The Demise of Dead Man's Island, Lost Landmark of L.A.'s Harbor

As one of the San Pedro Bay's most conspicuous features, Dead Man's Island became something of a landmark. Postcard by M. Reider, courtesy of the James H. Osborne Photograph Collection, CSUDH Archives.

With a name like Dead Man's Island, you might think that the small protrusion of rock was doomed all along. But the tiny island at the entrance to the San Pedro harbor was so steeped in romantic lore that many Southern Californians -- powerless to stop the dynamite and steam shovels -- greeted its demise in 1928 with sorrow.

Dead Man's Island was named for the shallow graves dug into its flat top. Various legends give different accounts of who was buried first: the last male survivor of San Nicolas Island, an Indian named Black Hawk; an English sailor who died while anchored at San Pedro; a smuggler who washed ashore on the island and died there of thirst or hunger. No one knows for certain which (if any) is true, but it's clear that by the 1830s the local, Spanish-speaking population knew the outcrop as Isla de Los Muertos.

In photos, it appears deceptively small; in fact, it measured at least 800 feet long and 250 feet wide. Rising 55 feet above the surface and separated from the San Pedro bluffs by nearly a mile of open water, Dead Man's Island was the bay's most conspicuous landform -- one that stood out from the mudflats, sandbars, and marshes that made up Los Angeles River estuary. It became something of a landmark for sailors anchored nearby.

Richard Henry Dana spied it from his ship, the Pilgrim, in 1835. "It was always a solemn and interesting spot to me," he wrote in "Two Years Before the Mast." "There it stood, desolate and in the midst of desolation; and there were the remains of one who died and was buried alone and friendless. It was the only thing in California from which I could ever extract anything like poetry." Needless to say, Dana hated his time in San Pedro.

During the Mexican-American War, the island accepted more corporeal deposits. Six American sailors and marines killed in the Battle of Dominguez Rancho -- often known by the more colorful name, the Battle of the Old Woman's Gun -- were interred on the island in October 1846. Later, two more bodies joined them, and by 1858 as many as eleven bodies called the tiny island home. According to early Los Angeles historian James Guinn, the island became San Pedro's cemetery of choice since a narrow channel of open water protected it from scavenging coyotes.

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Demolition of Dead Man's Island between 1928 and 1930 revealed long-buried human remains. Courtesy of the Rancho San Pedro Collection, CSUDH Archives.

Eventually, the towns of San Pedro and Wilmington grew on the mainland, and a more proper onshore burial round replaced the island, which briefly became a whaling station. Later, engineers incorporated Dead Man's Island into the infrastructure of Los Angeles' artificial harbor, building a long rock jetty from the landmark to Rattlesnake Island, a sandy spit of land now known as Terminal Island. The jetty amplified the natural tidal action of the estuary, using the flow of water to carve a deep shipping channel between the island and the mainland.

Unfortunately, those tidal forces also started carving away at the island itself. As crumbling rock exposed buried coffins, the bodies were moved -- the six servicemen to the Presidio in San Francisco, and the civilians to San Pedro's Harbor View Cemetery.

As part of a program of extensive harbor improvements, the U.S. government decided to remove the island wholesale in 1928. Using its 2.3 million cubic yards of rock and dirt, the government would fill in the surrounding area, build a customhouse, coast guard station, and prison atop the reclaimed land, and rename the site Reservation Point.

Eight dredgers and a steam shovel chipped away at the historic rock for two years, augmenting their mechanical power with some 20 train car loads of dynamite and blasting powder. If Southern Californians mourned the historic island's passing, they at least were pragmatic about its demolition. Throughout the entire process, an archaeologist from the Southwest Museum was on hand to scour the remains for fossils and artifacts from the island's storied past.

Detail of the USGS's 1896 San Pedro sheet, showing Dead Man's Island's location relative to the town of San Pedro. Courtesy of the USGS Historical Topographic Map Collection.

A jetty extended between Dead Man's Island, seen here in 1870, and nearby Rattlesnake Island, creating a narrow channel between the islands and the mainland. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

The town of San Pedro with Dead Man's Island in the background, circa 1873. Courtesy of the California State Library.

Dead Man's Island, circa 1890. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Postcard by W. H. Fletcher of Dead Man's Island, circa 1895. Courtesy of the California State Library.

At low tide, visitors to Dead Man's Island could walk around a rocky beach. Circa 1895 photograph by W. H. Fletcher, courtesy of the California State Library.

Erosion by wind and wave action created a natural arch on Dead Man's Island. Circa 1895 photograph by W. H. Fletcher, courtesy of the California State Library.

Circa 1912 view of Dead Man's Island from the entrance to Los Angeles Harbor. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Ships enter the harbor near Dead Man's Island, circa 1905. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Circa 1900 view from the top of Dead Man's Island, showing  Rattlesnake (Terminal) Island in the distance and the long jetty that connected the two landforms. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

A dredger at work near the shore of Dead Man's Island, circa 1929. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Dredgers chip away at the last remnants of Dead Man's Island in 1928. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Aerial view of the last remnants of Dead Man's Island and the new land fill, Reclamation Point, taking shape nearby. 1928 image by Spence Air Photos, courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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