Terminal Island: Lost Communities on America’s Edge

By Steve Propes

The existing Terminal Island is largely an industrial harbor with truck and train traffic, stacks of shipping containers and a federal prison. Historically, it’s that and much more as found in the story, images, charts and commentary of the high-quality hardback book, “Terminal Island: Lost Communities on America’s Edge.”

The narrative starts in the middle of the 1800s with place names like Rattlesnake Island, East San Pedro aka No Man’s Land, Terminal Beach, Brighton Beach, Mormon Island and the ominous Deadman’s Island, the burying ground for soldiers, sailors and other adventurers. From the look of the several photos and maps, it would appear that Rattlesnake Island was the ground on which the current Terminal Island sits, while the looming piece of land, Deadman’s Island was dredged away in 1929 to make way for the breakwater and channel expansion.

The first half of the book deals with residential and squatter development in the latter half of the 19th century, things like bathhouses, a ferry, really a rowboat and controversies over squatters and their right to build. The first homes were known as “squatter town” in East San Pedro. This well-illustrated tome provides several maps of homes with the surnames of residents.

Train service and the arrival of a bohemian population rounded out the century. In 1905, Long Beach annexed Terminal Island, turning East San Pedro into West Long Beach. With it came changes to the rights of squatters, who compared Long Beach to an octopus. In 1907, San Pedro won a court case and took the island back. All of the above took place over a 30-year-period.

An impressive array of historic photos and maps help fill in the story of this development. Industry arrived in 1912 and with it, some of the more luxurious homes became rooming houses for workers brought in for breakwater construction, their previous owners moving off the island.

A nascent fishing industry was populated by Japanese immigrants and with it, “Japanese Camp” in 1912 and in 1915 “Fish Harbor,” a map of which is included. An anti-Japanese attitude was evident in the immigration act of 1924. A Terminal Island “lingo” developed. Schools attempted to “Americanize” Japanese students.

In 1940, when the breakwater was completed along with a channel that did away with the land link to Long Beach. Terminal Island became the home to a fish cannery industry with various firms and factories.

This is where the book becomes more than a recounting of historical factoids. It becomes personal with stories about individual residents, documenting how the mainly Japanese and Nisei population of Terminal Island made their living, overwhelmingly in the fishing industry, which was a brutal job for mainly women who toiled in the canneries. The fishermen faced political and immigration headwinds.

With the attack on the U.S. Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, governmental reaction to the non-citizen Japanese, many of whom lived on the West Coast was swift. The military entered Terminal Island and the Navy took over the island. Workers and business proprietors were given 48 hours to wrap up their affairs. Some sold their businesses, inventories and equipment at a percent of value, then were taxed by the state on money they made. Terminal Island was the first place where residents were relocated to detention camps. Some of the Japanese were held for a short period at the Federal Corrections Institution, a prison turned into an immigration center.

This is where the book finishes. Little post-WWII activity is noted: the Terminal Islanders Club formed in 1971, a shipbuilding site that closed in 2014 and a 1988 law of reparations signed by President Reagan. The Vincent Thomas Bridge and the Gerald Desmond Bridge, which replaced a primitive pontoon bridge, linking Long Beach to San Pedro through Terminal Island isn’t part of the text, nor are various industrial plants, the site of the Spruce Goose flight and the Brotherhood Raceway Park, which closed in 1995.

With a trove of photos, maps, charts and historic text, that Terminal Island’s history has been clearly documented. A volume well worth having in your history of Southern California collection.

Written by Geraldine Knatz and Naomi Hirahara, this book will be released on March 19

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