Local History

Discover the rich history of San Pedro's Downtown Waterfront!

Located at the southern end of the Palos Verdes Peninsula at the end of Los Angeles, San Pedro Bay was first used by Spanish ships starting in the 1540s. The peninsula, including all of San Pedro, was also the homeland of the Tongva-Gabrieleño Native American people for thousands of years. Legend has it that the Native Americans blessed the land of Palos Verdes, making it the most beautiful place on Earth.

Historical Overview

The first official documentation of the harbor was by Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. When Cabrillo arrived in 1542 in San Pedro Bay, he called the land the “Bay of Smokes” because he saw so many village fires inland. The harbor in San Pedro was used as a trading post by Spanish monks from Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. The monks met ships at the water's edge with provisions from Spain helping to fulfill San Pedro’s ultimate destiny of becoming the largest cargo gateway into North America.

1893(1)- Map of San Pedro as it appeared in 1893. Drawn and lithographed by Bruce W. Pierce


Along its waterfront are shipyards, dry docks, fish canneries, and oil refineries, as well as a memorial to the merchant marines. Los Angeles Air Force Base and Cabrillo Beach are on Point Fermin at the peninsula’s southern tip. Built in 1874, the Point Fermin Lighthouse was the first navigational light into the San Pedro Bay.

1875(1) - Exterior view of the lighthouse at Point Fermin, San Pedro. Four people pose for the camera as they sit in a horse-drawn carriage in front of the white picket fence

Also on Point Fermin is Fort MacArthur, once an extensive military reservation; part of it now supports the Los Angeles air base, and it houses a museum with exhibits on Los Angeles’s harbor defenses and the role of Los Angeles during wartime. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum contains displays of the port’s history and ship models. Various industries began popping up in and around the Port in the early 1900s.

One San Pedro landmark is the Vincent Thomas Bridge, the fourth longest suspension bridge in California. Nearby is the Battleship USS Iowa the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, the largest maritime museum in California, as is the museum ship SS Lane Victory, a fully operational victory ship of World War II and National Historic Landmark. The Angels' gate lighthouse pictured below was first constructed in 1913 and it's foundation is rock breakwater with concrete slab. It is the only lighthouse in the world that emits an emerald-colored light.[5]

Los Angeles Harbor (Angels Gate) Lighthouse1

Ethnically diverse, San Pedro then became a hub for European immigrants from various countries for years. Today this culture is still reflected in the culinary diversity of our downtown restaurants featuring Portuguese, Mexican, and Italian family-owned concepts. San Pedro is still home to the largest Italian-American community in Southern California. The City of Los Angeles and the Harbor Area experienced unparalleled population growth in the early 20th century. City leaders recognized the Port's growth opportunities and the city of San Pedro was annexed to the City of Los Angeles on August 28, 1909.

(1910)1 - San Pedro waterfront looking south along Front Street from 4th Street. (City Hall is the building with the large dome)

For a list of more San Pedro Historic Landmarks, visit the San Pedro Bay Historical Society to learn more!

You can also visit the LA Maritime Museum to learn more about the history of our harbor!

1LA Public Library Image Archive
2DWP - LA Public Library Image Archive
3USC Digital library