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Meet Terminal Island, one of the most endangered places in the US

A dock and crane next to the abandoned Southwest Marine Shipyard on Terminal Island, California.
A dock and crane next to the abandoned Southwest Marine Shipyard on Terminal Island, California.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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Earlier this year the National Trust for Historic Preservation came out with a list of the eleven most endangered historic landmarks in the country.

It included the Ellis Island Hospital Complex in New York, Malcolm X's childhood home in Boston and Terminal Island here in Southern California. The island sits between the ports of LA and Long Beach and on its four and a half square miles you'll find cranes, shipping containers, abandoned factories-even a federal prison.

But the island also has a rich history. KPCC's Kevin Ferguson reports.

On the top floor of Long Beach's City Hall, you'll find Gerrie Schipske's office. She's a Long Beach native and a Long Beach representative of Long Beach's 5th city council district.

She also knows more about the history of Long Beach and its nearby areas than anyone else you'll meet. She's written books that talk about the city, the ports, World War II and Terminal Island. She says most of her constituents haven't even heard of Terminal Island.

"If you're new to the area and you see it, it's out of context," said Schipske. "It looks like it's just part of a port. If you've been here a while and you've seen the transition where we lost the Naval Station, you kind of remember that. And if you're a little bit older and you start remembering that that was a focal point during World War II."

Later on in the 20th century, the island played host to a thriving fish industry — tuna companies like Chicken of the Sea and Starkist started there, and eventually, Terminal Island would produce 80 percent of the United States' tuna supply.

The island was also home to a tightly knit Japanese American community — they farmed the nearby Palos Verdes Peninsula, fished for the nearby canneries. They were so close they formed their own dialect, which was sort of a mix of regional Japanese and English.

Min Tonai grew up speaking that language — he's president of the Terminal Islanders — a small and dwindling group of Japanese Americans who lived on the island at the beginning of the 20th century. Tonai's family made its living fishing and working in the canneries.

As a child, Tonai says he liked to go to the dock on Terminal Island and watch ships unload. He also enjoyed playing in the park near the East San Pedro Railroad Station. "They had a lawn there, and a little pond," said Tonai. "My younger brother nearly drowned in it! "

Tonai moved to nearby San Pedro in 1936, but he visited the island constantly for school, family and friends. In 1942, though, life on Terminal Island came to a very abrupt halt:

The nearly 3,000 Japanese Americans on Terminal Island were among the very first to lose their homes to the U.S. government during World War II. They had 48 hours’ notice.

"And so they had to get rid of everything," said Tonai. "They had no place to go. You know, my cousin was calling us and saying 'what are we gonna do?' And you only have 48 hours — that's two days. First day is finding out where are they gonna go? The second day is getting all the things together and how to transport it. It's almost an impossible task."

Bulldozers razed houses, buildings, parks, a shinto shrine. And today, were it not for a small memorial built by Terminal Islanders like Tonai, you'd wouldn't find evidence anyone ever lived there.

Looking Ahead To Future Generations
The Japanese Americans on the island are one story, its industrial history is another. During both world wars the island was a crucial source for shipbuilding, including minesweepers, destroyers, and cargo ships. That includes the Southwest Marine Shipyard, the last of its kind.

"It is probably the largest concentration of historic buildings, very industrial in nature," said Adrian Fine, director of Advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, a historic preservation group. "But very much looking like as they did you know when they were built and when there were a lot of workers. It was the hey day of the American plan to support the war effort — this is the place that tells the story. It's really the only place left in Los Angeles that can tell that story."

The building is massive: washed out and gray, and about as long as a football field with broken windows, litter and a giant abandoned crane. It's been that way for eight years now.

The Port of Los Angeles, which owns most of the island's historic buildings, has begun work on a land-use plan that'll shape the islands future for the next generation. Originally, the port had intended to demolish several canneries, and to leave the Southwest Marine shipyard empty.

That plan could change, now that Fine and the Conservancy got Terminal Island on the list of endangered landmarks. "In part, we wanted to get the Port's attention. This is a challenging site, we understand that, these are not pretty buildings by any means," said Fine. "And it's a place that most people don't know anything about. Few people in Los Angeles heave been to the port, much less to Terminal Island. "

Preservationists like Fine and the Conservancy want to see the vacant shipyard once again be a working shipyard, the empty canneries to become working canneries. To that end, the've scored a few small victories:

Along Barracuda street sits a drab, off white warehouse and office space. It was once home to the very first cannery for Chicken of the Sea tuna, and it may get a second chance. The building opens its doors later this month to investors interested in reactivating the structure, hopefully to let the cannery be a cannery once more.