Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Video of Elvis at the Port

The kind folks at the USS Potomac museum in Oakland sent us a link today to the website of an Elvis fan named Keith Flynn -- Keith has a piece of video of Elvis and Danny Thomas at the Port of Long Beach in 1964 for the handover ceremony for the presidential yacht. The pair discuss the Beatles a bit, too.

Maybe someone eagle-eyed will recognize where the Potomac is docked in this clip...

Watch the video

Keith Flynn's Elvis site

See our original post on Elvis at the Port

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nearly a century of service

The Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners meets sometime between June and December 1955. From left: Joseph F. Bishop, H.E. "Bud" Ridings, Jr., John P. Davis, Maurice W. Daubney and W.R. "Frosty" Martin.

Although the Port's history goes back 100 years, the Board of Harbor Commissioners is slightly younger. The story of the Harbor Commission began in 1916, when the Los Angeles Dock and Terminal Co. declared bankruptcy and turned over a massive harbor dredging project to the City of Long Beach. Soon thereafter it became clear that the Port needed a governing body; in December 1916, the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce obtained a ruling from the city attorney that the city's charter permitted the creation of a Harbor Commission.

On June 29, 1917, the first board was formed, with members W.T. Lisenby, mayor and commissioner of public property; James R. Williams, commissioner of public safety; and C.J. Hargis, commissioner of public works. This three-member commission lasted for eight years, until it was decided that the Port needed to be an independent city department governed by an independent board.

Since 1925, four women have served on the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners, all since 1979. From left are Louise M. DuVall, Carmen O. Perez, Susan E. Anderson Wise and Doris Topsy-Elvord.

Thus, on May 18, 1925, the five-member Harbor Commission as we know it today was formed. The members, named by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council, have ranged from experts in the maritime industry to academics, business leaders and politicians. Since 1925, 62 people have served. The Board has evolved over the years; four women have served since 1979 and the Commission's racial makeup has become more diverse, reflecting the changing face of Long Beach.

Click here to see photos and biographies of Harbor Commission members, 1925-present.

Click here for historic photos of the Commission.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Elvis at the Port, 1964

The Potomac, looking somewhat the worse for wear, at the Port of Long Beach in January 1964. Port of Long Beach photo.

Famous vessels and famous faces are no strangers to the Port of Long Beach. The Port has welcomed the USS Constitution and the Queen Mary, for instance, and notables including Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Arnold Schwarzenegger, just to name a few. But only one chapter in the Port's 100-year history involved both a president and a king, or rather The King.

For a short time in the early 1960s, the Port of Long Beach was home to the Potomac, a 165-foot-long vessel that from 1936 to 1945 was the presidential yacht of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For part of the Potomac's brief stay in Long Beach, the yacht was owned by someone arguably even more famous than FDR: Elvis Presley.

After FDR's death in 1945, the Potomac passed through a number of hands and ended up in early 1964 -- in a somewhat dilapidated condition -- here in Long Beach.

Danny Thomas and Elvis Presley aboard the Potomac for handover ceremonies at the Port of Long Beach, February 3, 1964. This was the only time Elvis set foot on the yacht. Photo courtesy of the USS Potomac Museum,
Elvis Presley bought the Potomac in January 1964 for $55,000, intending to present the vessel to the March of Dimes, the charity founded by FDR in the 1930s to fight polio. The March of Dimes ended up refusing the gift because of the upkeep involved.

Elvis then offered the yacht to the Miami Seventh Coast Guard Auxiliary, who accepted; presentation ceremonies were planned in Long Beach. But then the Navy got wind of the Auxiliary's plans for the Potomac, which were to sell it for scrap and purchase a new clubhouse, and blocked the donation.

With two avenues closed, attention turned to a favorite charity of Elvis': St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. February 3, 1964 was set for a ceremony to hand the vessel over to another famous name, Danny Thomas, founder of the hospital.

From Walter Jaffe's book "The Presidential Yacht Potomac":

After months of neglect the Potomac was in poor condition and had to be cleaned up for the ceremony. A few days before the event [Elvis' manager] Colonel Parker contacted [the Port] asking how much it would cost to have the boat cleaned up and painted for the dedication. He was told it would take at least three days and $18,000 to make the Potomac presentable. There wasn't that much time. The Colonel then asked, "How much if you just paint the side that faces the dock?" He was told that for $8,000 they could do what he wanted and rope off the unpainted parts. The Colonel said, "Do it."

The handover ceremony was held in Long Beach as planned on February 3, with Elvis (the only time he set foot on the boat), Thomas, members of Elvis' "Memphis Mafia," the media and fans in attendance. St. Jude's originally planned to take the yacht to Memphis and turn it into a floating restaurant, but the logistical and financial impracticalities of that led the hospital to sell the yacht, which left Long Beach and continued on its unusual journey.

The vessel passed through a succession of owners -- at one time it was seized as a front for drug smugglers -- before being abandoned in the East Bay Estuary near Oakland.

Shortly before the one-time "Floating White House" was due to be sold for scrap, it was purchased by the Port of Oakland and turned into a museum; today you can tour the vessel and even go on cruises aboard what's now a National Historic Landmark.

We'd like to extend a special thanks to the Potomac Museum in Oakland for providing much of the material for this article. For more information about the museum and the historic vessel, visit their website at

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

'Old Ironsides' and the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake

The USS Constitution, docked at the Port of Los Angeles a few days before the March 10, 1933 quake.

A few minutes before 6 p.m. 78 years ago this week, a 6.3 earthquake struck Long Beach and surrounding cities. The March 10, 1933 quake claimed more than 90 lives, injured thousands and caused millions of dollars in property damage.

The Long Beach Harbor area wasn't affected too badly by the temblor -- "practically undamaged" is how then-Port Manager James Collins characterized the situation a couple of days later.

The Navy, whose presence at the Port was growing throughout the 1930s, played a crucial role after the quake; 4,000 sailors were deployed to help survivors as well as to maintain order and prevent looting in the stricken city.

The quake overshadowed what was front page news just the day before: Earlier in the day, just hours before the quake struck, a famous visitor arrived at the Port. The frigate USS Constitution, also known as "Old Ironsides," newly restored and making a three-year tour of United States ports, was towed in (by the USS Grebe) to Berth 48 on Pier 1 for a ten-day stay, accompanied by about 130 other Navy vessels, including the USS California, the USS Tennessee and the USS Lexington.

Aboard the Constitution at Berth 48, Pier 1 in Long Beach, March 13, 1933.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors were expected to tour the historic vessel, which was launched in 1797, fought in the War of 1812 and is still in active service today. Although Old Ironsides stayed in Long Beach until March 19 (when it left for Santa Barbara and points north), its visit naturally wasn't a huge success. (The Constitution wasn't damaged in the quake apart from some broken electrical connections; and a headline in the Press-Telegram on March 13 described the ship as the safest place in the city during the shaking.)

The ship returned to Long Beach in October 1933 on its trip back south towards the Panama Canal to a much warmer welcome, and hundreds of thousands of people each year still visit the frigate at its home port in Charlestown, MA.

Sources for this entry included Press-Telegram stories by Tim Grobaty and Bill Hillburg as well as Navy websites and Wikipedia.

Old Ironsides after celebrating its 213th anniversary in October 2010.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Union Pacific at the Port - Part 2

Part 2 of our look back at Union Pacific during the early years of the Port of Long Beach comes in this history written by John Bromley, the director of historic programs at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Mr. Bromley and the museum were kind enough to share this account with us as well as the wonderful photos you can find here.

Union Pacific’s entry into Long Beach was made possible by the formation of the Los Angeles Terminal Railway Co. on January 2, 1891, through consolidation of several small railroads in the Los Angeles, Glendale and Pasadena area. The Los Angeles Terminal then acquired right-of-way to Long Beach from the bankrupt Los Angeles and Ocean Railroad.

The railroad was opened to Long Beach on November 7, 1891. The next year the railroad purchased portions of the Rancho San Pedro known as Rattlesnake Island (later renamed Terminal Island).

Initially passenger service was the primary business of the Terminal Railway, serving the resort and summer homes properties at Long Beach and along Terminal Island.

The Terminal Railway soon began to dream of building a link to Salt Lake City for a new transcontinental railroad. Potential investors, however, were uninterested, afraid such a line would hurt their holdings in Southern Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. But the Terminal Railway did convince “Copper King” William A. Clark of Montana that it would be profitable.

On August 21, 1900 the Los Angeles Terminal Railway announced that Clark had acquired an interest in the company and would build a line to Salt Lake City. The San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad was incorporated on March 20, 1901, with the Terminal Railway as a part.

Ending the battle with Union Pacific’s E. H. Harriman who opposed the new line, Clark agreed on July 9, 1902 to sell one-half interest in SPLA&SL to Harriman for joint control of the line. The railroad was completed on January 20, 1905 with a brief ceremony at the joining of the rails 34 miles west of Las Vegas.

The new railroad adopted the slogan as the “Salt Lake Route” advertising the attractions of Southern California, including its beaches.

On August 25, 1916 the name of the railroad was shortened to the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. On April 27, 1921, an agreement was reached with Clark where Union Pacific purchased the remaining stock held by Clark.

The line from Los Angeles initially ran through mostly open country side to Long Beach where it turned west and ran down Ocean Boulevard through the downtown area to a bridge over the Los Angeles River that connected Long Beach with Terminal Island. Rapid growth in the region soon made the bucolic arrangement burdensome and in 1923 UP announced plans for a freight cutoff to the harbor district to bypass the downtown street running. Delayed by controversy over the proposed alignments, the cutoff was finally started in 1931 and ready by late 1932.

The use of the name Los Angeles & Salt Lake disappeared from the public view in the 1930s, although it still existed as a legal entity. It was formally merged into the Union Pacific Railroad on January 1, 1988.

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