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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

"Lucky" Phineas Banning

A self-made man from his early teens, Phineas Banning was one of the most colorful, charismatic characters in the history of Southern California—who definitely created the luck that seemed to always follow him. At age 20, after seven years as a longshoreman in Philadelphia, he worked his passage to California via the Panama route. The year was 1851 and the Gold Rush was drawing hordes of young men to the northern gold mines, but Phineas got off the boat at San Pedro, the coastal outlet for the small town of Los Angeles twenty miles north. The firm of Douglas and Sanford, transportation and commission agents, hired him as a longshoreman, teamster and clerk. Large and powerfully-built, outwardly bluff but full of good humor and popular with the Latino population, Banning was a hard worker. Within a year he was a full partner in George Alexander’s stage and freight business; and by the time he married his former boss’s younger sister Rebecca Sanford in 1854, he had become the most famous stage and freight driver in Los Angeles. He was also becoming one of the best-known of the local vigilantes—men who dispensed “extralegal” justice—in a town with the highest murder rate in the state, and too few men brave enough to accept the role of sheriff. Banning was prominent in the civic and political realms as well: he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1858, and later served as a state senator. His most celebrated accomplishment—in addition to his extensive network of stage and freight lines— is his key role in developing the Port of Los Angeles, by constructing the first breakwater and dredging the harbor. He added a wharf and warehouses; and on January 9, 1861, unloaded the first ocean-going vessel at his new facility. He called it Wilmington, in honor of his old home town in Delaware. Staging impresario—visionary—civic leader—city founder; these are the terms that define Phineas Banning, a legend in his own lifetime whose legacy continues. His former home in Wilmington, called Banning House, is open to the public as a museum. #history #California

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