Phineas Banning, Father of the L.A. Harbor

Phineas Banning
courtesy Simie Seaman

Phineas Banning is known as the “Father of the Los Angeles Harbor.” He deserves that title and more. He arrived in the San Pedro/Los Angeles area with nothing in 1851. He found that his calling in addressing the transportation needs of the area. Among his varied businesses, he ran a wagon company, a stagecoach line, shipping barges, and brought in the railroad—all in an effort to get people and goods to Los Angeles.

What few consider is that history might have been different if it hadn’t been for Phineas Banning (1830-1885). Because of the Gold Rush, travelers were scrambling to get to the northern parts of the state. Ships were abandoned in San Francisco harbor, and thousands of people traveled overland by wagon train to get to the gold fields. They all wanted to get rich.

The story in Southern California was different. In the 1850s,Los Angeles was a small village, and access was difficult as there was no deep-water port along the coastline. While ships off-loaded some supplies to barges, it was a cumbersome process to get the goods to shore.

Phineas Banning saw the economic potential for the area, and he devoted his life to fully realizing the possibilities.

Birth and Journey West

Banning Residence Museum

Phineas Banning was born in 1830 near Wilmington, Delaware. As the ninth of eleven children, he knew he needed to make his own way in the world. When he was 13, he left home to walk the 30 miles to Philadelphia where two of his brothers worked.

He began as a clerk in one brother’s law office, but he was fascinated by life at the harbor. Another brother worked in the wholesale trade business in offices near the water. Phineas soon switched to work for that brother and began to learn how the port worked and hear the dreams of those who were going West.

When a merchant needed a young man to accompany him on the long ship journey south and then across the Isthmus of Panama before turning north to California. Banning asked for and got the job. The merchant planned to buy goods to sell in the East. (Click here to read about an 11-year-old girl who traveled this route in 1854.)

Change of Plans

Near the coast of Southern California, the ship was seized by debt collectors. The crew was let off near a village called San Pedro.

Banning was always resourceful and picked up whatever work he could. He saw there was money to be made in hauling goods, and he went to work for one of the wagon companies. In the course of this, he met a fellow named David Alexander, and the two went into business together.

Initially, Alexander & Banning had just one wagon making the 20-mile trip from San Pedro to the small town of Los Angeles.  But within two years the men had 15 wagons and 75 mules as well as their own warehouses for storage of the items being transported.

Passenger Service

Passenger service was the next logical way to expand their business, and it was one that appealed to Banning. Banning was a muscular, well-built fellow who liked nothing better than to drive a wagon or stagecoach on what were at that time very challenging, undeveloped roads.

Banning stagecoach
A stagecoach on display at Banning Museum; courtesy of Simie Seaman

Banning knew that they needed to invest in the right type of stagecoaches in order for passengers to tolerate what could be a very unpleasant ride. In the East, companies were making a coach called a Concord. The most important innovation introduced on the Concord was a suspension system. The carriage part of the stagecoach hung between strong strips of ox hide. This meant a less jarring experience for the horses and a somewhat smoother ride for passengers.

Concords were also practical. There was a flat roof where additional trunks could be secured, and there were many niches where mail and valuables could be stashed for the trips. The makers also added bags of sand over the brake pad. If the team came upon a steep incline, this helped slow the descent.

Building the Stagecoaches

Using the Concord as a model, Banning established a business to manufacture these stagecoaches for the Alexander & Banning Company. Soon the men were running stages and wagons from Los Angeles to San Bernardino, and also carrying goods and people north to the gold fields, the Mojave Desert, and Salt Lake City.

Banning liked few things better than to be able to take a shift as a driver himself. The roads were rough enough that it was not unusual for coaches to tip, but Banning loved the process of driving.

Water Access to the Area

Wilmington in relation to San Pedro and Los Angeles

From Banning’s own experience, he knew how important it was to create easier water access to the land. In the early 1850s, he built a rudimentary wharf in San Pedro but foresaw that the key to the future was to deepen the harbor—a costly venture that would require government funds.

But there was no sense waiting until then. Banning knew ways he could make money now. Since San Pedro’s channel was very shallow, he invested in steam tugs and barges that could travel out to larger ships that anchored in deep water. His men would then unload the goods onto the barges and then bring them in to the wharf for final unloading. (They often would then be transported elsewhere by one of Banning’s wagons.) This put San Pedro on the map for shipping.

Growing the Waterfront

Banning had vision, but he often lacked funds. His businesses were generally profitable, but he had to gather other investors since he didn’t have deep pockets or family money himself.

The harbor.

One of those times occurred in 1857. By then, enough traffic came near the harbor that he convinced other businessmen to go in with him to buy 2400 acres of Rancho San Pedro from the Dominguez Family. He then laid out the town of Wilmington, named for the town of his birth, on the south side of the harbor. He continued to invest in harbor improvement and shipping.

Banning also saw that political power was key to funding community services that couldn’t be handled locally.  He got a taste of that in 1858 when he was elected to a one-year term on the Los Angeles Common Council. The Council oversaw the town government, and Banning enjoyed being part of the power structure.

Later his position as a state senator was to be helpful to further development.

Banning Seizes Opportunities

As telegraph lines stretched from East to West, San Francisco—with its proximity to the gold fields—was getting connected rapidly. Banning saw that it was vital bring the communication lines to Los Angeles and San Pedro.

In 1858, telegraph poles were dropped off at Fort Yuma, Arizona.  If someone could bring the poles to the region, the process of stringing the lines could begin. Banning needed a great driver to travel 230 miles from San Pedro to Fort Yuma quickly and bring back a heavy load.

Who better than himself?

He made the round trip in under 13 days, and he secured for himself the job of subcontractor for getting the lines up.

Banning’s critics often went after him for the manner in which he benefited financially from these new ventures, but honestly, he got the work done. Who else was going to do it with the urgency of Banning.

Wilmington During the Civil War

Phineas Banning was a Republican and a staunch Unionist. This was counter to the Confederate-leanings of most of the residents in Southern California.

Drum Barracks Wilmington
Drum Barracks Civil War Museum

But Banning had strong opinions. He felt it was vital that the Union put their western supply base in Wilmington. He had the ear of Union General Winfield Hancock, and he and his friend Benjamin D. Wilson sold 60 acres of land in Wilmington to the U.S. government for one dollar apiece.

In return, Banning received the contract to build what became Camp Drum (named for Colonel Richard Coulter Drum). The camp was built over a period of two years and consisted of 19 buildings on the 60 acres; the military used another 37 acres down near the harbor as well.  (Today one building and a powder magazine still stand. The building houses the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum.)

Banning also received the commission for the contract to carry goods from Camp Drum to Fort Yuma—a job his company was well-prepared for.

Of course, bringing military supplies through the area greatly aided in establishing the importance of Wilmington and southern California.

Also in preparation for war, California Governor Frederick Low created a state militia. He made Banning Brigadier General of the First Brigade. The unit was never called for service, but Banning happily accepted the title and was known as the General for the remainder of his life.

More Harbor Work

Courtesy Banning Residence Museum

Banning led a post-war campaign to improve the harbor. By this time he was a state senator, though he needed access to federal money for what he planned. Working through Senator Cornelius Cole in Washington, D.C., Banning and other Wilmington residents campaigned for federal appropriations for harbor improvements. A more effective breakwater was needed, and the harbor dredging needed to begin. (By the late 1890s, the harbor was dredged to a depth of 16 feet, but Banning did not live to see that day.)

Next Stop, the Railroad

Phineas Banning was also well aware that Wilmington and Los Angeles needed to be able to move product and people by rail. Not everyone agreed. Around Wilmington, the ranchers saw no need to vary from their use of horse-drawn wagons. They resented the idea that track would need to be laid across private property.

Banning’s first effort to introduce a rail service failed, but he persisted. With his second push, he received the permissions and some of the state funds needed. His partner on this venture was Henry Tichenor.

In 1869, the same year as the golden spike was placed in Promontory, Utah, Tichenor and Banning started train service from Wilmington to Los Angeles.

But Banning knew that a rail “spur” was of limited use if it didn’t connect with something bigger, and the interstate railroads had other options. Many resented the Southern Pacific (called the “octopus” for its manner of wrapping itself around everything in its path), but Banning saw them as the most likely to favor the route that would include Las Angeles. This of course then increased the value of the Wilmington railroad connector.

As he worked on the deal, he saw that what the Southern Pacific needed was a man to negotiate the right-of-way through Arizona and New Mexico Territories. He became that man.

Without his effort, the story of the rails in Southern California might have gone another way.

Family Life

Banning House
courtesy Simie Seaman

Phineas Banning loved children, so when he married Rebecca Sanford in 1854, chances are he was optimistic about having a big family. For ten years they lived in various houses around the area, and by 1864, Banning completed the residence where he dreamed of raising his family (now the Banning Residence Museum).

Infant mortality was high in those years, and Rebecca’s health suffered with each pregnancy. She gave birth to eight children but only three survived to adulthood. Those who survived were all sons: William Banning (1857–1946), Joseph Brent Banning (1862–1920), and Hancock Banning (1866–1925).

Sadly for Phineas, he also lost Rebecca to one of the births. She died in 1868 while giving birth. (The graves of many Banning family members can be visited at the Wilmington Cemetery.)

Phineas loved having a full house for entertaining, and he soon married Mary Hollister. They had three children, two of their daughters survived infancy.

Phineas Banning continued with all of his business interests, but in the early 1880s he suffered poor health.  In 1885, he died—he was only 54.

Banning Offspring Carry On Business

William, Joseph and Hancock Banning followed in their father’s footsteps. They became active participants in their father’s businesses. But they also became beneficiaries of their location. Oil was found on much of the property on which Wilmington was built and this was very lucrative. (Residents still keep track of their mineral rights.)

Catalina Island postcard

The sons also fulfilled an important dream for their father. In 1859, Banning visited Catalina Island. Banning longed to own the island, but didn’t have the money. However as the island was developed for tourists, Banning’s transport company obtained the exclusive rights to bring tourists and good back and forth from the mainland.

In the late 1880s, the island owner hit on tough times. The deed reverted to the estate of the original owner. In 1891, the Banning sons bought it from James Lick’s estate.

While the brothers all did well financially, they found working as a smoothly running business unit to be difficult. Over the years, they divested themselves of various businesses, including Catalina Island. The island was sold to part-time Pasadena resident William Wrigley in 1919. He saw it as a great place for his Chicago baseball team to come for spring practice.

Banning Legacy

courtesy Simie Seaman

Phineas Banning’s legacy is vast. He was a key member of the group who fought to develop the region economically. Tom Sitton’s book, Grand Ventures, quotes The Los Angeles Daily Herald (August 19, 1879) on Banning: “it is difficult to say just how much this section [region] has been indebted to him. Few men who have made California their homes have shown the dauntless and all-conquering energy of the wheel-horse of Wilmington.”

Then just six years later on March 19, 1885, the Herald published his obituary:

“He saw in the distance the coming greatness of Southern California. And worked wisely to hasten the day of its coronation…He was the embodiment of good humor, a felicitous public speaker and tireless in his labors for promoting public welfare…Like the rest of us he had his faults. He was apt at time to be peremptory and domineering, but his heart was always in the right place.”


Visit Wilmington Today

The Banning Residence Museum today. Courtesy Simie Seaman

The Banning Residence is a Greek-Revival Victorian home in the heart of Wilmington. It is now operated as the Banning Residence Museum and plays an  active role in the community.

The Banning property is designated as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument and is on the state list of Historic landmarks. It’s also federally listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fittingly, there is a truly outstanding exhibit about transportation on display at the house. Visit the house but be sure to save time for the exhibit.

The Wilmington Cemetery is just blocks from the Banning home. It was created by Phineas Banning when the need arose to bury their first child. It has been deemed a historic landmark, and in wandering through it, visitors will find Banning family members as well as many other notable residents of Wilmington.

The Drum Barracks Civil War Museum is also only blocks away. It’s another gem well worth visiting.

I owe personal thanks to the citizens of Wilmington. I first joined them for Park Day at the Drum Barracks (sponsored by the Battlefield Trust). We had a wonderful turn-out of citizens of all ages who were there to make their community better.

I had so many questions about Banning and Wilmington that they invited me back for a tour. It was a wonderful day, and Phineas Banning would be proud of the responsibility and concern the community members show for their history and their town. I look forward to my next visit. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, go see what I mean.

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