Last modified: August 28, 2019

Fishing Piers Southern California

Redondo Wharf No. 1 (Santa Fe Wharf), 1888-1915 — Gone But Not Forgotten

An Angler’s history of Redondo’s Wharf #1

The story of Redondo and its early wharves is one that is far more complex than that seen at the typical California seaside towns that sprang up in the late 1800s. The plan by the Redondo Beach Company may initially have centered on real estate and the sale of land to newcomers from “back east” but it soon evolved into a many-layered affair.

In part, geography influenced its history. Due to its deep, submarine canyon, Redondo was quickly proclaimed a prime spot for a seaport and became in the eyes of many, the logical port for Los Angeles. But the money to be made from real estate and shipping would be supplemented by money from tourists who, it was hoped, would flock to the town as more and more attractions were added (the Redondo Hotel, Bath House, Pavilion, etc.).

In part, capitalism and changing technology played a large part. Railroads supplemented the cart and buggy on land while steamships provided fairly reliable transportation on the sea.  The story of Redondo’s railroads, the two railway lines that would run to Redondo in 1888, and then the competition between the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific for supremacy in the early1900s (when the Long Wharf at Santa Monica was built) provided more drama to the story.

The war between the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific would eventually metastasize into a bitter, hydra-headed affair that included the backers of Santa Monica, Redondo Beach and San Pedro, the railroads, and the state and the federal government. When the federal government finally decided to build a breakwater that would provide protection for the wharves at San Pedro, it signaled the end to the hopes of Santa Monica and Redondo to be THE port for Los Angeles.

In time, the people of Redondo Beach would give up on the idea of Redondo as a port. Later, they would see their role as a tourist destination begin to decline. Eventually, the citizens began to recognize their future was as a pleasant, oceanfront town, one that would always offer amusement and pleasure to visitors but also one that centered on the needs of its own citizens.

But, to some degree, it all started with a wharf, the wharf that eventually would become known   as Wharf No. 1. Initially, before additional wharves were built, it was simply the Redondo Wharf or, for some, the Santa Fe Wharf. The wharf would provide the opportunity for Redondo to be a port and provide an end point (or beginning point) for passengers and freight headed to and from Los Angeles.

Although the exact ground breaking date is unknown, construction of Wharf No. 1 at the foot of Emerald Street (approximately where today’s municipal pier is located) had begun by the spring of 1888. Nor is the exact date of completion known although by early December 1888 most of the work was finished. It also isn’t clear if the wharf that emerged late that year was the wharf mentioned in newspaper stories—a  “temporary wharf” to precede an “iron wharf.”  What is clear is that the wharf became one of the most important wharves on the coast and, in due time, would do battle with San Pedro and the Long Wharf at Santa Monica for designation as the “Port of Los Angeles.”

It is also clear that Wharf No. 1 became one of the two greatest “fishing piers” on the coast. It, together with the McFadden Wharf (at Newport Beach), would see more big fish caught than any other piers in California. And while quality was shared with Newport, the sheer quantity of fish taken from Redondo’s Wharf No. 1 was probably never matched.

Fishing in the 1890s

Literally thousands of anglers fished from Wharf No. 1 from the year it was built. The same would be true at Wharf No. 2, Wharf No. 3, and the Redondo Beach Municipal Pier. In most cases the anglers began to fish a wharf when it was still only partly finished. Such was the enthusiasm engendered by the quality of fishing at Redondo.

Unfortunately, the numbers of fish caught by those thousands of recreational anglers, when combined with the number of fish caught by commercial anglers (by rod and net) almost assured an eventual decrease in the numbers of fish.

From its start in the late 1880s until the first decades of the 1900s fishing generally remained good at Redondo; at times it was sensational. But, the number of exceptionally good days, and the number of big fish, i.e., giant sea bass and yellowtail, decreased. The signs that fishing was “not the same as earlier” were there for the people who had fished the piers for years but the causes of the decrease were complex and often ignored.

Some have said this was an age of “ecological innocence,” a time when people felt the oceans would always be full of fish — no matter what they did. However, the warnings were frequent, especially regarding the commercial netters, and the innocence should quickly have been lost.

In the beginning —1887 saw much of the land that would become Redondo Beach purchased by a real estate syndicate and quickly they announced they would build a wharf:

A $400,000 Deal — The Splendid Dominguez Property Purchased by a Syndicate

The latest and biggest real estate deal of the week is the purchase of about 1400 acres of the San Pedro Rancho, known as the “Dominguez Property and Salt Works,” by Judge Charles Silent, D. McFarland and N. R. Vail… The frontage on the beach is about a mile and a half long, gradually sloping back for a half mile to an elevation of 600 feet. The surface is beautifully diversified and rolling, thus affording a view of surpassing loveliness and grandeur for miles in all directions, including Los Angeles, Ballona, and the whole valley… The lots will be laid out according to designs by and under the general supervision of William H. Hall, at present State Engineer. Mr. Hall built the Golden Gate Park at San Francisco… It is the purpose of the syndicate to erect an iron pier for vessels and pleasure-boats… A magnificent hotel, similar to the far-famed Del Monte, will be erected… —Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1887

That same year saw the discovery of the submarine canyon, a fact that led the Santa Fe Railroad to decide to make Redondo Beach its “Southern Terminal.” An article soon appeared that  discussed the advantages of Redondo as a deep-water port:

Deep-Sea Commerce —Where Can It Be Harbored on the Southern Coast?

For several months past a very interesting study has been in progress which nearly concerns the welfare of Los Angeles, and, indeed, of the southern end of the state generally. It appears we have no deep-water harbor or sheltered deep-water landing thus far established. There are only two harbors on the Southern coast—Wilmington and San Diego. The one does not admit even medium sized ships, and the other will admit a moderately large ship when heavily laden, only at high tide.

The Redondo Beach Company finding in their property the command of an unexpectedly deep-water frontage, have quietly had this whole subject sifted, and now in response to an earnest call from the Board of Trade for the information as matter of public interest, have sent to President Eugene Germain copies of the reports of their advising engineers…

A synopsis of the report of Col. H. G. Mendell upon the natural conditions of Redondo Beach as a commercial seaboard point and upon the construction to develop its advantages… The colonel says: “The ten fathom contour is within 500 feet of shore.” And then he says that “in front of Santa Monica it is one-half miles out” to the depth which is only 500 feet out at Redondo Beach. Concluding this subject he says that “the only other point on the adjacent coast presenting similar characteristics is about thirty miles to the southward, where the ten fathom curve comes to within 1200 feet of the shore at a place a little above the Newport estuary,” and further says that “this feature belongs to no other frontage on Santa Monica Bay proper.” Attention is then called to the fact that, “the close proximity of deep water is a feature of great value. First, it presents the obvious advantage of giving a maximum amount of accommodation for a minimum length of wharf, less expensive both to build and maintain. As compared with others, the exposure of a structure thus located is much less, because it soon passes into a depth, where the motion of the water is oscillatory and not percussive, in which position the structure receives no blows from breaking waves. Another advantage is that vessels lying at a wharf thus located in water of considerable depth, are free from the disturbances due to ground swells of the ordinary sea wave, and as the water deepens seaward, no disturbance is propagated from waves breaking outside the wharf… These conditions give this position a peculiar value for commercial uses not shared with any other in the vicinity…

The next division of the report is devoted to the exposure of the water frontage at Redondo Beach to winds and waves… the clear outlook from the beach is bounded by land over three-fourths of the horizon and is opened for about 8 points of the compass only: “it is open only to the westerly winds of summer and to the southwesterly winds in winter, and it is well covered from the northerly and from the “southeast to southerly storms.”… “in all ordinary weather during the prevalence of northerly winds, vessels could discharge at a wharf at Redondo Beach.” … “If it be established that vessels can lie here free from exposure to southerly seas and winds to which the bay of San Pedro is to a great extent open, Redondo at once becomes a position of prime importance.”

…”For deep-water vessels it is desirable to have at least four fathoms of water alongside of a pier.  To reach this depth at Redondo Beach a pier has to be only 300 or 400 feet in length from shore, whereas at Newport it would have to be at a thousand feet in length; at Point Fermin it would have to be 1500 feet in length, and in San Pedro Bay it would have to be from 3000 to 4000 feet in length.”

These comparisons made, Colonel Mendall says, “steamers from San Francisco, landing first at Redondo, would doubtless there discharge their passengers, who would reach Los Angeles some hours earlier than they can now, or than they could do if landed on piers in San Pedro Bay… “It appears to me that under existing conditions, a pier at Redondo Beach with railroad connections to Los Angeles would at once secure the passenger travel and freight to and from San Francisco, and the deep-sea freight, lumber and coal not consigned to the Southern Pacific Railroad…—Los Angeles Herald, January 11, 1888

Work continued on both the railroad and on the wharf:

Ready For Traffic — Opening of the Redondo Road—the First Trip

The first train over the Redondo Beach road was hauled over that line on Monday…This new line forms an important addition to the commercial enterprises of Los Angeles. Twenty miles in length, it starts from the Santa Fe depot at First street, traverses the rich Inglewood, Centinela and Sausal Redondo valleys and terminates at one of the most favored watering spots on the coast. A pier wharf 1,100 feet wide is to be built there and two vessels are now unloading lumber at a temporary wharf for that purpose. —Los Angeles Herald, April 4, 1888

Fishing — [A few explanatory notes in regard to the fish. In the late 1800s and early 1900s corbina were generally called surf, or surf fish, and the small corbina were called nippers. Mackerel seem to have come in two sizes, regular small mackerel and large mackerel that were usually called corn-fed mackerel. Finally, giant (black) sea bass were given the unfortunate name jewfish, a name used well into the1920s.]

“Fishing from the pier, the takes were so good that no one worried about taking home the specific fish he caught. You just piled them up behind you, as they came through, chasing the bait. If you caught five, you got to take five home.” (Personal memories of Bob Goldstone)—Dennis Shanahan, Old Redondo, A Pictorial History of Redondo Beach, California 

By the summer of 1888 people were fishing from the wharf, as seen in the following stories. Assumedly the wharf was the unfinished Wharf No. 1 and it’s clear that people were not afraid to claim fishing rights on a wharf even before its completion—as would also happen to wharves No. 2 and No. 3.

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