by Marty Schatz, Board Member Emeritus
AFTER ABBOT KINNEY WON HIS FAMOUS COIN TOSS IN 1904, HE ASSUMED SOLE OWNERSHIP OF THE SALT MARSHES SOUTH OF OCEAN PARK…
In his mind, Kinney had already begun making plans for a seaside resort that would rival East Coast destinations such as Coney Island in New York and Atlantic City in New Jersey. He envisaged a planned community with housing, transportation and, of course, entertainment. In his youth, he had been smitten with the romance of Venice, Italy’s extensive canal system and renaissance architecture and wanted to create a replica in America. Finally, in the earliest years of the 20th century, Kinney had the resources and experience to make his long-ago dream come to fruition. Today we call this community “Venice”.
As Venice historian Jeffrey Stanton has pointed out, Kinney was well aware of the success of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. The worldwide exposition had been situated on reclaimed wetlands with a man-made lagoon and a series of interlocking canals, plied by gondolas. Moreover, there was a replica of a ship tethered to a pier and a railroad to shuttle visitors around the site. All of these became elements of Kinney's “Venice- of- America”.
However, Kinney had a pressing concern. Henry Huntington, owner of the Pacific Electric Railway, planned to build a community called Naples in the Long Beach area. In 1904 he and his partner Arthur Parsons, decided to dredge marshland in Los Alamitos Bay, create a large island, and dig several miles of canals through the planned residential district. Kinney knew of these plans and wanted his canal-based community to be completed first.
The Building of the Canals
The first order of business was to secure an architect to draw up plans for the system. Kinney hired Fremont Ackerman, a civil engineer with extensive experience building irrigation canals. To fill the canals with salt water, Ackerman built a 500-foot long conduit to the ocean underneath what is today Windward Avenue. Two large pipes supplied the water to fill the canals as well as the excavated lagoon, which served as a giant swimming pool and also hosted mock naval battles and other aquatic competitions.
With progress proceeding slowly in 1904, Kinney hired the Hall Construction Company to complete the digging of the entire canal network. Using human and animal power, as well as a newly installed steam dredging machine, the lagoon and the Grand Canal were ready to accept ocean water by the planned official opening on July 4, 1905.
All told, Kinney built roughly 3 miles of canals. These were Coral, Cabrillo, Venus, Lion, Altair, Aldebaran, and Grand. On the banks of his canals, he succeeded in selling numerous building lots for permanent homes. In addition, he built a tent city on the banks of the Grand Canal, intended to house visitors and workers of lesser means. With his planned canal properties, Kinney made money for himself and his investors as well as providing a unique and tranquil environment for homeowners.
However, problems arose with the waterways. First, the water management system originally installed proved inadequate to provide circulating ocean water to the canals. As time went on, the water became fetid and took on a strong odor. Then, in 1920 Abbot Kinney passed away, and along with his demise came demands to fill in the canals to make space for the increasing number of auto-mobiles. Civic leaders and business owners were especially vocal in expressing this idea. When Venice finally incorporated into the city of Los Angeles in 1925, those in favor of eliminating the canals succeeded in swinging city policy-makers to their side. By 1929, all of the original canals built by Abbot Kinney were filled in and replaced by roads.
Today, most visitors and even some residents do not realize that they are at times walking over what were once Kinney’s grand canals. Coral Canal became Main Street, Venus Canal became San Juan Avenue, Lion Canal was transformed into Windward Avenue, and Aldebaren Canal was renamed Market Street. The only byways which retained at least a part of their original names were Cabrillo Canal (now Cabrillo Avenue), Altair Canal (now Altair Street), and Grand Canal (now Grand Boulevard). And, of course, the present-day traffic circle in front of what was Venice’s historic post office, was once the famous lagoon. Luckily, at least a few of the beautiful homes which lined our waterways still stand.