Together, the Port of Los Angeles and the neighboring Port of Long Beach comprise the San Pedro Bay port complex. The two ports handle more containers per ship call than any other port complex in the world. (The Port of Long Beach will also be profiled by FreightWaves Classics.)

The Port of Los Angeles markets itself as America’s Port®. It is the busiest seaport in the Western Hemisphere. 

Last Thursday, June 10, the Port of Los Angeles became the first port in the Western Hemisphere to process 10 million container units in a 12-month period. The 10 millionth container was loaded onto the CMA CGM Amerigo Vespucci, which is a ship in the port’s largest shipping line customer’s fleet. 

Located about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles in the cities of San Pedro and Wilmington, the Port of Los Angeles is the number one port by container volume and cargo value in the nation, an annual ranking held consecutively since the year 2000.

As reported extensively by FreightWaves, it is one of many U.S. ports that is having severe congestion issues because of the veritable tidal wave of imports. As many as 25-30 ships at a time have been berthed off-shore waiting their turn to dock and unload their cargoes. 

The Port of Los Angeles and CMA CGM celebrate the 10-millionth container processed in one year. (Photo: Port of Los Angeles)

Early history

The first documentation of the area that now is the Port of Los Angeles was by the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. He explored the area at the northwest end of what is now San Pedro Bay on October 8, 1542. However, it was more than 225 years later (1769), when Spanish missionaries and officials began colonizing the coast of what later became California. 

San Pedro’s natural harbor was utilized as a trading post by Spanish missionary monks. Spanish ships with provisions were met by the monks at the water’s edge. In 1805 the first American trading ship to enter the San Pedro harbor was the Lelia Bryd. The Spanish government had decreed that it was illegal to conduct trade with any other country, but because of the distance and loose regulations, trade with other countries took place in the area. In 1822 the independent Mexican government ended the Spanish restrictions on trade. That action led to a rapid increase in settlement and commercial ventures in San Pedro. When California became a U.S. state in 1848, San Pedro harbor was flourishing.

A cargo ship docked at the Port of Los Angeles is so large it makes the trucks alongside look very small. (Photo: Port of Los Angeles)

Early champions

The Port of Los Angeles credits numerous politicians, businessmen and community visionaries for the success of San Pedro Bay. One who is singled out was Phineas Banning, who founded the city of Wilmington and was nicknamed the “Father of Los Angeles Harbor.” According to the port, “his entrepreneurialism and influence positioned the Port for future success as the maritime and trade center for a rapidly growing West Coast city.”

Banning improved the port’s shipping capabilities in 1871 when he paid for the harbor’s channel to be dredged to Wilmington to a depth of 10 feet and an initial breakwater was built between Rattlesnake Island and Deadman’s Island. That year the port handled 50,000 tons of shipping. Banning owned a stagecoach line with routes from San Pedro to Salt Lake City and Yuma, Arizona. He had also built a railroad line to connect San Pedro Bay to Los Angeles in 1868. 

When Banning died in 1885, the port handled 500,000 tons of shipping. The Southern Pacific Railroad wanted the Port of Los Angeles to be located at Santa Monica rather than San Pedro. In 1893, it built the Long Wharf in San Monica. However, the Los Angeles Times and U.S. Senator Stephen White pushed for federal approval of San Pedro Bay as the Port of Los Angeles. White is often called the “Savior of the Bay.” 

The issue was settled in 1897 when San Pedro was endorsed by a commission led by Rear Admiral John C. Walker (who was the chair of the Isthmian Canal Commission in 1904). With U.S. government support, breakwater construction began in 1899. 

An aerial photograph shows the size of the Port of Los Angeles. (Photo: Port of Los Angeles)

The harbor becomes official 

Both Los Angeles and its harbor area experienced rapid population growth in the early 20th century. This led to the creation of the Board of Harbor Commissioners on December 9, 1907, about 10 years after White led the effort to designate the harbor as the city’s official port. thus marking the official founding of the Port of Los Angeles. Then the independent cities of San Pedro and Wilmington were annexed into the City of Los Angeles on August 28, 1909. This meant the Port of Los Angeles was an official department of the City of Los Angeles. 

A number of different industries began in and around the port during that time period. Fishing fleets, canneries, oil drilling and shipbuilding created jobs and brought commerce and revenue to the Los Angeles area. This led the city to focus on port infrastructure and future development.

Dredging and widening of the main channel began in 1912. With the completion of major sections of the federal breakwater, the port was able to accommodate larger vessels. These improvements were significant once the Panama Canal opened in 1914. Because of its relative proximity to the canal, the Port of Los Angeles held a strategic position for international trade, as well as an advantage over ports further north on the West Coast.

Despite the fact that it had wanted the harbor in Santa Monica, the Southern Pacific Railroad completed its first major wharf at the port in 1912. During the 1920s, the port surpassed San Francisco as the West Coast’s busiest seaport. Then in the early 1930s, a huge expansion of the port was undertaken; a breakwater three miles out and over two miles in length was constructed. This outer breakwater was supplemented by an inner breakwater, which was constructed off Terminal Island. Docks for seagoing ships were built, as were smaller docks at Long Beach.

A general view looking east from Berth 86, showing the S.S. Maliko (in front of sprinkler tank) docked at Berth 232-E. The battleship U.S.S. New York is docked at Berth 231. The S.S. Maliko carried the first non-priority civilian shipments inbound and outbound from Los Angeles Harbor, after the end of World War II. (Photo: Port of Los Angeles)

World War II

As a major port on the West Coast, the Port of Los Angeles was commissioned by the U.S. military to conduct war-time efforts only. It was a major embarkation point for the men fighting in the Pacific Theater, as well as the millions of tons of war materiel and equipment. 

In addition, shipbuilding became a key port industry. All of the boat repair and shipbuilding companies located in and near the port assisted in the construction, conversion and repair of vessels for the war effort. More than 90,000 workers produced thousands of war-related vessels in San Pedro Bay shipyards. Following World War II, port officials again began focusing on the continued expansion and development of the port.

This photo shows cargo being unloaded from a ship prior to the era of containers and container ships. (Photo: Port of Los Angeles)

Post-war growth

Up until the mid-20th century, ports received cargo in crates, pallets and small lots of varying sizes and shapes. Because of the lack of uniformity and security, unloading cargo was painstakingly slow and the frequency of damage, pilferage and loss of cargo was high. 

Led by Malcom McLean and Sea-Land, the containerized cargo revolution began on the East Coast in the mid-1950s. Matson Navigation Company’s ship the Hawaiian Merchant delivered 20 containers to the port in 1959. This began the port’s shift to containerization. The port’s first container facility was built in 1960 at a cost of $1.8 million.

Intermodal containers can easily be loaded, sealed and shipped on vessels, railroad cars and trucks. Therefore, in today’s global economy, almost every manufactured product or its components are shipped in a container. Containerization is a key reason for the innovations in logistics and security that propelled the Port of Los Angeles to its  national and global importance.

 By 2013, more than half a million containers were moving through the Port every month.

Malcom McLean in the foreground, with a Sea-Land container in the background. (Photo:

Economic impact

As might be expected, the Port of Los Angeles is a major economic factor at local, regional and national levels. It is also one of Southern California’s key generators of jobs, commerce and tourism. In California, nearly 1 million jobs are related to the trade that flows through the port.  It is estimated that one in nine jobs across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties is connected to the San Pedro Bay Port Complex (the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach). Moreover, the Complex has a national economic impact because it generates employment for nearly 3 million Americans.

The cargo that comes into the port represents approximately 20% of all the cargo that enters the United States. In 2019 the port’s top imports were “furniture, automobile parts, apparel, footwear and electronics.” That year, the port’s top exports were “wastepaper, pet and animal feed, scrap metal and soybeans.” The port’s top trading partners that same year were “China/Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan.”

The port is self-funded by revenues it earns from fees for shipping services and leasing of port property. The port has an AA bond rating, which is the highest rating given to a port that does not have taxing authority.

A Port Police patrol boat passes a huge sign painted on the side of one of the port buildings. (Photo: Port of Los Angeles)

Facts and figures

The Port of Los Angeles covers 7,500 acres (4,300 acres of land and 3,200 acres of water). It has 43 miles of waterfront. The harbor’s main channel has a depth of 53 feet; it can accommodate the world’s largest container ships.

The port’s facilities include: nine container terminals, an automobile terminal, two break bulk cargo terminals, two dry bulk terminals, seven liquid bulk terminals and two passenger terminals; 82 ship-to-shore container cranes; and 116 miles of on-dock rail and six rail yards. 

All of the container terminals are equipped with Panamax and post-Panamax cranes.

The lighthouse marks the entry to San Pedro Bay and the Port of Los Angeles. A Maersk container ship passes by.
(Photo: Port of Los Angeles)

Today’s Port of Los Angeles

The Port of Los Angeles is the leading gateway for trade between the U.S. and Asia (particularly China, Japan and South Korea). The Port and its supply chain partners provide effective conveyance of cargo using modern marine terminal facilities that are able to accommodate the world’s largest ships; a workforce of skilled longshore labor; warehouse and trans-loading centers; a large and new drayage fleet; and rail facilities that offer speed-to-market access to major U.S. freight hubs.