By: Derek K.
Date: January 23, 2021
You could easily be forgiven for mistaking the picture on the left as the eastern seaboard at the turn of the 20th century. It’s what historic Coney Island and Atlantic City looked like, a picture lifted out of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. But this was California’s Venice and Santa Monica at the turn of the century. Or more accurately, Venice-of-America’s Coast: a vision primarily built by the ambitions of one man named Abbot Kinney. His story is Venice’s story—or at least, it’s origin story. The story of how a young man traveled the world, enamored by the culture and knowledge he soaked in; of a man who saw the opportunity in a raw Southern California; of a man whose lofty dreams of creating a cultural and intellectual hub out of a coastal marsh were never realized in his lifetime.

Here, we explore a favorite American pastime of a bygone era--the precursor to Disneyland, Six Flags and Busch Gardens: the amusement pier. As much as Kinney wished for Venice to embody a new age renaissance, he was a smart businessman who gauged that his aspirations for Venice didn’t quite match up with what the public wanted at that time. So out went the opera house and lecture halls and in came the roller coasters, carnival sideshows and dance halls--amusement piers were what the people wanted. These behemoth structures, which defiantly jutted out into the ocean, were a staple of every seaside resort town and captured the hearts and minds of Americans seeking entertainment. 
From the turn of the century in 1898 to the 1960’s, there were at least 12 different amusement piers and parks that occupied the beach fronts along the Venice to Santa Monica coastline. They opened and closed at staggered times, but often there would be 3 or 4 open simultaneously, in direct competition.
Abbot Kinney and his family owned and operated the Abbot Kinney Pier and the Venice Amusement Pier while others were run by different investment groups. These were gigantic structures that were large enough to house multiple roller coasters, rides, exhibits, palatial bath houses, concessions, game halls, dance halls, restaurants, theaters and much more. The largest of the piers was 1500 ft long by 525 ft wide and the others were comparable in size. For reference, today’s Santa Monica Pier is 1600 ft long and the Malibu Pier is 780 ft long, which serves to highlight what a feat of engineering these structures were in their time.

Families would enjoy a day out, sweethearts would go on dates, on-leave servicemen would head to the dance halls in hopes of meeting girls from all corners of the world. You had your classic amusement park rides and attractions that modern-day people might recognize from fairs and carnivals: roller coasters, log flumes, extravagant fun houses, Virginia Reels, spinning aerial planes, animal exhibits, aquariums, historic exhibits and more. But there were attractions that certainly made people cock their heads in bewilderment. A few strange favorites included the Million Dollar Pier’s newborn baby incubator exhibit—or “Baby Bank”--that provided free care to prematurely born babies (a service that wasn’t readily available during the early 1900’s), a secret society initiation attraction, and an Underworld Wax Museum that depicted scenes of an opium den, a brothel, a kidnapping, the Parisian sewers, and torture. Yay, family fun!

The piers were also riddled with misfortune. If you’ve ever gone to a carnival and thought, “How is it that people don’t get seriously injured on some of these rides?”, well, they certainly used to. Let’s just say that the safety precautions hadn't quite caught up with the thrill of the rides at that time. Many rides were notorious for their accidents and patrons put themselves at serious risk for not following rules. There were animal maulings and unfortunate, negligent animal deaths. And, of course, the “high-flying” attractions and freak show performers had their fair share of accidents. For instance, a human cannonball gone awry and a parachuting human firework show—yes, you read right--caught fire. Speaking of...
3-Venice-Pier-fire_sd61_3.jpg So what happened to all these amusement piers? Where did they go? There were several contributing factors to their disappearances, but fire took precedent above all. There were 4 major fires that consumed their respective piers. There was so much flammable material on these piers they were like tinder boxes. Couple that with strong winds off the ocean and you have a pretty good recipe for disaster.

There was also a shift in the public taste in the 1940/50’s that demoted amusement piers to old fashioned and out of date. People were staying at home to watch TV or going to drive-in movie theaters and shopping malls for fun. From the time of the great depression, the Venice area had become a poverty stricken, seedy part of town. In fact, in 1958, CBS and a host of corporate investors built a $10 million amusement park, Pacific Ocean Park or ”POP,” in Venice/ Ocean Park to compete with the newly opened Disneyland. The state of the surrounding neighborhood is what ultimately led to that venture’s demise in 1967.
Click the link to view our Amusement Piers of Venice Timeline in more detail! 
Venice has changed dramatically since the first amusement pier was erected and the last pier was demolished. It’s gone through a time of heavy oil speculation, of extreme poverty, the era of cool jazz and beat poets, of skateboarders and surfers, and is now a world-renowned destination. It’s a hipster paradise, a drifter’s safe haven, artistic locals, and those with entrepreneurial dreams. Through the decades it has remained staunchly Venice: home of the vibrant, the creative, and awesomely weird. That is the true legacy that amusement piers left Venice. It is as if the roots of lofty creative aspirations and frivolous entertainment work in cyclical harmony. 
Want to explore more of Venice? Join us on our Venice Boardwalk & Canals tour!