On the eastern side of the Los Angeles Harbor Main Channel is Terminal Island, once known as East San Pedro. And a notable site along that side of the channel—some would call it a “scar”—is what’s known as the Southwest Marine site. It is officially Berth 240 on Seaside Avenue, Terminal Island.
Today it is seen mainly from afar, as when transiting the Main Channel. Whether from the water or land, though, it appears as a derelict, almost dystopian, relic of a more industrial era.
Southwest Marine was originally built in 1918 by Western Pipe and Steel Company to help with the effort to build ships for World War I. It was known as Southwestern Marine. Six months after it opened, the shipyard delivered its first vessel, the West Carnifax, breaking “four world records for yard construction and delivery time,” the Los Angeles Conservancy has reported.
After the war, in 1921, Bethlehem Steel acquired the yard and used it as a repair site until 1941. During World War II, it produced Fletcher-class destroyers. The first was the USS Kendrick in 1942 with construction continuing until 1945, when the USS Hardwood became its last of more than 30 it produced in those three years.
Between the 1950s and late 1960s, Bethlehem invested millions of dollars into the facility, making it one of the best shipyards for repairs on West Coast. It had the region’s largest privately-owned drydock.
But by the late 1970s Navy shipbuilding and repair had dwindled and labor problems arose at the facility. In 1980 the shipyard was at an impasse with the International Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America and also faced problems in its steel making businesses. Bethlehem decided to close the shipyard. It was a small yard, as such things are measured, employing just 6,000 workers.
Defense jobs had been a way for many Black, Latinx, and women workers to improve their economic prospects, with 90,000 men and women from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds employed in all of Southern California’s shipyards, according to the LA Conservancy.
Southwest Marine, a San Diego-based company, took over the yard in 1981 and repaired ships there until 2005. Southwest made many improvements on the site, reports Globalsecurity.org. The four shipbuilding ways were removed and installation of high-water piers to accommodate cranes. The drydock was relocated to the northwest end of the yard.
It closed in 2005 because of financial problems and the prospect of having to clean up decades of pollution caused by the shipbuilding and repair processes and materials used in them.
Today, as dilapidated as it sits, the Southwest Marine site is relatively active for a place that’s lost its ability to do the work it was designed for.
When you see action around the site these days, it’s like film crews making use of the buildings and open lots between making movies and television productions. Some of those filmed there include: “Blood,” “Dexter,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” and “Entourage,” and the films
“Spider-Man,” “Charlie's Angels,” “Live Free or Die Hard,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” LA Conservancy reports. Others are "Lost World," "Eraser," and "True Blood."
The Port of Los Angeles previously announced plans to demolish the buildings on the site and find other uses for the property. The Los Angeles Conservancy objected, stating that the Southwest site is historic and should be preserved because it represents the only real evidence of a shipbuilding industry that was at one time a very big economic factor in Southern California.
A study commissioned by the Port and completed by consulting company Jones & Stokes found essentially that the slipways and basins had been so reconfigured over the years that the site bore little resemblance to the glory days of shipbuilding. But it did establish the former administration building as being historically significant and a contributor to a Bethlehem Steel Historic District.
In 2009, the Port completed an environmental impact report on the slips at Berths 243-245 being used for material to be dredged from the Main Channel deepening project that was to begin soon thereafter.
Gambol Industries, a company that operates a shipyard in Long Beach, proposed about the same time to reopen a ship repair and construction facility on the Southwest site. The new shipyard was budgeted at $50 million and was projected to have 1,000 ongoing union jobs.
Eventually, in 2011, the proposal was finally rejected by the Los Angeles City Council on appeal from the Board of Harbor Commissioners because of fears that the channel dredging project would be delayed if dredged material had to be transported farther.
The Port received an application from WW Marine Composites to construct a transportation vessels manufacturing facility on the site and the EIR it commissioned in 2017 and which was finalized in 2018. The study found it was environmentally feasible to build the facility, which was proposed to be in two phases. One phase would involve building a smaller structure, while the second phase would involve larger construction.
At present, the Southwest Marine site sits in limbo, waiting for someone to come along with the funding and wherewithal to get through the processes that will transform it. In the meantime, Hollywood keeps calling.
UPDATE: SpaceX, the company that makes reusable space vehicles is now planning to build a plant on the former site.
You can see a list of ships built at the site when it was operated by Bethlehem at http://www.shipbuildinghistory.com/shipyards/large/bethsanpedro.htm. (Please note: the page this links to is not secure. Use at your own risk.)
The geographic coordinates of Southwest Marine are about 33.7315301,-118.2690328,20.2z. Click here for a map
Jones & Stokes. 2000. Architectural survey and evaluation of the southwest marine terminal (berth 240) of the Port of Los Angeles. September. (J&S 00-163.) Sacramento, CA. Prepared for Los Angeles Harbor Department, San Pedro, CA. (Note: This is the report author's requested citation of the report.)