710_1953_top.jpg710 in 1953 | Photo: ''California Highway and Public Works'' courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California

The 710 Long Beach Freeway: A History of America's Most Important Freeway

This is part of a series examining the 710 Corridor and its impact in the surrounding communities, produced in partnership with the California Endowment.

A segment based on this story was produced for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it here now.

From the corporate investment of Jamestown to the Wolf of Wall Street era, economic interests have superseded many other American values. The I-710 Long Beach Freeway, meanwhile, has become the country's most important -- although clogged -- economic artery, in the vascular system of American capitalism. The business of America is business.

Yet, the 710 Freeway's primary function has aided in the largest trade deficit in world history, facilitating the exporting of U.S. manufacturing jobs, while Pocahontas pajamas, children toys, and a litany of consumer goods are imported onto thousands of diesel powered trucks.

Formerly known as the Los Angeles River Freeway, the I-710 Long Beach Freeway was one of the earliest freeways in the region. Its origins can be traced back to the "Great Free-Harbor Fight" of the 1890s, where Los Angeles City officials helped solidify the port in San Pedro by ingeniously annexing a sixteen-mile "shoestring district" that made the harbor a legal part of the city. Los Angeles also spent $10 million on harbor improvements, and proposed the construction of a truck highway for developing the port.

Although millions of dollars were poured into the port's infrastructure by the early 1940s, not much was done to facilitate any port highway. Before state planners (responsible for designing state freeways) could map out a freeway from the ports to the Los Angeles metropolis, harbor interest had already begun making preliminary maps as early as 1921; though nothing materialized. Despite a 1939 California Freeway Law that gave "the state broad powers of land acquisition for the construction [and financing] of freeways," it was the City of Long Beach that took it upon themselves to plan, construct, and finance the port highway, to be called the Los Angeles River Freeway because it hugged the natural waterways that were once the lifeblood of the founding families. So, the 710 Freeway is essentially the child of the City of Long Beach, superseding legal precedents that had placed the state of California, not local governments, as the principal investors and designers of state freeways (the 710 was added to the Interstate Highway system after it was completed).

Central Manufacturing District | Photo: ''California Highway and Public Works'' courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California

The freeway originates at the Port of Long Beach (POLB), and was planned to extend well past Los Angeles' central manufacturing district (CMD) in Southeast Los Angeles, then the largest planned industrial district in the world. Home to blue chip companies like Chrysler, Studebaker, and General Motors, the CMD was launched by a 1908 zoning law that established industrial districts along the Los Angeles River, and included some 3,750 industrial acres, with more than 750 major industries, in the City of Commerce.

The purpose of the freeway was to facilitate business, connecting recently manufactured goods from the CMD to the export facilities at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Arguably, the exact opposite has occurred.

By 1949, Long Beach had already invested $1,000,000 on the freeway, and the city's Chamber of Commerce made reoccurring appeals to the California State Highway Commission for continued support. This unorthodox practice of an independent agency developing their own freeway was not unnoticed by the California Division of Highways, the precursor to Caltrans. "The southerly extension of the Los Angeles River Freeway," as noted in their bi-monthly publication California Highway and Public Works, "requires special mention because the construction work now in progress by the City of Long Beach is the only instance since World War II of another governmental agency carrying out the construction and financing of a complete unit on the Los Angeles Metropolitan Freeway System." Several years before the Los Angeles River Freeway was legislated into the California State Highway System in 1947, Long Beach planners received general counsel from the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission, but were largely free from state interference when designing the freeway.

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But a lack of outside involvement was perhaps desirable for Long Beach, because for the city a central premise of the 710 was to facilitate port traffic with local industry, in lieu of other traffic calming measures. "The Long Beach Freeway will connect the U.S. Naval installations at Long Beach and Terminal Island with the industrial area in Los Angeles and vicinity." The Division of Highways, on the other hand, stressed that the main goal of the 710 was port accessibility. "This artery...is to serve the harbor, [and is] an attempt to devise an adequate means of distributing ... traffic into our harbor and business districts," wrote a Division of Highways District Engineer.

A 1953 Division of Highways map shows the I-710 Long Beach Freeway was one of the earliest freeways in Southern California. Unfinished and only 22 miles in length, the freeway has become a vital corridor in the nation's movement of goods.

Aerial view of the Central Manufacturing District, located within the cities of Commerce, Bell, and Vernon; view is looking east. The Long Beach (710) Freeway is visible from middle left to lower right, and is still under construction at this stage, 1956 | Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs, Los Angeles Public Library

The strategic start of the freeway at the POLB was also "handy for truck movements taking ship cargo to further destinations. From this freeway the trucks have access to the state's great highway network," acknowledged state planners. Long Beach Harbor authorities even financed a "major portion" of the freeway, in what the state acknowledged was a "staggering" amount, a figure that reached approximately $12 million by 1953, according to a the Division of Highways.

In other words, the freeway was constructed to serve business generated by the harbor and local industry; commuter vehicular traffic was secondary, at best. Any negative impact to communities during or after the construction of the freeway was seen as all but non-existent. And although that fact may appear to be a conspiratorial fiction found in noir plots like "L.A. Confidential," it's a transportation reality; it's as American as apple pie, or diabetes, to use a more contemporary analogy.

Although freeways may be planned as neutral lines on city maps by engineers, the realities of their final design have to do with a litany of other social, political, and economic factors. Freeway planners, and the politicians whom they work for, have many goals when designing a freeway. As such, when the 710 terminates directly into the port terminal, that happens by design, even if a local municipality has to finance the route for the freeway and several local bridges. This means public monies were utilized for projects that would greatly enhance private companies, at the cost of public resources that could be utilized for community housing, parks, and other items that were diminished due to freeway- and port-related activities in Long Beach.

Segments of the 710 Freeway eventually connected with the Santa Ana (5) Freeway, in the heart of the CMD in East Los Angeles, by the 1960s. Home to prominent companies, the CMD also housed extensive intermodal railyards from the Union Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Because railroads were a mainstay in the movement of cargo, some of the early freeway construction of the 710 in East L.A. were multiple bridges over eighteen railroad tracks, requiring 1,100 parcels of real estate. Already dissecting certain parts of the communities surrounding its southern sections, the 710's impacts around its northern sections were just as significant, gutting through established communities, such as East Los Angeles and City of Commerce, that already housed dozen of freeway lane miles. In East Los Angeles, nearly 11,000 residents were displaced due to freeway construction and widenings, consuming some 7% of total land area. Freeways have caused other headaches in these communities, such as restricting pedestrian access to dozens of local streets.

710 Freeway at the Santa Ana Freeway, 1956 | Photo: ''California Highway and Public Works'' courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California

Bob Eula, whose family moved to Los Angeles under the advisement of their family doctor due to his father's heart condition, remembered quaint Japanese gardens before the 710 Freeway was built. Believe it or not, many physicians prescribed L.A. as a place to relocate in order to improve your health. Eula recalled that his father bought their house in 1945, just yards from where the 710 Freeway would be built, in what would become the City of Commerce. Mr. Eula, who still lives in the same house, remembered, "it was really relaxing [and] really good" before the railroad expanded from the single track he crossed over to get to the movie theatre on Whittier Boulevard.

Then came the 710. Bob Eula recalled first learning about the freeway project by seeing construction crews erecting freeway bridges, but was not really alarmed. But when "three or four major streets [of] homes [in his neighborhood] were gone," Eula and his neighbors were upset. The community grew increasingly angry when the freeway bridges were nearly complete, but were not erected next to the remaining residential homes. Instead, Division of Highways planners decided to isolate the western homes with nearly three stories of dirt that was essentially used as a land bridge, so the 710 freeway could skirt over Washington Boulevard and local railroads. Even today, a massive multistory mountain of dirt supports the 710 and bisects the Bandini community, while a peak of 40,000 daily diesel trucks utilize the 710 Freeway.

In 2003, Eula purchased a carbon monoxide monitor. Once plugged in, the alarm rang. Eula phoned the gas company, and when the technician arrived he could not find any indoor CO leaks. When the technician stepped outside, he had found the problem. The high levels of CO were the result of local rail yard activity and tens of thousands of trucks utilizing local streets and the 710 Freeway. That type of alarming ambient air pollution is normal, and makes 710 corridor communities some of the most polluted neighborhoods in the state -- which will be the subject of our next article.

Trucks clog up the 710 at Washington Boulevard | Photo: Gilbert Estrada

About the Author

Gilbert Estrada earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California. An urban historian, he also teaches Chicano and environmental courses at Southland universities and writes about Southern California history.


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