July 21, 2014

Photo Essay: Southwest Marine Shipyard at Terminal Island, A Japanese Fishing Village Ghost Town

I recently mentioned to a fellow LA historian that I'd been wanting to find a way to "get into Terminal Island." I'd become aware of some of its preservation issues, and I'd started to do a bit of exploration elsewhere in the LA Harbor / Port of Los Angeles area, and its lost fishing villages and abandoned canneries interested me.

"But..." they said, "you can just drive onto it."

"Well, I know, but how do I get in to the places?" I assumed everything would be heavily patrolled, given its proximity to both the Navy and the Coast Guard.

Of course, there's usually a way in. There's almost always a way in. And when I visited, the gate to Southwest Marine – the historic shipbuilding property which now sits abandoned, save for some movie shoots – was wide open.

Bethlehem Steel Corporation's former Southwestern Shipbuilding (Southwest Marine since 1981) can be recognized from such Hollywood productions as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Charlie's Angeles, Barbed Wire, Gone in Sixty Seconds, and Live Free or Die Hard. 

It sits across the street from the Japanese Fisherman's Memorial, a tribute to the immigrant and second-generation men (and their families) who pioneered the commercial fishing industry, and then were sent to the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar. When the Japanese returned to their "Furusato" (hometown), they discovered it had been razed by the Navy, leaving no trace.

In this vastly industrial landscape, today it's hard to imagine anyone ever living here.

Terminal Island is actually a manmade island off of the end of Long Beach, just down the shore from San Pedro (and is technically considered part of San Pedro).

The island itself is not abandoned, currently housing a federal correctional facility, a water reclamation plant, a couple of marinas, and even a convenience store.

DelMonte still has an operational facility there, and you can see plenty of shipping containers being loaded and unloaded amidst their journeys to and from China.

But streets called Tuna and Cannery and Wharf and Sardine are littered with abandoned warehouses, canneries, and other industrial facilities once belonging to Chicken of the Sea, Starkist and the sort.

Southwest Marine is considered the last shipbuilding facility of its kind, historic for having contributed heavily to Terminal Island's involvement in both world wars...

....for which minesweepers, destroyers, and cargo ships were built there.

Original development plans for Terminal Island called to demolish Southwest Marine at Berth 240...

...and if not that, to just leave it vacant...

...but ideally, preservationists would like to see it building ships again.

They'd also like to see the canneries canning again.

There are a total of 16 Southwest Marine "buildings" (including docks and cranes) that qualify to be included in a proposed historic district...

...some dating as far back as 1918 when the property was originally developed by Bethlehem Steel...

...and many from 1941 (or expanded in 1941), in the thick of World War II.

A new, amended Master Plan – approved last year by the Port of Los Angeles’ Board of Harbor Commissioners – now includes a preservation provision, a major victory for LA Conservancy and others who have been advocating to save this endangered site.

As they stand now, the buildings house equipment, supplies and signage from various eras, with signs of multiple generations of renovations, improvements, and additions.

They are surprisingly graffiti-free.

Despite the humid atmosphere of the Port, they have been relatively preserved from the elements.

There is some rust here and there...

...but it looks as though people have mostly done what they've been told, and kept out.

After all, Terminal Island is far. And no one lives there anymore.

So you have to take a special trip to get there, like I did.

The worst victims appear to be the birds.

There are feathers scattered in dense concentrations – clear signs of some poor thing getting stuck in there and struggling to get out, or perhaps attacked by some predator.

Sand bags ward off non-existent floods.

The lights don't work anymore.

Cages keep no one in or out.

Doors lead to rooms unoccupied.

Once bustling machine shops, repair shops, and blacksmith shops... serve as a dead-end for train tracks from Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads.

Wood intermingles with rusted, corrugated metal and steel beams.

Natural light pours in through broken windows.

Barbed wire has found its way inside.

Reportedly, the Southwest Marine site contains such hazardous substances as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), antimony, arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, zinc, and other metals.

There is no running water or power.

And the moan of nearby ships, the radios of Coast Guard patrolmen, and the cries of curious seagulls haunt the empty place, making you jump at the turn of every corner.

Our biggest fear was returning to the gate to find it locked, leaving us trapped in there.

But, where there's always a way in, there's also always a way out.

Related Posts:
The View By Boat
Brooklyn Navy Yard Tour


  1. I use to work for S.W. marine , 1983 or 4 . Marine machinest. Good times small yard doing repaire work . Was treated very good . Company supplied Beer and soda , on Friday evenings. Family Bbq once a month . I worked swing shift , cool perfect weather to work . I also worked for Todd Pacific in San pedro and Long bea h naval ship yard. I was between 19 and 25 years old Loved the work . Big machinery. I worked on the USS Missouri at L.B. Naval for one year and the New Jersey for 3 months. My play ground .Good people kiend and helpful. Not like people are today. We use to set up on top of a small building a d eat our food about 8 p.m. at S.W marine. 3 of us use to eat and work together as a team. 1 old man was a scraggly face haird old French man , when ever he spoke I could hardly understand him. I would often ask the 3rd man , What did he say? What I could always understand was when he would very often say " Every thing is a Fuck you know! HUM Hard work hard men But tough exterior kind hearts.. Randy Summerhays .

  2. I Worked for them form 1987 until 1989...., worked All through the layoffs by moving from shop to shop as an Apprentice and Fire watch.
    I Eventually worked full time as a Marine Pipe fitter.
    Once the SHIP that took me from Okinawa to the mainland Japan came in and we did a Deck Extension of 15 feet.... I Believe it was the Peleliu....,