Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 10, 2018

The Free Harbor Fight – Los Angeles, 1890

One of an ongoing series of posts about the Port of Los Angeles.

You see them everywhere. In public squares, in the grand halls of civic buildings, on mountain tops: the statues. Statues of statesmen, kings, queens, mythical figures, religious icons, industrial barons, generals, poets, artists and musicians. Visitors rarely have time to examine them, determine who’s depicted or why their statue is there. You know there’s a story, but there is more to see, and too many statues. Here’s one I photographed in a piazza in Verona, Italy.

Verona Dante Brad Nixon 6440 (640x480)

The inscription said “Dante.” I don’t know if that’s a first or last name. I have to look him up. No doubt some famous local figure.

If you visit Cabrillo Beach, at the southern end of San Pedro Bay, where Los Angeles Harbor meets the Pacific Ocean, (see map, below), you’ll find this bronze statue:

Stephen M White statue Brad Nixon 1594 (440x640)

The plaque on the pediment indicates the individual is Stephen M. White. Who was he, and why is his statue there? Ah, there’s a story. I’ll compress it as much as possible.

The Fate of a City

In the late 1800s, the growth of Los Angeles was limited by its lack of a natural harbor. The center of the city was 15 miles inland from Santa Monica Bay to the west and 20 miles from San Pedro Bay to the south, but neither offered deep water sheltered from the ocean. San Pedro’s harbor had been the de facto shipping and fishing port since the earliest days of Spanish dominion, but needed a breakwater to protect against the open ocean in order to realize its potential growth. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce sought federal support to build the breakwater for a port to serve the city.

The Tycoon

The wealthy and influential Collis Huntington, proprietor of the Southern Pacific Railroad (among others), saw an opportunity: Build a rail line west from Los Angeles to a manmade pier extending into deep water at Santa Monica, and use his clout in Washington, D.C. to secure federal funding for a breakwater to protect it. If he accomplished that, the harbor of Los Angeles would, in effect, be a private monopoly ─ freight and passengers moving from Huntington’s wharf via Huntington’s rail lines along rights-of-way Huntington and associates owned.

Huntington used his considerable power (including bribery) to block approval of the San Pedro breakwater and generate support for his. His enterprise began building the massive pier into Santa Monica Bay: the Long Wharf, nearly a mile long, carrying dual railroad tracks, north of the current Santa Monica Pier. It was completed in 1893, the longest wharf in the world. Shown here in 1895:


Enter the Native Son

Confronted with the prospect of a private enterprise controlling — and charging fees for — freight moving in and out of the city port, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce sued to stop Huntington’s lobbying effort. The suit was led by the brilliant L.A. district attorney, Stephen M. White. They coined a rallying cry for the effort, “The Free Harbor Fight.” The battle lasted 7 years, during which time White became California’s first native-born U.S. Senator. In 1897, a federal commission decided in favor of the Los Angeles San Pedro Bay project. Breakwater construction began in 1899 and was completed in 1912.

Here is the San Pedro breakwater, shot on a misty morning early in 2018.

IMG_0532 (640x337)

The port it protects is now an immense complex of channels, piers and shipping operations, the busiest container port in the U.S. That is why there’s a statue of Stephen M. White a few hundred yards from the base of the breakwater, looking out at what he helped create.

IMG_0545 (640x389)

Demise of the Long Wharf

Huntington’s Long Wharf continued to operate until 1913, its success hampered by vulnerability to ocean waves and currents. Failing to compete against San Pedro harbor, it ceased operating and was entirely removed in the 1930s. Today, no sign of it remains other than a plaque at Will Rogers State Beach.

White died in 1901 at age 48, his end reportedly hastened by the stress of the Free Harbor Fight.

Locations in This Post

Port of LA map Google

Cabrillo Beach is at 3720 Stephen M. White Dr., San Pedro, California. The statue (red flag at bottom of map) is immediately outside the park entrance.

The former location of the Long Wharf (red star in upper left) is at the lifeguard headquarters on Will Rogers State Beach, 15100 West Pacific Coast Highway.

The overlook for the wide view photograph of the breakwater, Lookout Point Park, with views of the Port of Los Angeles, is 3433 Gaffey St., San Pedro.

Is there a statue in your town that tells a little-known story? Leave a comment.

The photographs of Dante and Stephen M. White statues, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Map © Google. Photograph of the Long Wharf is public domain, retrieved from Wikipedia 1/9/18; immediate source, Los Angeles Water and Power,


  1. Amazingly, my city has NO statues! Either no one of any import has ever lived here, or city government has determined that we are all equally great! 😂


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