, discovering it might be as much as
three months before my number came up. At that time the west coast ships were unionized but east coast ships were
not and conditions aboard were drastically different. On the west coast the food was better, the fo'c'stles
cleaner, conditions generally much better. As a result many seaman wanted to ship off the west coast and at the
time I arrived it was said there were seven hundred seaman 'on the beach' in San Pedro.”
The Marine Service Bureau, a hiring hall run by the shipping companies (derogatorily named “Fink Hall” or “The
Slave Market” by union men), kept a running tally of arriving ships and whatever crew personnel they might need.
It was a first come first served operation, however, and unless you checked in regularly you could miss your
chance. The story of “Survival” begins at the Marine Service Bureau and continues in the offices of the Maritime
Commissioner. “Survival” is partly drawn from the story of an actual event that was still making the rounds when
Louis was in San Pedro.
“My first dollar was earned helping a man unload a truck. A week later I picked up two days of rough-painting
in the shipyards, and that job got me into a couple of days bucking rivets. What money I earned was necessary for
eating purposes, and I slept in empty box-cars, piles of lumber, anywhere out of the rain and wind.
"Today a collection of shops and restaurant in San Pedro is known as Ports o' Call, and it occupies the site of
the old E.K. Wood Lumber Dock where lumber schooners from Aberdeen, Coos Bay and other points on the northwest
coast used to discharge their cargoes of raw lumber for the building of Los Angeles.
There were several slips and
each one was usually occupied by such a vessel. They were old and battered, built only for the carrying of lumber.
Their crews were usually Swedes or Norwegians, big, husky men who worked cargo as well as working as seamen. The
discharged lumber was usually piled on the dock awaiting shipment by train, and the rails ran right up to the dock.
Perhaps they ran out on the docks, I do not clearly remember. What was important to me was that often in piling
great stacks of planks there would be spaces left like caves where a man could crawl in out of the rain. If he was
thoughtful enough to provide himself with a newspaper he could wrap around his body under his coat, he might sleep
there out of the rain and in reasonable comfort. I use the last term in a relative sense. What is comfort to some
is cruel hardship to others."
The lumber schooners were also a light touch when it came to feeding out of work sailors. Many times Louis and
others were fed from the galleys of these ships, sometimes with a token bit of work having been done, sometimes
purely out of charity.
"It was a rough time on the waterfront. The Pacific fleet was located at ‘Pedro then and the town swarmed with
sailors ashore, most of whom went on to Los Angeles on the big red cars of the Pacific Electric. Under a trestle
of the P.E. the longshoremen had a crap game going almost continually. . . . [R]ough and tumble fights were
common. Dead Man's Island, which still marked the entrance to the ship channel, in those days caught the drifting
body of more than one loser. However, that was not the reason for its name."
US Battleships at rest in San Pedro Bay |
Dead Man's Island San Pedro
“The focal point of the town as far as I was concerned was the Fifth Street Landing. Several battle wagons were
anchored outside the harbor and the shore boats used to come in there.”
The Pacific Fleet sailing for Panama is mentioned in “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” though it doesn't seem Louis ever shipped out in a conventional manner from "‘Pedro" and therefore his comments about his “ship leaving in the morning” are just part of the story. The P.E. trestle (The Pacific Electric Company ran a interurban light rail network around southern California until 1960 or so) and the ongoing card game both figure in “And Proudly Die.”
The restored Red Car is parked in front of the 5th Street Landing Ferry Building.
The rear view shows the ferry dock.
The ferry building at the Fifth Street Landing, which appears in the story is now The San Pedro Maritime Museum and, although Snipe, the character in Louis’s story does not wash up on Dead Man’s Island, the port did see numerous unknown bodies turn up on its mud flats and amongst its pilings over the years.