Port Town authors George and Carmela Cunningham
Port Town authors George and Carmela Cunningham

Book brings Port story to life

In Long Beach, the history of the Port is the history of the city. George and Carmela Cunningham tell that story in their new book, Port Town, commissioned by the Port and due to debut in June.

Husband and wife, writers and editors, journalists and historians, the authors are well known in the maritime and goods movement industry as the publishers of The Cunningham Report, which covered the West Coast ports and the trade and transportation world from 1996 to 2010. They are also gifted storytellers who bring history to life, especially the visionaries and the scallywags who are sometimes both.

Port Town is an epic story, an unflinching and comprehensive history of how the people of Long Beach built, defended and profited from their harbor. The Cunninghams’ 500-page book is a page-turner, filled with the larger-than-life soldiers of fortune, land-grabbers, lovers, dreamers and builders who were inspired and bewitched by the Port of Long Beach’s mighty promise.

“The heart and soul of our community is our Port,” said Doug Drummond, President of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners. “No one tells that story better than George and Carmela.”

In partnership with the Port, the Long Beach Public Library Foundation will celebrate the publication of Port Town at the foundation’s 12th annual “Grape Expectations” benefit. The event will be held June 20. The event will kick off traveling and gallery exhibits showcasing the Port’s history presented in partnership with the Historical Society of Long Beach. The gallery exhibit is planned for Aug. 7 through Nov. 1 at the Historical Society, 4260 Atlantic Ave., in the city’s Bixby Knolls district.

Find out more about the Grape Expectations benefit.

Read more about Port Town and authors George and Carmela Cunningham.


Port of Long Beach: Port Town tells the story of a seaport that went from moving 350,000 feet of pine in 1911 to more than 6.8 million TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) of containerized cargo in 2014. How deep are the ties between the city and the Port? Why “town” instead of “city”?

Carmela Cunningham: The Port and the city are inextricably linked. Long Beach is a town – a community with its own unique culture – and much of that culture developed because of the Port. There is a strong feeling that this is our town and this is our Port, too. I grew up in Southern California, and my family has strong ties to the Port. My mom met and married a skinny sailor who passed through Long Beach after World War II. When we were kids, that sailor – my father – took us to see the place where my uncle’s trucking company delivered its loads, to see [floating crane] Herman the German, to spend the day at the beach, to go to the Pike. It seems everybody has a personal story about Long Beach and the Port. Everyone in Long Beach has a personal stake in this “Port Town.”

George Cunningham: You look at the size of Long Beach and the size of a city like LA, and you go to Long Beach City Hall and you look out the window and you see the Port. It is a port town. LA City Hall is 20 miles away from its port. If you’re in the San Fernando Valley, it’s 30 to 40 miles away. Los Angeles is a city with a port. Long Beach is a port town. The city would not exist without the Port and the Port certainly would not exist without the town. It’s one economic entity and one political entity.


POLB: The book begins with the earliest known inhabitants of the region. How does this set the stage for telling the story of the Port of Long Beach?

GC: It sets the stage for everything. Before the Europeans arrived, this area was a center for trade. The Indians in the area around San Pedro Bay traded with other Indians on Catalina Island and inland Indians as far east as the Colorado River. They traded shells, tools made from bones and wood, minerals from inland, and other items. It’s always been a trading hub, and it’s always been a place of immigrants. The Indians who came from Asia were immigrants, and the Indians who were here when the Spanish arrived had pushed aside the Indians who were here before them to establish their own culture. Port Town is the story of an institution that is the Port, but it is also a story of a piece of land that has changed throughout the years. Every generation of stewards that came along has changed it. When the Port was founded in 1911, that’s really part way through the story. It’s like the Bible. You can’t talk about the New Testament until you talk about the Old Testament.

CC: The land and the water have their value and their uniqueness, but every group of people who came changed it – in our lifetime, we’ve put more land where there was water – and every group will alter it to suit their own purposes in the future. We talk about the Civil War. Why? California was part of the Civil War. Politics and relationships over the years created land grants and ranchos, and that’s where you get names such as Nieto and Stearns and Bandini on street signs today. People are the heart of this book. It’s about where we live, where we grew up, where our families earned their living.


POLB: Each chapter begins with events on the larger historical landscape. Why was it important to paint that bigger picture and how does it help people understand the evolution of Long Beach and the Port?

GC: The chapter introductions are a touchstone to the big things and the little things going on in the world. It’s the Korean War and it’s hula hoops. It’s one of our favorite devices for linking what was happening locally and what was happening in the world.

CC: At the same time Henry VIII was sending his fifth wife to the chopping block, Cabrillo was sending his flotilla up the California coast. It set the history of the Port in the timeframe of world events. Also, what goes on in the world – in England, in China – affected what we eventually called California. My favorite chapters are 13 and 14 where we talk about World War II. There’s this massive thing going on in the world and Long Beach is right smack dab in the middle of it. You’ve got this fleet based in Long Beach for the better part of a year that is sent off to Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The next day there were 160 war widows and 125 fatherless kids in Long Beach. So you have this piece of Long Beach history that played a part in the whole world: shipbuilding, rationing, lost sons, fathers and husbands, women going to work, and a variety of social issues that grew out of that reality. Women suddenly weren’t at home with their kids all day, and the workplace had to help accommodate that. Then, suddenly, it all ended. A massive number of jobs were lost and a lot of women were out of work, but not all of them. Some stayed in the work force. You saw this across the country, but especially in Long Beach because of the shipbuilding industry. You look at changes that were so important to the world and they were important to what was happening right here in our town.

GC: There were no war benefits in those days. Long Beach was the home of the original Rosie the Riveters, the beginning of women stepping in and taking industrial jobs. As for the hula hoop, it was a sign of the popular culture that evolved along with the mood of the country. There’s a serious mood and a silly mood, and the hula hoop is part of the silly things that came out after the war. Even while we’re talking about serious things in the world, it’s important to recognize that there were people living their lives and enjoying their lives. It is another touchstone that tells what the world was like as we talked about what was going on at the Port.


POLB: The history of this country is one of immigrants, entrepreneurs and upstarts. Port Town has more than a few striving for the “American dream.” Who are some of your favorites?

GC: There are so many. You have the Bixby brothers and their cousin who came out looking for gold and made their fortune selling supplies to miners. You have John Craig, the son of Scottish immigrants who moved his family’s shipbuilding business from Toledo, Ohio, to Long Beach. You have William Willmore, who developed what became downtown Long Beach only to lose everything and end up in an unmarked grave later given a marker by the Signal Hill Civil League.

CC: Willmore was a guy with big ideas, which is what so many people had. Some of them pushed their big ideas forward a little, others a lot.

GC: Charles Windham worked as blacksmith’s helper, a bridge carpenter in the Northwest, a laborer in Nicaragua and a trainmaster and a plantation owner in Costa Rica before coming to Long Beach in 1902. Here was a guy from Tennessee who spoke fluent Spanish. He rose to prominence as a real estate developer, Port advocate and contractor, and a Long Beach mayor and city manager. He became the “Father of the Port of Long Beach” by harnessing the political will to build the Port at a time when people weren’t fussy about conflict of interest. At the City Council’s request, he stayed on longer as Long Beach city manager than he intended to ensure key projects that protected the interests of the city and the Port moved forward. He left to run Hollywood-by-the-Sea, a new town in Florida, but returned to Long Beach to develop the Lakewood Country Club area.


POLB: Your favorite, Carmela?

CC: Harry Bridges, who founded what is known today as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. This was a guy who knew his own mind. He had very strong ideas of right and wrong and he lived accordingly. He was also a pretty colorful character with an interesting personal life.

GC: Harry Bridges was never a Long Beach resident, but he’s in this story because he’s responsible for a lot of change that happened at the Long Beach Port. He started with a San Francisco local of the International Longshoremen’s Association, today’s East Coast version of the ILWU. He broke from it because he thought the ILA kept trying to control them and that was not the way Harry Bridges thought a union should work. He cleared the way for containerization, he was militant, and he was prosecuted and persecuted for his political beliefs. He was an Australian whom the U.S. spent years trying to deport, and when he finally got his citizenship, the U.S. tried to take it away. Was he a communist? Later facts suggest he may well have been, but at this point who cares? He went through a lot of hassles and heartaches and people stood behind him. And because they did, longshore workers eventually made good money. That money comes back into the community and supports local business, restaurants and other organizations. When you talk about the economic benefits of the Port, the fact that longshore workers make good money is one of the economic benefits we enjoy because of Harry Bridges. He had a huge role in the building the Port.

CC: During WWII, Harry Bridges was adamant that the union wouldn’t strike. I respect that.

GC: As soon as the war was over that changed.

CC: I respect that, too.

POLB: Long Beach is the nation’s second busiest container port, but things could have turned out differently. What are some key turning points?

GC: Before the Port was a port, there was the Free Harbor Fight over where to build a port in Southern California. Collis Huntington, one of the “Big Four” railroad tycoons, wanted to build the port in Santa Monica. That would have given his company, Southern Pacific, a lock on all the cargo. The Army Corps of Engineers looked at Newport Beach, San Pedro Bay, Redondo Beach and Santa Monica. Huntington had friends in high places and lobbied hard for Santa Monica, even though three separate engineering studies concluded San Pedro Bay was the better choice. Huntington stalled things for more than eight years, but in the end the San Pedro Bay prevailed. The battle was bigger than where to build a port. It was a sign that corporate control of Congress was changing.

Another major turning point came shortly after the Port became a port. This time, the adversary was Mother Nature. Rains and flooding from the Los Angeles River routinely dumped mud into the harbor. Things got so bad that a new submarine built in the run-up to World War I sank into the mud minutes after it was launched. The citizens of Long Beach passed a bond issue to dig out and deepen the harbor and convinced the Army Corps to move the river outlet east of the harbor. This was huge. There was never going to be a major port until the San Pedro Bay was able to dig itself out of the mud.

Then oil was discovered. Oil money enriched Long Beach and built the Port, but there was a cost. Pumping all that oil out of the ground caused subsidence and portions of the Port and the city sunk as much as 20 feet below sea level. The problem persisted over nearly two decades and was finally solved when engineers came up with a water-injection program that stabilized the area. The Port was saved, but not before it had to be built a second time. All that oil revenue also came with political and legal battles. In 1953, Long Beach resident Felix Mallon filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s use of oil revenue outside the harbor district. He expected to lose the suit, which would then establish once and for all, Long Beach’s right to use the money for inland city projects – which he favored. Two years later, the California Supreme Court issued the final decision requiring the city to split the oil money with the state and restrict its use to the tidelands area.


POLB: At what point does the Port start to become the seaport of today?

GC: Containerization. The Port of Long Beach was one of the first ports to adopt it and work through all the challenges. Containerization revolutionized the movement of cargo by allowing folks to load and unload ships quickly and swap containers between lines and companies. Long Beach struck a deal with Sea-Land, the shipping company founded by Malcom McLean and later acquired by Maersk. Long Beach was always an entrepreneurial port. It was among the first to adopt on-dock rail and one of the first ports to face up to the fact that it was in the business of getting cargo to its destination, not just loading and unloading ships. It was also one of the first to run into problems with people because of more containers, trucks and bulk trains moving through the area. Out of this experience grew the Alameda Corridor, an expressway built to get the cargo past all the people between the Port and open land.


POLB: What are some of the Port’s greatest accomplishments?

CC: The Clean Trucks Program and the whole environmental direction the Port has taken in the last 20 years. The Port led the way, starting with first doing less damage and then evolving to a point where it is very proactive about protecting the environment.

GC: Preventing a merger with the Port of LA From Day One, many have looked at the two ports and asked, “Why are there two ports here?” There really are reasons. Long Beach is able to act independently and be its own port in its own community rather than being part of the Port of LA. It’s about local control. A good example is the rail yard in West Long Beach. That neighborhood has a lot more clout in Long Beach than Wilmington does in Los Angeles. The benefit of the Port is not just the money it contributes every year for tidelands purposes. The Port has been involved in developing the downtown area. Over the years, the Port contributed millions of dollars to the city. The Port also loaned millions to build the Convention Center, and it purchased the land for the World Trade Center, relocated the residents and businesses, and prepared the property for construction of the complex by private developers. The bonds to construct the Aquarium of the Pacific were backed by the Port.

At the same time, the Port has had to find a balance between autonomy and being just another city department. That’s been difficult because the Port has to run like a business, but it is not a separate business entity. That’s led to some battles over the years, but they are healthy battles. As a business, the Port has customers – shipping lines, railroads and others – it has to please. But it is also a public agency and the citizens of Long Beach are also its clients, including people whose health is impacted by what’s going on. So we talk about the jobs and the money and who owns this and who has a piece of that, but it’s also about the community … where people spend money, the merchants of Long Beach, the tax base and quality of life the money provides.


POLB: What were you surprised to learn about the history of the city and the Port?

GC: We never knew how rich its history was and we never knew some of the characters that filled this story. It’s about people like Windham, but also just ordinary people and people of conscience and some of the political types who started out as community activists and went on to become council members and harbor commissioners. Rae Gabelich was one of the people complaining about trains. She was married to a very famous racecar driver and became the 8th District city councilwoman for eight years. The late Ray Grabinski, who led a fight against a chemical plant in the city’s California Heights neighborhood and went on to become the 7th District city councilman for 12 years, was another.

CC: From the beginning, Long Beach has been a community where people are always speaking up and they’re encouraged to speak up. It grew into a big city that is still small enough for everyone to have a voice. There’s a power structure in every city, but in Long Beach it changes because the people on the outside become the people on the inside.


POLB: What does the book offer people making decisions about the Port in the future?

GC: One lesson is about who owns the Port. Some contend that the state owns it and lets Long Beach administer it, but it’s not quite that simple. Ownership is fluid and if you want to own something, you’ve got to be willing to fight for it. Long Beach has always met that test.

CC: Another lesson is ensuring that what benefits the Port also benefits the community. There are important choices ahead to make the Port more efficient, but there has to be a benefit to people, too. We’ve driven across the country and seen freight train after freight train passing every 20 to 30 minutes through cities where the railroad once was a huge asset that connected them to the rest of the world, but now it’s a liability that brings pollution and noise. We’ve got to be careful that this huge asset doesn’t become a liability. Long Beach has always been able to do that by looking at the opportunities.


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