By Cristy Lytal
When Geraldine Knatz and Naomi Hirahara started writing the historical book Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor, they had no sense of the significance of the project.
Now, the book has received two prestigious accolades: the Bruckman Award for Excellence in a Book about Los Angeles from the Los Angeles Public Library; and the Award of Merit for Scholar/Authorship from the Conference of California Historical Societies. It also came in third place for the national “Best Book” Award by Westerners International.
“It’s thrilling,” said Knatz, former CEO of the Port of Los Angeles and managing director of the Port of Long Beach, who is now a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Viterbi School of Engineering. “There are things you can discover that people don’t know about Los Angeles. That’s been the most fun part.”
The book, which debuted at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April, recounts many such discoveries about Terminal Island, located in San Pedro Bay.
Knatz first heard of its history from Lillian Kawasaki, who worked with her at the Port of Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Kawasaki’s mother and uncle had lived in the fishing village that used to thrive on Terminal Island, before many of its Japanese residents were forced to evacuate to internment camps during World War II.
Decades later, Min Tonai, a former resident of Terminal Island, took Knatz and two Harbor Commissioners to the memorial for the Japanese fishing village, and shared some of its rich history. On that visit, the idea for the book was born. Publisher Angel City Press recruited co-author Hirahara, a former editor and writer at Los Angeles’ Japanese daily newspaper, the Rafu Shimpo.
Terminal Island started off as two islands. In the 1870s, Rattlesnake Island was home to a few fisherman, who valued solitude over running water. Deadman’s Island was the site of several graves — ranging from Spanish conquistadores to Black Hawk, the last Native American to live on San Nicholas Island in the Channel Islands.
In 1871, the Army Corps of Engineers began deepening the harbor entrance by building a jetty between Rattlesnake and Deadman’s islands. Eventually, Deadman’s Island would be removed entirely to make room to widen the channel.
By the 1880s, Rattlesnake Island began attracting tourists, outdoor enthusiasts, writers, artists, and shell and fossil collectors. The 1890s heralded a rail line servicing Rattlesnake Island, as well as a road, a store, a saloon, a post office, a fish market and a school.
Around the turn of the century, the wealthy were building beachfront resort houses on one part of the island, while artists, writers, scientists and bohemians squatted in makeshift houses on stilts in a community known as East San Pedro.
As a woman who received her master of science in environmental engineering and Ph.D. in biological sciences from USC, and as the first woman in history to run the Port of Los Angeles, Knatz felt a deep personal connection to the pioneering female scientists of Terminal Island.
“How exciting for me to find that a woman was the first one to have a paper published about the biology of San Pedro Bay — by the Smithsonian in 1898,” said Knatz. “In some ways, I feel like these women were just waiting for me to come along and discover them.”
In 1901, a biologist from the University of California, Berkeley, established the Marine Biological Laboratory of Terminal Island. Although this field station moved to San Diego in 1903 and became Scripps Institution of Oceanography, several of its female scientists stayed on Terminal Island, squatting and conducting marine biological research.
“Just imagine going out in the field to do marine biology in a dress that reached to the ground,” Knatz said.
Knatz was also thrilled to learn about the so-called “wickieup,” a retreat where literary and artistic women could stay in East San Pedro. Its founder, author and publisher Idah Meachum Strobridge, welcomed everyone from female California impressionist painters to Jack London’s wife.
By 1912, the City of Los Angeles was issuing eviction notices to the squatters, as the harbor continued to industrialize. Around the same time, wealthy Angelenos began selling their stately homes, which were no longer beachfront property due to the dredging and landfilling of the harbor and resulting changes to the coastline.
In its next incarnation, Terminal Island served as the site of numerous sardine and tuna canneries and a thriving fishing village, populated predominantly by Japanese Americans. More than 2,000 people lived in a five-square-block area, creating a close-knit community that embraced the cultures of Japan and America. Children enjoyed baseball along with kendo and sumo wrestling. The island’s Shinto shrine housed portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Speech blended elements of Japanese and English, creating a unique lingo.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II, this unique and vibrant community was dismantled. The U.S. government sent many of the fishermen to internment camps, evacuated their Terminal Island homes and confiscated their boats and property.
But the book tells a story much deeper and more intricate than the island’s chronology of events. It introduces the individuals who called Terminal Island their home throughout the decades, and showcases the specificity and spirit of its many lost communities.
“I don’t think I knew when I started what this book would mean to people in Los Angeles or how significant it would become,” Knatz said. “But when people come up to you and tell you they found a picture of someone in their family they never saw before, well, that gives you tingles in your stomach. Terminal Island was a special place.”