Venice Canals

By Marty Schatz

After a famous coin toss in 1904, won by Abbot Kinney, he assumed sole ownership of the salt marshes south of Ocean Park. His rival thought Kinney was crazy for taking the benighted parcel of land. Yet 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. Today we call this community “Venice”.

Kinney’s decision to build “Venice-of-America”, which officially opened on July 4, 1905, was the result of a long-standing desire as well as a more recent realization. While still a student studying in Zurich, Switzerland in the late 1860’s, Kinney went on a walking tour of Venice, Italy and was smitten with the romance of the extensive canal system as well as the aesthetic of the renaissance architecture. At this time, the idea occurred to him to create a replica of Venice, Italy somewhere in America. However, it wasn’t until the earliest years of the 20th century that Kinney had the resources and experience to make his long ago dream come to fruition.

As Venice historian, Jeffrey Stanton, has pointed out, Kinney was well aware of the success of the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition that took place in 1893. The site of this worldwide exposition was situated on reclaimed wetlands upon which a lagoon was built and which contained 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”.

Beyond the historical precedent that was set earlier by the Chicago Exposition, Kinney also had a more pressing concern; Henry Huntington, owner of the Pacific Electric Railway, planned to build a community called Naples in the Long Beach area. In 1904, Huntington 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 hire an architect to draw up plans for the system. Kinney hired Fremont Ackerman, a civil engineer who had extensive experience building irrigation canals. To fill the canals with fresh salt water, Ackerman built a 500-foot long conduit to the ocean underneath what is today Windward Avenue. Two large pipes supplied the water that would 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. The aerial photo below gives a bird’s eye view of the canal system.

All told, Kinney built roughly 3 miles of canals – on the banks of which he expected to sell a sizable number of building lots. He succeeded in this venture. In addition, he built a tent city on the banks of the Grand Canal, intended to house visitors and workers of lesser means. Below is a list of the former canals along with the names of the streets they became later on:

• Coral Canal (now Main St.)
• Cabrillo Canal (now Cabrillo Ave.)
• Venus Canal (now San Juan Ave.)
• Lion Canal (now Windward Ave.)
• Altair Canal (now Altair St.)
• Aldebaren Canal (now Market St.)
• Grand Canal (now Grand Boulevard)

Kinney’s canal plans came to fruition, making money for himself and his investors, as well as providing a unique and tranquil environment for home owners, but there were problems yet to contend with. First, the water management system originally installed proved inadequate to the task of providing fresh water to the canals. As time went on the water became fetid and smelled badly. Then, in 1920 Abbot Kinney passed away, and along with his demise came demands to fill in the canals so there would be more space for the increasing number of automobiles. 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.

Short Line Canals

Piggybacking on Kinney’s success with Venice-of-America, what was initially called the Venice Canal Subdivision, but popularly known as the Short Line Canals (named after the interurban Short Line trolley), the real estate developers Strong and Dickerson built another series of interlocking canals just south of Kinney’s project right after Venice-of-America opened. In fact, they used the very same dredging equipment Kinney employed to dig his canals. These Short Line Canals are the canals that still exist today.

These six canals, approximately one and a half miles in length and fifty feet in width, are laid out in a grid. Carroll, Linnie, Howland, and Sherman Canals run in an east to west direction, Eastern and Grand run north and south. Fresh sea water is supplied by a channel that runs from Marina del Rey to the Grand Canal, with an electronic gate at Washington Boulevard opening and closing twice a week to allow tidal water to enter and leave the canals.

Though no one is sure why these canals were spared from LA’s desire to fill in all the canals in the late 1920s, perhaps the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression meant that the city had run out of funds to complete the total elimination of the canals. While escaping the fate of Kinney’s canals, the Short Line Canals were also poorly managed – the water often polluted and the sidewalks surrounding them in such disrepair that by 1940 they were taken out of public use. The early 1950’s saw the proliferation of oil rigs just south of the canals, further contributing to noxious air and water quality, to say nothing of the aesthetic eyesore. Throughout the subsequent decades, the canal district became known as a seedy and dangerous place.

By the 1980s, residents decided to take matters into their own hands, cleaning up the banks of the canals as best they could. In addition, with the help of former Councilmember Ruth Galanter, in 1992 the City of Los Angeles agreed to spend money to restore and refurbish the waterways and surrounding sidewalks. Because of the work that was done, the Venice Canals are now a much desired place to live; moreover, they have become a major tourist destination, attracting tens of thousands of visitors every year from all over the world who stroll the canal walkways and experience the beauty and tranquility on display.