It sounds like an adventure befitting Indiana Jones, but in the waning days of 1916 Harold Lloyd filmed his sixth “Lonesome Luke” production on Deadman’s Island near San Pedro. Rising up from the extreme tip of Terminal Island, the spectral rock was a prominent early California landmark guiding sailors into Los Angeles Harbor.
Lloyd’s production was called Lonesome Luke’s Wild Women, and involved Harold and Snub Pollard being shipwrecked on an island occupied by a Shah and his harem of wives. Though not widely distributed today, the film provides a fascinating historical record of this once familiar setting, and may be the only extant movie footage of this now lost geologic feature.
In his 1840 classic Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. describes Deadman’s Island in great detail, and how the previously unnamed island came to be known as La Isla de los Muertos. Dana visited San Pedro in 1835, and the beachfront community Dana Point fifty miles to the south is named in his honor. Dana writes as follows:“[T]he only … thing which broke the surface of the great bay was a small, dreary-looking island, steep and conical, of a clayey soil, and without the sign of vegetable life upon it, yet which had a peculiar and melancholy interest, for on the top of it were buried the remains of an Englishman, the commander of a small merchant brig, who died while lying in this port. It was always a solemn and affecting spot to me. 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. Had it been a common burying-place, it would have been nothing. The single body corresponded well with the solitary character of everything around. It was the only spot in California that impressed me with anything like poetic interest. Then, too, the man died far from home, without a friend near him,— by poison, it was suspected, and no one to inquire into it,— and without proper funeral rites; the mate (as I was told), glad to have him out of the way, hurrying him up the hill and into the ground, without a word or a prayer.”
A few years later, in October, 1846, six American marines from the U.S.S. Savannah, who were killed or died of wounds in the fight at Dominguez ranch, when Mexico successfully expelled the United States’ occupying forces from Los Angeles, were also buried on the island, expanding its mystique as the Isle of the Dead. Following accelerated erosion and deterioration on the island, their remains were removed many years later to military cemeteries in San Pedro, and in the Presidio in San Francisco.
In 1916, the year Harold shot his movie, the United States War Department relinquished its 60-year control of the island to the Department of the Treasury, which planned to flatten and enlarge the site for a quarantine station, and officially christened the site with the decidedly unromantic name “Reservation Point” that appears on maps of that era.
Projecting halfway across the mouth of the harbor channel, the island posed a navigation hazard to large ships, and was excavated and dredged into oblivion during the years 1927 to 1929. The fill removed from the island was deposited to the east, away from the channel, reclaiming a parcel equal to what was lost. Long-rumored to be a secret base for Prohibition rum-runners, and home to buried treasure, even in death Deadman’s Island lived up to its sinister reputation. The Los Angeles Times reports the suction drudge dismantling the island brought forth three redwood caskets each containing skeletal remains, and that tragically two dredge-men were killed during the island’s destruction.
Deadman’s Island makes cameo appearances in other silent comedies. Lloyd filmed one of his early Glass Character shorts, a stowaway comedy entitled All Aboard (1917), at San Pedro Harbor, where the island appears in the background.